WASHINGTON — Conservatives say they were pleasantly surprised this week with election results outside the presidential race.
The Republican Party kept every statehouse they had, picked up seats in the House of Representatives and won critical battles in the fight for the U.S. Senate. In many respects, it was seen as the best outcome for a political movement that was significantly outspent and defied predictions by pundits and pollsters of huge losses at nearly every level of government.
"I was expecting to have lost about half a dozen statehouses across the country. And we didn't," said Adam Brandon, president of the conservative activist group FreedomWorks. "We actually did quite well. We did a lot better in the suburbs than we planned on doing, than we were expected to do."
In the surprise victories, conservative leaders see an opportunity to broaden their base of support among voters who share their economic ideals but have not traditionally backed GOP candidates.
They were buoyed in particular by Republican candidates' improved performances with Latino voters in states such as Florida and Texas where Hispanics make up an ever-growing percentage of the population. President Donald Trump won both states.
Conservative leaders credit those successes in part to Trump's ability to communicate their economic message to voters who rated the issue as the most important in the election. Going forward, they see an opportunity to adjust that approach so it resonates with demographic groups that Trump struggled to win over such as suburban voters.
"In the future, Republicans have to incorporate the Trump appeal to working families around the country that too often our kind of wonkish appeal on economics, on government issues, leaves them feeling like nobody's sticking up for them," said David McIntosh, president of the fiscally conservative Club for Growth and its political action committee.
"Part of that is style," he said. "Future Republicans have to figure out a version of the Trump style that doesn't automatically turn off suburbanites."
Conservatives said that the close election drove home a reckoning that the Republican Party must move away from rhetoric that appeals to party faithful but does not resonate with average American voters, most of whom are not keyed into the machinations of Washington.
Republicans must put an emphasis on jobs, the economy and issues like education, said Charmaine Yoest, a former Trump administration official who is currently a vice president at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
"I think that there's going to be a huge reckoning once they start looking at the crosstabs at how the president was able to build a voting bloc that really improved among voting groups that Republicans have tried desperately for years to appeal better to," she said of exit polling and post-election surveys.
This election provides Republicans with a rubric for the issues the party should focus on and the type of political candidates it needs to run, said David Avella, chairman of GOPAC, an organization that specializes in teaching Republicans how to effectively communicate their ideas.
"It's not about being the next Donald Trump, it's about being authentic and addressing the concerns and the aspirations that Americans have that makes them say, 'that's who I want to be my leader,'" Avella said.
Texas Rep. Kevin Brady, the top Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, said that Republicans' opposition to higher taxes and their focus on growing the economy was largely responsible for preventing a blue wave.
Working families and minority families knew from their own paycheck that Republican policies were working, and GOP messaging on those issues and a diverse set of candidates reinforced that, he said.
Pointing to an increase in Hispanic support in the election, Brady said of the GOP's economic policies, "It is one of the major reasons that Democrats flamed out, not just in Texas but across the country."
Trump also picked up support among Black men, winning 12 percent of their votes in exit polling and 8 percent of the Black vote overall, improving on his 2016 performance by two percentage points.
Ken Blackwell, a former Ohio secretary of state and Trump campaign advisory board member, said the administration's efforts around criminal justice reform and trade policy changes made the Republican Party a more attractive option.
"What you can learn from Trump, what you can learn from him and the last four years, is that, if you move beyond giving lip service to things and actually embed them in your agenda, month-to-month, year-to-year, you can change people's affiliation, because people organize around their interests and around their values and around their ideals," Blackwell said.
He said that as a result of Trump's efforts, "the Republican Party is in a better position to hold onto those who are looking for a new party home."
Larry Kudlow, a top adviser to Trump at the White House, said that the president has "to some extent remade the GOP."
"The Republican Party today is not the country club, Wall Street party that it was. It's a blue-collar party. It's a middle-income party. It's a party of farmers and ranchers and auto workers. That's what Trump's done," he said on Election Day. "It's a small business party. It's not a big corporate business party anymore. That's all changed in my lifetime."
Kudlow said that the Trump coalition was made up of people with traditional values who do not want to be taken advantage of by foreign nations and who favor immigration, but want it to be legal.
"I think that coalition will hold," he said. "Those principles and values will continue."
Republicans are still the minority in the House of Representatives, and at best, they could end up with a razor-thin majority in the Senate, regardless of what happens in the battle for the White House.
McIntosh said his hope is that the Republican Party will "see that our approach lets them win" after Club for Growth-backed candidates such as Chip Roy in Texas and Nancy Mace in South Carolina were successfully elected.
"Our recipe is to look for champions that are really good on government and free markets and are also really good candidates. They can raise money, they can talk to people, and when you get candidates like that, and policies like that, you have a winning combination," he said.
Conservatives are gearing up to do battle with Democrats on fiscal policy and health care.
Brandon of FreedomWorks said that Republicans must come to a consensus on what free market health care really is in order to build a winning coalition.
"The issues triumphed over personality. So imagine if we actually get really good on our issues, and articulating our issues and have the space in the political discussion to start talking about our issues again," he said. "That's the main fountain of my optimism."
© 2020 McClatchy Washington Bureau
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