How MAGA Conservatives Are Reshaping the Republican Party

How MAGA Conservatives Are Reshaping the Republican Party

J.D. Vance’s commanding victory in Ohio’s Republican primary May 3 put the anti-establishment, Trump-endorsed candidate one step closer to the U.S. Senate. His victory was the latest in a series of wins by populists who represent the party’s MAGA wing.

Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a columnist for The Washington Post, joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to explain the success of MAGA conservatives and what to expect in future months. Listen to the show or read a lightly edited transcript below.

Rob Bluey: We are in the midst of a number of primaries taking place across the country, most recently in Ohio with J.D. Vance’s big win. I want to begin there because I think so many people are wondering where the Republican Party is headed. You’ve done some insightful analysis. Take us through what happened in Ohio and where you see this playing out maybe in other states.

Henry Olsen: What we’re seeing in Ohio and Indiana and also in the polls in some of the states that are coming up is that the union between old-line movement conservatives and modern-day, populist, Trump-like conservatives is the clear supermajority of the Republican primary electorate. That when they’re opposed to one another, in some sense, as they were between [Josh] Mandel and [Mike] Gibbons and Vance, you can create contests between them, but when they’re united, as they seem to be in North Carolina behind Ted Budd, you get a massive victory.

The old-line business-focused conservatives no longer seem to be able to have the play to defeat a well-financed and articulate either populist conservative or movement conservative or union conservative.

Bluey: Take us through some of the races in Ohio and Indiana, specifically the Senate race there. It seemed like for a while J.D. Vance was in a third-place spot. President [Donald] Trump comes in with his endorsement and immediately Vance is able to catapult and have a commanding victory. Same thing with some of the House races in Indiana. President Trump certainly had a factor there. What does that mean about his endorsement specifically?

Olsen: Trump’s endorsement is helpful, but it’s not outcome-determinative on its own. You can see that in some of the other races where there’s no one he’s been bigger for than David Perdue against [Gov.] Brian Kemp in Georgia, but he keeps, “he” being Purdue, keeps slipping because there he’s running against a popular incumbent. There’s really no reason other than Trump’s say-so to throw him out.

But where you’ve got a multicandidate race and there are candidates who are competing for that populist, conservative moniker, having Trump on your side as the secret sauce or the extra little boost, that can make you stand out from the other people who are making the similar argument.

That’s really what Trump did for Vance, is that Vance might have been able to win without Trump’s endorsement—primary voters tend to make up their minds late, so there was still time—but when he was the populist conservative who also had Trump’s endorsement, that was what sealed the deal.

Bluey: Were there certain things that J.D. Vance was saying or doing that resonated particularly well with voters?

Olsen: One is that J.D. was echoing many of the same sorts of themes that other populist conservatives have been talking about over the years, particularly control of our border and putting American interest first. But J.D. has a particularly unique take on the problems of the Rust Belt, and he was voicing that as well.

I think that was one of the things that allowed him to stand out from somebody like a Mike Gibbons or a Josh Mandel, who were echoing other populist conservative themes, but couldn’t quite speak with the same authority about the distinct problems of the Rust Belt that only J.D. can articulate.

Bluey: This, of course, wouldn’t be the first time—if he does eventually make it to Washington—where an outsider comes in. I think of [Sen.] Mike Lee in 2010, of course, and [Sen.] Ted Cruz being another who really maybe didn’t sit as well with the establishment or the party leadership in the nation’s capital.

You also write that “it’s stormy weather ahead for business Republicans and Team Blue, full speed ahead for the MAGA Express.” What does it mean specifically when it comes to those establishment or business Republicans? What lessons do they need to take from this?

Olsen: What they need to take from this is that they’re in a coalition, that they can’t dominate the party anymore, is that they became used to—through the presidential nomination process and through having rough parity in the legislatures in the late aughts and the early teens—to being the top dog in the Republican Party so that they could give shorter shrift to social issues, they could give shorter or no shrift to cultural issues, they could focus on business rather than individuals in economic policy. That’s simply not the case anymore.

They are part of the coalition and it would be improper for MAGA people to say, “Well, we don’t need those conservatives anymore,” because they’re still a fifth to a third of the primary base, and probably a little bit larger of the general electorate coalition, but they can’t call the shots anymore.

They’re used to calling the shots and what they need to start doing is thinking, “How do we play in this coalition that we are not the primary member of?”, as opposed to, “How do we regain a dominance?” that they simply don’t have the support to have.

Rob Bluey: One of the other factors that you write about is the voter enthusiasm gap. What happened in recent elections that we should be paying attention to that maybe portends to trends that we could see play out in November?

Olsen: What happened in Ohio and in one of the districts in Indiana was very bad news for Democrats, that in 2018, which is the last off-year primary, in Ohio, there were about a little short of 1.6 million people who cast a primary ballot. In this election, there were a little short of 1.6 million people, so same turnout.

In 2018, Republicans had about 55% of that and that roughly mirrored the final edge that Mike DeWine had when he ran for governor. In other words, the primary margin was about the same. This time, it was 68% Republican.

Now, Republicans are not going to win serious races by 36 points in Ohio, but what it shows is two things. One is enthusiasm is with the Republicans, not with the Democrats. And two, more importantly, the swing voter is choosing to vote in the Republican primary, in the Democratic primary.

That’s what happened in Indiana 1, which is a traditional blue-collar, safe, Gary-based district. In 2018, the Democrats had a 3-to-1 primary edge on the Republicans, and this year it was an 8,000-vote edge, not even 1.5-to-1.

Early vote totals in North Carolina that I didn’t write about but I’m following are showing the same thing, is that typically Democrats vote early, Republicans don’t. That’s not what’s happening. Typically, independents choose Democratic ballots. This time, they’re choosing Republicans 2-to-1. It’s looking like a very strong year for the Republican brand.

Bluey: Is this a rejection of President [Joe] Biden and his agenda or the agenda of Democrats in Congress? Or are there other things that are motivating these voters to turn out?

Olsen: It’s a mixture of things. One is that, for the movement conservative and the populist conservative, there are things that they are for, and that is something that on the margin is motivating people.

But largely, I think it is a rejection of, we didn’t vote to go this far left. We didn’t vote for woke. We didn’t vote for broke. They’re giving us broke and woke and that’s not something that we want and we want to say “stop.”

And that’s something that the Democrats continue to refuse to recognize. The few that do are being continually ignored by the people who matter, and instead, they’re doubling down on a base-only strategy that we can see particularly play out with this cry over abortion because that’s something that plays to their base, but not really to the voter who is trending Republican. And it’s sure looking like that’s unlikely to change, and that this will be an extremely, extremely good year for Republicans.

Bluey: You mentioned abortion. What are your views on the Dobbs draft opinion? Where do you see it going and what lessons do we need as conservatives to be paying attention to?

Olsen: What conservatives who are also pro-life need to recognize is that [what] overruling Roe does is give us an opportunity, not a victory.

The marginal voter in the United States, the middle voter on abortion, is a person who supports restrictions on abortion up until the first trimester, supports abortion on demand in the first trimester, and doesn’t highly prioritize abortion in their voting decision.

So an attempt to pass in a swing state a ban on abortion from conception would be steps too far, trying to make a federal issue where a public opinion doesn’t support you. Trying to push for a federal law would be a step too far.

The flip side is the Democrats hold an even more unpopular position. Forty-six percent of Biden voters believe there should be no restrictions whatsoever, should be legal up until the moment of birth, to use the descriptive term.

That means that if they take the center position, they alienate half of their base. If they take the base’s position, they alienate the center. That’s why you see all these Democrats who, when they’re being asked in the last week, are dancing around this issue. They won’t say they support a restriction, they won’t say they support no restrictions.

Well, that’s the problem. If you waffle around, eventually, you run out of batter, and people can see that you’re too thin to be elected.

That’s what pro-lifers need to do, is keep the focus on the Democrats, force them to choose between their base and the middle. Since they won’t choose, ride the abortion victory home, not by saying, “We want to ban it nationwide,” which many Republicans don’t, they prefer a state solution, which nonetheless keeps the focus on their inability to settle on a reasonable issue rather than stumble into letting the media characterize us as an extreme, unreasonable position.

Bluey: As an electoral issue, some on the left have suggested that this will be a motivator for Democrats to turn out in the polls, and maybe even overcome some of the challenges we were just talking about with the woke agenda or the economic of failures of this administration. Do you see it resonating that way? Obviously, a decision that would come down in May or June is still months away from Election Day.

Olsen: There’s two things to think about. One is the marginal Democratic voter, the sort who will always vote in the presidential years, but may not vote in the off years.

What we know is that the marginal Republican voter is angry and will come out and vote. This is the sort of issue that might make the marginal Democratic, the presidential-only Democrat, come out and vote, so that’s good for them. That only gets them so far. That turnout differential was not the major reason why Republicans did well in the New Jersey and Virginia state elections in 2021, voter persuasion was.

That’s where I don’t see this playing out the way they expect it to because the person who is in the middle may have a weekly pro-choice position, but they also have a weekly anti-extremism position.

So if the Democrats are for no limits and they think the Republicans are for no abortion, then my guess is they default to what they are prioritizing in their own lives, and all of those issues play in the Republican sphere.

So I think it helps Democrats on the margin with their own base turnout, but it doesn’t save the electoral bacon for them because the bulk of that is people who voted for Joe Biden two years ago who have decided the Democrats are offering woke and broke and they don’t want that anymore.

Bluey: Do you see it having any impact in any of the Democrat primaries that may be coming up?

Olsen: No, because Democrats are happy with the waffle. OK, now, there are going to be some cases where there is one pro-life Democrat—Henry Cuellar in Texas, the runoff is coming.

Of course, that battle was already being fought on abortion grounds, and he represents a largely Hispanic area where there actually are a significant number of pro-life Democrats. It may be enough to tilt the balance against him, very narrowly. But then that just goes to the general election, which is, why would a pro-life Hispanic Democrat whose candidate was just written out of the Democratic Party support the pro-choice extremist who is writing the “no limits on abortion” policy?

So, the victory in the primary there could very well give the Republicans the victory in the general by alienating people and is actually an example where helping in the primary could be destructive in the general election.

Bluey: Looking ahead, what are the other elections in the weeks and months ahead that our listeners should be paying attention to, maybe understand these trends that you’re talking about today? Pennsylvania obviously comes to my mind, but are there others?

Olsen: The clearest ones are Pennsylvania and North Carolina and, to some extent, Idaho—that we forget that Donald Trump has endorsed the Idaho lieutenant governor against the sitting governor, Brad Little.

All the polls suggest she’s going to have her clock claimed 2-to-1, which, again, is an indicator that there’s only so far that being a candidate endorsed by Donald Trump and embracing every single of the positions on the movement right will take you against somebody who is otherwise competent and generally conservative. So that’s going to be something that the establishment will like.

But in Pennsylvania, you’ve got a couple of House primaries. That’ll be interesting. You’ve got the Senate primary, where Trump has endorsed a very problematic person who is problematic and with a number of Republican voters.

A poll that came out recently had conservative activist Kathy Barnette in second place, only two points behind Trump’s endorsed candidate, Mehmet Oz. She’s got momentum. It could very well be by Election Day that a black woman conservative activist is the nominee, even though Donald Trump selected somebody else. That’s one that would cut one way for the Trump brand, but cut another way for the energizing within the party.

The other candidate there, Dave McCormick, is basically, despite his attempt to be MAGA, is appealing to the same sort of people that Matt Dolan appealed to in Ohio, which is to say the old-line business Republican. And he seems to be stuck in that 20% to 25% of the vote. That seems to be where they are these days.

Bluey: One final question for you. I know we’re in a long way from 2024, but we will start to have this conversation no doubt later this year or early in 2023. What do these primaries, what do the trends that we’re seeing, particularly in the Republican Party and conservative movement, tell us about the field of candidates we can expect in 2024?

Olsen: The actual field of candidates is going depend on whether Donald Trump gets in the race or not, that if Trump declares early to try and freeze people out, then a lot of people who would be attractive candidates will have to decide, “Can I take out the 800-pound gorilla?”

I suspect if Trump declares early, then we will have a much smaller field, but I do expect that we will have a challenge.

I expect we will have a challenge from somebody from the MAGA movement wing, whether it’s [Florida Gov.] Ron DeSantis or somebody less prominent, who will say, “Me, too, on the issues. But not me, too, on the personality that if we actually care about saving America, we need to find a new messenger. Thank you, Donald Trump, for showing us the Promised Land, but just like Moses led Israel to the Promised Land, but couldn’t enter it, I’m afraid I need to be Joshua and be the one to bring us home.”

That would be an interesting play for an ambitious person to do.

If Trump doesn’t get into it, then it’s just going to be wide open, and you’re going to have candidates appealing to all of the various factions and hoping to put something together.

You’ll have people running as the establishment candidate, you’ll have people running as the establishment-plus candidate, you’ll have people running as the unreconstructed movement conservative candidate, the pure populist candidate, the union candidate. Let a thousand flowers bloom.

Bluey: Henry Olsen, thanks for the work you do at EPPC and The Washington Post. How can people follow your work?

Olsen: You can follow my work by subscribing to the Post and getting my daily column. I am often the only conservative on the page, and as I like to say, nine liberals to one conservatives is a fair fight. You can follow me on Twitter at @HenryOlsenEPPC.

Bluey: Excellent. Henry, thanks so much. We appreciate your analysis.

Olsen: Thank you, Rob.

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About the Author

Tony Beasley
Tony Beasley writes for the Local News, US and the World Section of ANH.