Mia Love's ominous warning for the GOP
Rep. Mia Love (R-Utah), the GOP's first African-American woman in Congress, conceded defeat in an incredibly close re-election campaign this week. But in her concession speech, she delivered a bracing post-midterm analysis of the Republican Party's shrinking footprint, calling on President Trump and the GOP to pay more attention to minority voters, or risk more defeats like hers in the future. Republicans would be wise to heed her advice.
Love's loss in Utah's 4th Congressional District came as a surprise to the GOP. The Cook Index gives Republicans a 13-point registration advantage in the district, although it has been closely contested in three of the past four election cycles. Love herself lost in 2012 by fewer than 800 votes on her first try. Two years later, she won by a little more than 4,000 votes for her first term in Congress, and then triumphed by a 12-point margin for a second term in 2016. Trump carried the district on the same ballot by seven points, leading most to believe that Love — who has never closely associated herself with Trump — would succeed in holding the seat for the GOP in the 2018 midterms.
When it became apparent that Love was in trouble, Trump put the blame on her arms-length treatment of him. "Mia Love gave me no love and she lost," Trump said in a post-election press conference. "Too bad. Sorry about that, Mia."
Love declared herself bemused by Trump's reproach. "What did he have to gain," Love asked, "by saying such a thing about a fellow Republican?" The answer to that question is obvious enough to know that Love's intention was purely rhetorical. Trump wanted to underscore his conviction that the midterms were not a failing on his part but the product of a lack of cohesion among Republican politicians. Had incumbents such as Love, Carlos Curbelo (Fla.), Barbara Comstock (Va.), and others rallied to Trump's side, the president argued, the GOP could have retained the House.
However much or little Trump's argument might apply to Love's contest, it misreads what happened in the midterms. Democrats won because they turned out in droves, exceeding the enthusiasm demonstrated by Republicans. This large Democratic turnout shifted key Trump states — Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania — back to blue status, and had a major impact in swing suburban districts like Utah's 4th especially, but not exclusively. Karen Handel lost in Georgia's 6th Congressional District — the first time in over 40 years the district has elected a Democrat — despite an R+8 Cook index rating and her previous embrace of Trump.
The problem for Republicans isn't a lack of rallying around Trump, but a lack of appeal beyond a relatively narrow party base. Love drove this point home in her concession speech, arguing that both Trump and the Republican Party take an exceedingly disingenuous approach to people, especially those in minority communities.
"This election experience and these comments shines a spotlight on the problems Washington politicians have with minorities and black Americans — it's transactional. It's not personal," Love said. "Because Republicans never take minority communities into their home and citizens into their homes and into their hearts," she argued, those voters "stay with Democrats and bureaucrats in Washington because they do take them home, or at least make them feel like they have a home."
Here, Love hits the nail on the head. She echoes what a number of minority voters told me when I started field research in key swing counties for the 2016 election while writing my book, Going Red. Republicans would open an office and hire someone to talk to the people in minority neighborhoods a few months before an election, then as soon as the voting ended, pack up and decamp.
The problem, as the thoughtful and concerned citizens of these communities told me, wasn't so much that Republicans "never take minority communities into their home," but that they don't make minority communities their home in the first place. Former GOP Florida Rep. Shawn Harrison related how election consultants pushed him to ignore minority communities as hopelessly Democratic, and how that cost him a re-election bid in 2012. African-American conservatives in places like Wake County, North Carolina, said that while they often felt Democrats took them for granted, at least Democrats try to participate in their communities, whereas Republicans abandon them entirely.
The 2018 midterms show what happens when Democrats show up to vote: They outperform Republicans, even in red districts. Base-turnout strategies only take either party so far in general elections, but they take Democrats further, thanks to the party's sustained registration advantages. Trump managed to win in 2016 without a campaign strategy to improve this failing on behalf of the GOP. However, he won those blue-wall states not because he significantly expanded the Republican voter footprint, but because Hillary Clinton failed to turn out Democratic voters, falling well below the turnout for Barack Obama four years earlier.
There are only two ways for Republicans to win general elections: The first relies on Democrats nominating incompetent candidates, which certainly could happen again — although it seems unlikely they will give Clinton another shot. The second requires Republicans to do the hard work of becoming part of new and broader communities to both build credibility and make their agenda relevant to those voters. Until Republicans demonstrate some love for these voters beyond sloganeering, Mia Love's warning will prove all too prescient.