The Republicans trounced the Democrats in Tuesday’s elections. The GOP took the Senate, picked up three governorships in deeply Democrat states, staged several high-level upsets, and came close to victories in races that were supposed to be Democratic blowouts, such as the still-undecided Senate election between Mark Warner and Ed Gillespie in Virginia.
Next comes the soul-searching, the scapegoating and the spin. One popular trope is that Republicans won by “moderating” their message and down-playing so-called social issues such as abortion and marriage. Expect to hear this talking point from disappointed Democrats and from establishment Republicans who have already surrendered on these issues and project their views onto ordinary voters.
The trope is slightly plausible because it trades on a half-truth. Republican candidates did emphasize economic growth, health care, immigration, foreign policy and terrorism. They also nationalized local elections by focusing on the unpopular standing of President Obama. But that’s just smart politics. Opinion polls showed that in most districts, these were the issues on voters’ minds. These same issues did not favor the president and did favor Republicans. It would have made little sense for Republicans to campaign on morning-after pills and intrauterine devices.
Moreover, unlike the 2012 election, Republican candidates avoided shooting themselves in the feet with extemporaneous remarks like Missouri Republican candidate Todd Akin did in 2012 when he offered the dubious contention that women who are raped don’t get pregnant.
As an electoral strategy, focusing on voters’ most pressing concerns and avoiding crazy talk is Politics 101. None of these priorities prevent candidates from also being pro-life and pro-real marriage. And in fact, that describes most of the Republicans who won in contested elections on Tuesday. They were both fiscal and social conservatives.
Take Thom Tillis in North Carolina. He was in a highly competitive race against an incumbent who was favored to win, Kay Hagan. When Tillis was the speaker of the House in North Carolina, he fought legal battles against same-sex “marriage.” The social conservative Susan B. Anthony List and the National Organization for Marriage both supported his campaign. He won, despite the presence of Libertarian Party candidate Sean Haugh who drew 3.7 percent of the vote.
In contrast, there’s no evidence that surging support, real or imagined, for so-called same sex “marriage,” abortion and abortifacient drugs dragged down Republican candidates, or helped Democratic candidates on the margins. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Democratic candidates that led with abortion looked like extremists, and they lost.
These Democrats hoped to appeal to women voters on the assumption that most are left-wing, pro-abortion and pro-same-sex “marriage” feminists. Hence their popular refrain of a “War on Women.”
No two candidates embraced this message with more zeal than Wendy Davis in Texas and Mark Udall in Colorado. Both enjoyed the campaigning largesse of Planned Parenthood and fawning and sympathetic coverage from the mainstream media. Both were blown out of the water.
Davis rose to fame in 2013 by unsuccessfully filibustering a Texas bill that tightened medical standards in Texas abortion clinics. This propelled her to prominence in Texas and nationwide. She became the Democratic candidate for governor. Her campaign was directed by two people who steered President Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012. She lost to social conservative Greg Abbott by over twenty points among the voters, and ten points by voting women.
Mark Udall made this supposed War on Women the centerpiece of his campaign for the US Senate in Colorado. He even went so far as to (falsely) accuse his opponent, Cory Gardner, of wanting to ban contraception. This theme was so pervasive that some in the media, and even Udall’s supporters, took to referring to him as “Mark Uterus.” Social conservative Gardner beat him by over four points.
What are the lessons? First, voters in the political center don’t like to hear much about abortion. In charging up the rabid pro-abortion base, the Democratic candidates turned off a lot of swing voters. In Colorado, this includes many Hispanic voters, who are more pro-life than the general population. It’s also possible that Democratic gay activism suppressed the black vote in state elections that really mattered. It was down from the previous mid-term election in 2010.
Second, Republican candidates have no good cause to abandon life and marriage. A large segment of the population is strongly pro-life and pro-marriage, whatever is happening in the wider culture. Pundits look in vain for Republican candidates who win because they become social liberals.
But what about Republican Scott Brown? He’s not an especially good test case. Yes, he’s thought to be socially liberal, but in the campaign he avoided the social issues entirely. Who knows how the election would have turned out if he had taken a clear and consistent conservative stand? Besides, he lost.
One thing is clear: In most districts, the stray independent votes picked up by Republican candidates who embraced abortion and a redefinition of marriage would have been more than off-set by the millions of social conservative voters who would have been repelled.
There just is no political case for Republican candidates to embrace social liberalism. Candidates don’t have to appeal to the entire electorate, let alone to the fringe on the other side, just to the voting majority. The lesson for Republicans for 2016 is clear. (1) Focus on issues voters care about. (2) Don’t say foolish things. (3) Speak carefully about social issues. And (4) don’t forget that there’s little to be gained, and a great deal to lose, by going wobbly on either the economic or the social issues.