There’s a chance that what ails the GOP is terminal, but to give ourselves a chance at recovery, we’ve got to move—physically.
The Republican Party is sick, so sick it can’t breathe, and its lack of oxygen has given it severe muscle fatigue. There’s a chance that what ails the GOP is terminal, but to give ourselves a chance at recovery, we’ve got to move—physically.
The party’s national committees, think-tank brains, campaign strategists, and government functionaries all live in the fever swamps of Washington that firmly anchor the snotty southern end of the Acela Corridor. The GOP’s elected and unelected leaders all want to heal the party, but no amount of voodoo will cure this disease. It’s time to move our whole wheezing family to fresher air before we all choke to death.
Like people in every other profession, political operatives are affected by environs and socialized by neighbors. After a decade of political sorting, the neighbors in the greater Washington area no longer bear any statistical resemblance to the voters in the winning coalition that our Republican candidates can—and do—assemble in the populist-conservative America that exists in the mass of the nation far from the upscale enclaves strung together on the east and west coasts.
DC Is as Left As a Sociologist Convention
In the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton blistered Donald Trump in every jurisdiction in metropolitan Washington. He got just 4 percent of the vote in the District of Columbia, even worse than his nine-point performance in left-wing San Francisco.
In DC’s suburbs, Trump couldn’t crack double digits in Prince George’s, home to Air Force One. He was under 20 percent in Arlington, home to the Pentagon and Bethesda, home of the National Institutes of Health. In the region’s largest suburban enclave, Fairfax County, Virginia, Trump managed just 29 percent, 10 points worse than Mitt Romney and 20 points less than George W. Bush had earned. The fever’s getting worse.
You’d have to drive 35 miles from the Republican National Committee’s headquarters on Capitol Hill to find the closest county in which Trump won and exceeded Romney’s performance—distant Calvert County on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay in Southern Maryland. Yet the GOP’s political future in the intermediate term likely lies in places just like that, where blue-collar populists abandoned by the leftward lurch of the Democratic Thought Police can combine with entrepreneurs, constitutionalists, and the religious devout to form a winning a majority. This coalition was the formula for Trump’s decisive electoral victories in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Florida—states Barack Obama carried twice.
This Is a Bigger Problem for the GOP than for Reporters
Few in the Republican campaign apparatchik envisioned this kind of widening of the GOP coalition. Most had long prescribed a bigger tent that included more people of color or upscale moderates instead, and that’s perhaps why few saw Trump’s victory coming. But so long as Trump sits, however unsteadily, on top of the Republican heap, and perhaps even after he is gone, this “coalition of the working” will be the viable path to victory for almost every Republican candidate at every level of politics.
It is understood as gospel among Republican strategists that few journalists understand the chemistry or architecture of Republican primaries. Too few reporters personally relate to the motivations of conservative voters, or even have enough acquaintances to have developed an appreciation for the mindset. Now some in this same group of Republican experts risk falling into the same trap, but with much greater professional consequences.
If a Washington reporter misunderstands the Republican coalition, it merely means he or she gets a few stories wrong. If a Republican strategist loses his or her grip on the target audience, elections are lost and causes crash.
The rank and file of the conservative-populist base has already figured this out, sparking rants against GOP denizens of “the swamp” by insurgent Trump-impersonating candidates for offices large and small. While that screech may be premature, or even phony, the silent rot of social isolation will eventually kill the collective Republican brain if we leave it surrounded.
The Answer Is Self-Deportation
The only way to address this cultural disconnect is self-deportation. I’m talking about a Category Five evacuation to remove every Republican thinker, staffer, pollster, ad-maker, and strategist from the contagious air of Beltway elitism. It’s not just because Washington is full of liberals, it’s because its lifestyle is disconnected from the nationally dominant GOP electorate as well. In one city, Washington has more graduate degrees, wheatgrass smoothies, and barre fitness studios than perhaps a dozen red states combined.
When the Republican National Committee and National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) headquarters building was catty-corner from the U.S. House of Representatives during the Nixon administration, physical proximity to decision-making mattered. But in the digital age, there is no reason the party’s staff needs to be within sniffing distance of the bureaucracy’s poison-fumed marble hallways.
The RNC, NRCC, and National Republican Senate Committee can just as easily operate today from metro Detroit or Nashville, with more convenient air service to visit the states Republicans actually carry in elections, which is most of them. Moving the RNC to, say, suburban Fort Worth in still-Republican Tarrant County would situate it squarely in the middle of its fund-raising mecca and enable its staffers to attend barbecues, parent-teacher association meetings, and Little League games with people who think and live like the voters their candidates target.
The building the RNC and NRCC shares is valued on the tax rolls at $17 million, and the NRSC’s is assessed at $8 million. The Heritage Foundation compound around the corner is worth $45 million. The mere divestment of this pricey Capitol Hill real estate would fund a nice operating endowment in a cheaper locale like Cincinnati, which according to research published by Cushman & Wakefield has a running average commercial real estate price of less than half of the going rate in Washington.
Likewise, the Republican consultant colony, including firms like mine, is now centered in nearby Alexandria, Virginia. We should all decamp and disperse significantly to the south or west, at least outside the circulation area of the Washington Post. Trump couldn’t crack 20 in Alexandria. Even in his best precinct, he got less than half the raw vote Clinton did. No many how many of us move here, or how often we politely argue with our liberal neighbors, we are hopelessly outnumbered ex-pats.
Republican Lawmakers Should Leave, Too
This evacuation should not be limited to campaign operatives. Every senator and representative operates in-state offices plus digs on Capitol Hill. There is nothing stopping a Republican from keeping skeletal crews in Washington and putting the bulk of legislative operations in real America, where his or her constituents live.
Today, it requires a weekly movement of Berlin airlift proportions, often marshaled by well-organized interest groups, to bring constituents and their opinions in person to a member’s or senator’s office. Republican policy could only get healthier if constituent opinion surrounded the staffers who write it, in their own grocery stores, ball field bleachers, and church pews.
During Republican presidencies, we could even begin to relocate a substantial amount of the bureaucracy away from the banks of the Potomac River,. There’s no reason two-thirds of the Department of Labor’s staff couldn’t be in Houston or the back office functions of the Environmental Protection Agency couldn’t be housed in Milwaukee. It would lead us to hire different people, and we might even luck up and get regulators who have had to live under regulations in the real world.
The further we move the center of gravity of the conservative movement inland, the smarter and more authentic our policy-making will be. Remaining exiled as strangers in a strange land risks dulling our strategic senses and sensibilities, even if it’s against our will.
Todd is the co-author of the forthcoming book, "The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics." In 2016, Todd led the advertising efforts of the National Rifle Association against Hillary Clinton, the most extensive presidential campaign on the conservative side. Todd’s clients have included six U.S. senators, three governors, and more than two dozen congressmen. Todd’s firm, OnMessage Inc., is the only active firm to have beaten four incumbent Democratic senators.