Top Republicans Work To Rebrand GOP As Party Of Working Class | WAMC

Top Republicans Work To Rebrand GOP As Party Of Working Class

Apr 13, 2021
Originally published on April 13, 2021 1:14 pm

A growing number of working-class voters were drawn to Donald Trump's Republican Party, and now top Republicans are searching for ways to keep those voters in the fold without Trump on the ballot.

"All of the statistics and polling coming out of the 2020 election show that Donald Trump did better with those voters across the board than any Republican has in my lifetime since Ronald Reagan," Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., told NPR. "And if Republicans want to be successful as a party, win the majority in 2022, win back the White House in 2024, I think we have to learn lessons that Donald Trump taught us and how to appeal to these voters."

Since 2010, the most significant growth in the Republican coalition has been white voters without a college degree — an imperfect but widely used metric to quantify the working-class voting bloc — along with some marginal growth among similarly educated Black and Hispanic voters. Banks believes the only winning path forward for the GOP is to reimagine itself permanently as the party of working-class America.

Banks is the chairman of the Republican Study Committee, a conservative faction in the House long rooted in small government, low taxes and social conservatism, and he recently sent a six-page memo to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., making his case. For Banks, it means tougher immigration laws and cracking down on China, Big Tech and, perhaps most provocatively for the GOP, corporate America.

"For too long, the Republican Party fed into the narrative and the perception that the Republican Party was the party of big business or the party of Wall Street," Banks said.

Read the full memo below:

Republicans are increasingly comfortable attacking corporations these days, a political stance made easier after Wall Street donors gave more to President Biden in 2020, major companies halted donations to Republicans who objected to Electoral College results on Jan. 6, and as companies take more liberal positions on controversial issues such as Georgia's new voting law.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., last week issued a rare public lashing toward companies that oppose the law. "My warning, if you will, to corporate America is to stay out of politics. It's not what you're designed for," he said. McConnell — a top recipient of corporate political donations — walked back his comments, but not a statement his office released warning corporations of "serious consequences" for "behaving like a woke parallel government."

Top Senate Republicans — some considering 2024 presidential runs — have been echoing the call to remake the party even before the 2020 election. "We've got a big battle in front of us, Republicans do, to try and make this party truly the party of working-class America," Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., said in November.

He's among a number of Senate Republicans who have taken recent positions that run counter to longstanding party orthodoxy, such as linking up with Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont in support of stimulus checks last year and supporting a mandatory $15 minimum wage for companies with annual revenues over $1 billion.

Others include Florida's Marco Rubio, who recently sided with pro-union forces in an organizing dispute at Amazon and speaks frequently of "common good capitalism," and Utah's Mitt Romney, who has introduced legislation to expand the welfare state to provide more generous benefits to combat child poverty.

"I think the claim that says the Republican Party is the party of the working class is at best, insincere, and more likely, political misdirection and rebranding exercises," said John Russo, a visiting scholar at the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University and a co-editor of the publication Working-Class Perspectives.

The working-class vote is complicated and too often confused with whiteness when about 40% of the working-class vote is people of color, Russo said. Their support also didn't cut overwhelmingly toward Republicans in 2020. Biden still won a majority of voters who earn less than $50,000 year, while Trump won a majority of voters who earn over $100,000 a year.

Russo said about one-third of working-class voters are considered persuadable in elections, and it's never reliable whether cultural or economic forces will drive their vote. "The working class, like all of us, carry multiple identities, race, class, gender, religious, geographic, and people may vote different parts of their identity as situations and moments change in their lives."

Democrats are not ceding this vote without a fight, led by a new president with a blue-collar upbringing who wants to enact the most radical economic investment in working people since the New Deal, with a message to sell it targeted almost squarely at the working-class vote. "I'm not trying to punish anybody, but damn it, maybe it's because I come from a middle-class neighborhood, I'm sick and tired of ordinary people being fleeced," Biden said in a recent speech promoting his $2 trillion infrastructure and economic stimulus plan.

Republicans think Democrats are overreaching with their economic largesse. Banks compared Biden's plans to a feel-good sugar high that will lead to a crash. "And I predict it will crash long before the 2022 midterm election, as we see a lot of government spending inflate the economy, but then when it bottoms out and American workers, blue-collar working-class Americans feel the effect of it, they're gonna blame Joe Biden and Democrats for it," he said.

The battle for the working class is even more urgent for the two parties because it's a growing bloc of voters. Since the 2008 financial crisis, Russo said, more middle-class people have slid economically backward and are experiencing what he calls "the fragility of working-class life."

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NOEL KING, HOST:

Donald Trump brought more working-class voters into the Republican Party than any other president since Ronald Reagan. Now Republicans are trying to figure out how to keep them. The working-class vote will be crucial in next year's midterms. Here's NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: In the last decade, the biggest growth in the Republican coalition has been white voters without a college degree, along with some growth with similarly educated Black and Hispanic voters. That's why Republicans like Indiana Congressman Jim Banks believe the only winning path forward for the GOP is to fully reimagine itself as the party of the working class.

JIM BANKS: And if Republicans want to be successful as a party - win the majority in 2022, win back the White House in 2024 - I think we have to learn lessons that Donald Trump taught us in how to appeal to these voters.

DAVIS: Banks is the chairman of the Republican Study Committee, a conservative faction in the House long rooted in small government, low taxes and social conservatism. He recently sent a six-page memo to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, making the case that Republicans need to refocus their agenda almost entirely on working-class appeals. For Banks, this means tougher immigration laws, cracking down on China, Big Tech and, perhaps most provocatively for Republicans, corporate America.

BANKS: For too long, the Republican Party fed into the narrative that the Republican Party was the party of big business or the party of Wall Street.

DAVIS: Republicans are increasingly comfortable attacking corporations these days. That's a lot easier for them after Wall Street donors gave more to Joe Biden, major companies halted political donations to Republicans who objected to Electoral College results on January 6 and as companies take more liberal positions on controversial issues like Georgia's new voting law. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell last week issued a rare verbal rebuke of companies that opposed the law.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MITCH MCCONNELL: My warning, if you will, to corporate America is to stay out of politics. It's not what you were designed for.

DAVIS: Top Senate Republicans, some considering 2024 presidential runs, have been echoing the call to remake the party even before the 2020 election.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSH HAWLEY: We've got a big battle in front of us - Republicans do - to try and make this party truly the party of working-class America.

DAVIS: That's Missouri Senator Josh Hawley last November. He's among a group of Senate Republicans who's taken recent positions that run counter to longstanding party orthodoxy, like linking arms with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in support of stimulus checks last year and supporting a $15 minimum wage for companies with annual revenues over a billion dollars. Others include Florida's Marco Rubio, who recently sided with pro-union forces in an organizing dispute at Amazon, and Utah's Mitt Romney, who's introduced legislation to expand the welfare state to provide more generous benefits to combat child poverty.

John Russo is a visiting scholar at the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University and a co-editor of the publication Working-Class Perspectives.

JOHN RUSSO: I think the claim is that the Republican Party is the party of the working class is at best insincere and more likely political misdirection in rebranding exercises.

DAVIS: The working-class vote is complicated, says Russo, and too often confused with whiteness when about 40% of the working-class vote is people of color. Their support also didn't cut overwhelmingly towards Republicans in 2020. Biden still won a majority of voters who earn less than $50,000 a year while Trump won a majority of voters who earn over $100,000 a year. Russo says about a third of working-class voters are considered persuadable in elections, and it's never reliable whether cultural or economic forces will drive their vote.

RUSSO: The working class, like all of us, carry multiple identities - race, class, gender, religious, geographic. And people may vote different parts of their identity as situations and moments change in their lives.

DAVIS: Democrats are not ceding this vote without a fight. Led by a new president with a blue-collar upbringing all his own and who wants to enact the most radical economic investment in the working class since the New Deal, with a message to sell it targeted almost squarely at the working-class vote.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I'm not trying to punish anybody, but damn it - maybe it's because I come from a middle-class neighborhood - I'm sick and tired of ordinary people being fleeced.

DAVIS: Republicans think Democrats are overreaching. Banks compares Biden's economic plans to a feelgood sugar high that will lead to a crash.

BANKS: Then when it bottoms out and American workers - blue-collar, working-class Americans feel the effect of it, they're going to blame Joe Biden and Democrats for it.

DAVIS: The battle for the working class is even more urgent because it's a growing bloc of voters. Since the 2008 financial crisis, Russo says, more middle-class people have slid economically backward and are experiencing what he calls, quote, "the fragility of working-class life."

Susan Davis, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.