In the aftermath of the 2018 midterm election and with political junkies turning their attention to the next presidential contest, Trump-critical and Trump-skeptical Republicans are back in the media spotlight.
Most prominent among them recently has been outgoing Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who is widely presumed to be readying a bid to primary Trump in under two years’ time.
But the more interesting figure arguably could be now-outgoing Utah Rep. Mia Love—should she choose to leverage the media spotlight she has recently found herself in thanks to the recent spat with Trump spat with Trump (short version: Love lost her 2018 re-election; Trump thinks it’s because she didn’t cozy up to him enough; she, and the facts, disagree).
Love has always been something of a Republican political celebrity. She is a young, telegenic former mayor from outside the GOP cookie-cutter mold. Let’s say this bluntly: She is black, and she is conservative (if not Ted Cruz-level conservative), and she is Mormon. That makes her interesting, not just as a hot commodity in terms of cable news bookings (which does matter, because TV airtime allotted to candidates is a good indicator of ultimate electoral viability), but insofar as she is someone who basically has spent her whole life defying stereotypes and having to engage in perhaps unexpected relationship-building in order to get to where she is today.
Utah is not home to a massive black community; nor are many LDS church members black; nor are the bulk of elected Republicans people who have represented partially or wholly urban areas; nor are the bulk of people who have represented such areas generally conservative.
If politics is about coalition-building, Love undoubtedly has better-developed political chops than most bigger-name candidates or would-be candidates, Kasich likely included. But she also has a background that makes outreach needed to build coalitions easier.
Plus, ask your average conservative who is more to their liking ideologically, and odds are they’d take Love over Kasich. That makes her interesting as a possible counterbalance to Trump, and someone who perhaps could speak to disaffection and skepticism of him from within the GOP ranks.
Let’s be clear: There’s not a ton of that from within the actual GOP as it exists today. A great many former #nevertrump Republicans have now converted to the Democratic Party. Whether that is for one electoral cycle or many remains to be seen, but from my vantage point, I do not see many of them coming back to the GOP in 2020 if Trump is the standard-bearer.
A ton of independent voters also seem to have soured on the GOP, though whether that will endure does depend on who Democrats put front and center as they head towards 2020.
But the fact is, for both of these camps, Love is a more appealing and interesting prospect than Trump. If base Republicans, in terms of ideology as opposed to raw cultural affiliation, are honest, they’ll probably say that Love is equally or more appealing than Trump, too.
If public opinion where Trump is concerned continues to sour, the GOP is going to benefit from having a different option in the room—and you can plausibly make the argument that having that alternative be someone like Mia Love would be beneficial for the GOP as a whole.
Not only is Love likely a far more deft retail politician than Trump (or possibly Kasich, though campaign trail stories abound of him charming would-be supporters’ and reporters’ children), Love understands the limitations of Trumpism first-hand. She conceded in her tough re-election race to Salt Lake City Mayor and Democrat Ben McAdams. Trump turned around and slammed her, hinting that perhaps she had lost because she was insufficiently Trump fanatical.
But let’s be clear: That’s not why Love lost.
Utah overall has never been Trump-enthusiast territory. He performed badly in the state’s 2016 primary. Trump failed to reach 50 percent in the 2016 general election in the dark red state, with Independent Evan McMullin pulling 21 percent there and Libertarian Gary Johnson pulling about 3.5 percent. Utah’s delegates to the 2016 GOP Convention were among those most outraged about rules put in place to hand Trump the nomination without transparency and without each delegation being fully heard out with regard to nomination concerns. And Utah is the home of Mitt Romney, one of the most prominent Trump-skeptical Republicans.
Utah is also home to changing voter demographics and attitude. It is the youngest state in the nation, with the youngest median age in the nation. It also has a fast-growing minority population—about one in five Utahans is now a minority. Salt Lake City, some of which is encompassed in Love’s district, is a bigger, more diverse, less traditionally conservative place than it was 30 years ago.
If Trump’s brand of conservatism was ever truly saleable in Utah (dubious, given instinctive opposition by members of the LDS church to a guy who seems overly comfortable with actual and alleged bigots who all-too-often remind Mormons of their prior persecution and persecutors, as well as stylistic, rhetorical and issue-priority divergences), it is becoming less so as the state changes.
Love, like many Republicans representing areas that are getting more urban, and less rural or suburban in their disposition who got wiped out in 2018, was at ground zero to witness this. She knows where the country is heading (not the direction of Utah, per se, but probably more or less in line with Salt Lake City itself), where Republicans are messing up, and what is lacking in Trumpist visions for America—and the Republican Party. She also has a sense of how to switch things up to bring more people into the GOP, even if ultimately she couldn’t get enough of them to win in this very tough cycle.
One of these things is clearly more sincere, visible outreach to and engagement with voters who do not fit the older, whiter demographic that Trump appealed to so well in 2016.
Prior to that year, nearly everyone in politics agreed that demographic changes in America, as well as socio-economic ones and cultural ones, would mean the GOP was going to have to become a far more appealing party to younger voters, minorities and women, both in terms of policy and politics, in order to win.
Trump’s win has caused some strategists to reconsider this—hey, it turned out that in 2016, you could still win a presidential election really by bagging a ton of votes from elderly white voters and non-college educated whites.
But it’s also arguable, especially looking at the 2018 midterm results that this was a “last stand” for Trumpy-type voters. First of all, some of these do in fact switch between the parties (go to swing areas across the US and you can find voters who supported Obama in 2008 and 2012 but voted for Trump in 2016). Second of all, as we witnessed in 2018, non-Trumpy type voters are growing in number and getting more, not less, politically engaged. That is a challenge for a party that has honed its ability to speak to a single demographic when it is becoming less dominant, as a matter of pure population statistics and political power.
It is also a challenge when, as Love noted, the party that has tapped into that single demographic has done “engagement” with groups other than it essentially based on transactionality as opposed to actual relationships.
When Love critiqued Trump and the modern GOP as prioritizing “convenient transactions” over “real relationships,” she had a point. Every GOP strategist who has ever made the “we need to diversify” argument is familiar with the tendency to treat the Hispanic outreach box as checked if the candidate posts a picture of himself eating a taco salad on Cinco De Mayo to Twitter, or holds an event at the local Mexican restaurant. But this is not real engagement, or relationship-building. That matters because contrary to popular belief, few voters actually do vote on policy; they do vote on relationships and candidate affinity. Yes, with regard to attracting Hispanic voters, data does show that taking a pro-immigration policy stance matters. But it is not the only thing that matters; equally important is actual voter engagement as opposed to box-ticking, and you can see this in the results of Republicans like New Mexico’s Steve Pearce over many years (Pearce is not a champion of comprehensive immigration reform; however, he is regarded by many in the GOP as working especially hard and successfully to engage Hispanic voters).
As noted, Love is not Hispanic; her family is of Haitian descent. But what is good for the goose is good for the gander, and if Republicans in the era of Trump have a problem with Hispanic voters, goodness knows we have a problem with African-American and black voters, writ large.
Some of this is policy (right or wrong, many African-American voters are skeptical of reforms to the social safety net and see them as attacks or potentially to the detriment of a specific, targeted community; there is also a lot of upset about actual and perceived efforts at suppression of African-American voters). But it’s probably as much politics.
True, when he was running for Governor in Arkansas, Mike Huckabee was not cutting a Rand Paul-like profile with regard to slashing and burning government; however, talk to people out of Arkansas, and they’ll tell you he also made a sincere effort to build relationships within the African-American community that paid off for him electorally. Former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore was a more traditional Republican in terms of favoring smaller government; but he too would tell you he prioritized African-American outreach and he performed far better with African-American voters than most Republicans did.
Both Huckabee and Gilmore did the opposite of what Love called out yesterday: "politicians claim[ing] they know what's best for us from a safe distance, yet they're never willing to take us home. Because Republicans never take minority communities into their home and citizens into their homes and into their hearts, they stay with Democrats and bureaucrats in Washington because they do take them home -- or at least make them feel like they have a home."
Undoubtedly, long-term, if you believe in basic math, the GOP is going to need more of this.
In terms of presenting a conservative alternative to Trump, it also makes more sense than reflexive #nevertrumpism, which we see plenty of today (take the opposite policy position to the President; react to him).
By definition, what Love is talking about here is not reactive; it is proactive and engagement-oriented. Yes, presidential elections are about choices, and contrasts, and presenting yourself as starkly different to your opponent. But for as much as there are policy critiques to be made of Trump (and Kasich has made and will continue to make them, as possibly will Love), perhaps the better distinction to draw with Trump is dispositional. Republicans probably aren’t getting tired of Trump judicial appointments, regulatory rollback, or even trash-talking crooked Democrats (I’m not getting tired of these things, in any event). What they might be tired of in another few months could be the daily slugfest, the constant drama, and the diminishing returns of trying to eke out ever more marginal wins by ongoing division and subtraction within our own, or our potential own, ranks.
In all probability, Love agrees with Trump on policy more than Kasich does. But her resume and her profile indicate she is more different to the President, dispositionally, than the guy who seems to be the biggest looming primary challenger to him as of today.
There’s absolutely nothing to indicate that Love has any love for the idea of running for President, let alone doing the job. But she does seem minded to continue speaking up and speaking out in politics, and presenting a counterpoint to the President and his brand of politics. That is desperately needed, especially at a time when the Democratic Party looks like it could respond to Trumpism by simply nominating its own version of the President and then letting voters decide between two options that most of us will probably admit in our heart of hearts really is a choice between bad or worse.
It may be that by November 2020, those of us former #nevertrump, now Trump-skeptical Republicans have decided to throw in with him because the Democratic alternative really is that bad. But for now, it would be preferable to have more figures like Love on the stage making their argument, if for no other reason than to force cable news coverage away from 100% focus on the latest shocking Trump tweet or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez/Elizabeth Warren/Bernie Sanders attention-craving, controversy-stirring utterance.
And it would be good to have Love in the political mix on an ongoing basis because she has diagnosed one of the GOP’s major problems but also has a skill set that suggests she can help solve it.