Earlier in December, anti-tax earth-scorcher Grover Norquist raised some eyebrows when he opined that President Trump was not responsible for many Republicans losing their seats to Democrats in 2018, instead blaming candidate laziness.
The comments, at face value, were heresy within the political chattering class. Trump has bad approval ratings. Suburban women have soured on him. Minorities loathe him. And he is the leader of the Republican Party, heavily covered in the media, all day, every day.
These things are true. And yet, so is what Norquist said: About-to-be former Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, and others, “didn’t do any work.” In fact, Norquist is right that too many Republicans were de facto “sit[ting] in hammocks… and then when the tide comes up, they drown and they don’t even bother to get out of the hammock”—an acknowledgment that yes, there was a blue wave, but also that you’d better hustle when you hear the tsunami alarm.
To be sure, some did—and they lost anyway. Rep. Mia Love, Rep. Jeff Denham, Rep. Carlos Curbelo, and perhaps most especially Republican congressional candidate Young Kim, running in Orange County and fabled in California circles for her work ethic and propensity for pounding the pavement.
These and others had tapped into their energy reserves long before November ever came, and they still were not going to win. For a bunch of California Republicans, no matter how much of an effort they made, nothing was going to overcome the hurdle of a wildly unpopular Trump as leader of the GOP, a tax reform bill that Trump signed that raised a bunch of normally reliable GOP voters’ tax bills, problems with health care that the GOP under Trump did not appear to be fixing, and immigration and trade policies crafted by Trump personally that have been tremendously off-putting to Hispanic, Asian and—yes—quite a few white voters too. If you believe that demographics are destiny, given Trump’s most Trumpy policies, it was probably already a given that several GOP-held House seats in California would change hands.
But none of this explains the sheer expanse of the losses, whereas a failure of candidates to behave like they were in the fights of their lives actually does.
Let’s set aside Rohrabacher’s race, which he should have treated more seriously: A number of super-Trumpy candidates with a bad rap for insufficient focus on local issues and weak campaigning lost elsewhere.
For months, South Carolina political consultants had been saying Katie Arrington, who bested Trump foe Rep. Mark Sanford in a primary after Trump endorsed her, did not have the district locked down, and was over-relying on Trump’s endorsement to carry her in an area where Democrats were going to see high turnout. You also had a bunch of pissed-off Sanford supporters who hadn’t been converted.
Then there was Rep. Dave Brat, who represents at least a few Republicans who fully expected him to lose in 2018, in part because of overconfidence about his position given his 2014 surprise trouncing of then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a primary.
Plus, you have figures like about-to-be-former Rep. David Valadao and still-barely-there-by-the-skin-of-his-teeth Rep. Devin Nunes. People tracking both races were unsurprised to see Valadao ultimately lose, and Nunes come shockingly close himself. I’m a longtime critic of Nunes, who has done exactly the opposite of what Norquist urges in terms of local versus national, cable news-bait focus, and ultimately won with less than 53 percent of the vote, versus his usual give-or-take 70.
Valadao, whose district is more than 75 percent Latino, and therefore the most minority-dominated of any Republican-held district in California, undoubtedly suffered because of Trump’s manifest antipathy to Hispanics. The tax bill and trade wars probably hurt him, too. But Valadao also hurt himself big time by making bad decisions and not working hard enough on issues of prime local importance. The best example of this is DACA—a deeply resonant subject in his district, especially.
Maybe the best evidence that Norquist has a point is the survival of Rep. Will Hurd in Texas. Given Texas’ changing demographics, the ongoing border crisis, and Trump’s routinely unhelpful comments about all things Hispanic or Mexican—plus all the other trends at play portending a bad year for Republicans—you would have expected Hurd to be in trouble. Given that Democratic-voting Texans in border areas, like Hurd’s district, massively turned out to support local boy Rep. Beto O’Rourke over Sen. Ted Cruz, you would have expected down-ballot Hurd to be a dead man walking. In fact, he survived. The general consensus from those who watched the race was that Hurd worked his butt off to stay up. The same simply cannot be said of a slew of his colleagues.
The truth is, 2018 was always going to be a tough election for Republicans. But Norquist is right: A lot of Republicans lost unnecessarily because they took wins for granted, and didn’t focus on what mattered to their constituents, whether that was the impact of tax reform in California, New York, New Jersey or Illinois, or health care or trade or immigration (I’m a pro-immigration Republican who thinks the party should embrace comprehensive reform, including a path to citizenship). And a bunch of Republicans simply didn’t work for wins; they believed the #fakepolls narrative and delivered middling performances when loads of Democrats were proverbially vying for Oscars.
Republicans shouldn’t take from Norquist’s comments a lesson that Trump is not a problem. He is. It’s just that an equally big problem in 2018, it seems, was laziness on the part of Republican candidates. Too many of them—Trumpy or not— were complacent and deserved to lose.