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 permanently reimagine itself as the party of the 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 this 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 Joe 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, like 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 last November.
He's among a number of Senate Republicans who have taken recent positions that run counter to longstanding party orthodoxy, like linking up with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders 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 says 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 damnit, 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. Rep. 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."