It's not just Trump: Midterms show the religious right is an albatross around the GOP’s neck
A couple of weeks out from a midterm election in which Republicans dramatically underperformed, one major theme has emerged in the post-mortems: Donald Trump is to blame. Turns out that voters do not like efforts to overthrow democracy, like Trump's attempted coup or the January 6 insurrection. As data analyst Nate Cohn at the New York Times demonstrated, Trump's "preferred primary candidates" — who usually won a Trump endorsement by backing his Big Lie — fell behind "other G.O.P. candidates by about five percentage points." The result is a number of state, local and congressional offices were lost that Republicans might otherwise have won.
Republican leaders are struggling with this information because dumping Trump is easier said than done so long as he has a substantial percentage of their voting base in his thrall. But, in truth, Republican problems run even deeper than that. It's not just Trump. The religious right has been the backbone of the party for decades, but this midterm election shows they might now be doing the GOP more harm than good at the ballot box.
As with Trump, Republicans are in a "can't win with them/can't win without them" relationship with the religious right. Fundamentalists remain a main source of organizing and fundraising for the GOP, as well a big chunk of their most reliable voters. They can't afford to alienate this group any more than they can afford to push away Trump. Doing so risks the loss of millions of loyal voters. But by continuing to pander to the religious right, Republicans are steadily turning off all other voters, a group that's rapidly growing in size as Americans turn their backs on conservative Christianity. That's doubly true when one looks at the youngest voters, the ones Republicans will need to stay viable as their currently aging voter base starts to die off.
New data from the progressive polling firm Navigator Research shows how dire the situation is for Republicans. On "culture war" issues like reproductive rights and LGBTQ equality, the voters broke hard on the progressive side of things. Among Democratic voters this midterm, 48% said abortion was an important issue for them, showing strong pro-choice sentiment. But among Republicans, only 13% ranked abortion (and the banning of it) as a driving factor in their vote. When Democratic voters were asked their main reason for their voting choice this year, abortion rights was the most popular, cited by 49% of voters. But among Republican voters, only 24% cited support for abortion bans as a major factor.
Republican politicians may have been circumspect in talking about their anti-abortion views prior to Election Day, hoping to make the issue less salient to swing voters. But overall, the past two years have been heavily defined by Republicans catering to the religious right. It's not just that the GOP-controlled Supreme Court went out of its way to overturn Roe v. Wade this past June. Republican leadership in state governments rushed forward to ban abortion, to the point where the red states seemed to be competing over how draconian their abortion bans could be.
Nor were the attacks on reproductive health care limited to abortion. In July, the House of Representatives voted on a bill to codify contraception rights so state governments couldn't ban birth control. All but eight Republicans voted to allow contraception bans. Democratic fears about legal contraception are not misplaced, either. Last week, ProPublica leaked audio of a meeting between anti-choice activists and Republican legislators in Tennessee, where the assembled can be heard gaming out their next steps to ban female-controlled forms of contraception.
The situation was similarly dire on the LGBTQ front, as Republican politicians raced to oppress queer and trans people, especially kids. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis championed the "don't say gay" law that forces queer teachers and students into the closet. In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott menaced parents who accept a child's trans identity by threatening to use Child Protective Services to break up their families. Republicans keep passing laws blocking trans people from receiving health care or playing on sports teams. In addition, there's been a dramatic rise in conservatives attempting to ban books featuring LGBTQ characters.
This rash of queerphobic policy has been accompanied by an escalation of bigoted rhetoric in right wing media, all aimed at painting LGBTQ people as perverts and child predators. From Fox News on down the entire conservative media ecosystem, it's become routine to accuse queer people of being "groomers," which is a not-especially-oblique way to call them child molesters. Groups like the Proud Boys routinely target drag shows with intimidating "protests," which are starting to get violent. Over the weekend, there was a gun massacre at a gay club in Colorado Springs. While the police are still not speaking publicly about the killer's motive, observers have pointed out that the murders happened mere hours before a drag brunch, the kind of event that conservative groups have been targeting for harassment.
All of this ugliness did not help Republicans in the midterms. On the contrary, it appears to have hurt them, especially with such high youth voter turnout. As a national youth poll run by Harvard shows, younger people reject the fundamentalism that animates the Republican party. Only 12% identify as "fundamentalist/evangelical," while 37% — by far the biggest group — say they have no religious preference at all. This comports with other polling that shows that Christian churches are becoming older and smaller all the time, as young people leave in droves. Overall, 71% of Americans support same-sex marriage. About two-thirds of Americans want abortion to remain legal.
Even among Republican voters, the religious right doesn't seem particularly popular. Along with the low enthusiasm for abortion bans, the Navigator poll shows that Republican voters weren't super interested in anti-LGBTQ policy positions. Only 20% of those voters cited anti-trans views as a motivator in voting this year, despite nearly two years of non-stop right wing propaganda on this subject. The top three issues that got GOP voter juices going were opposition to social welfare spending, demands that government be "tough on crime" and anger over immigration. In other words, they were all proxy issues for white grievances about a racially diverse society. The Republican party still appeals to racist voters, but even they've lost the enthusiasm for being the panty police.
Despite this hard, statistical evidence, religious right activists refuse to accept that their extremism is hurting the Republican party. As Rachel Cohen of Vox explained last week, anti-abortion leaders insist that banning abortion is a winning issue for Republicans. Instead, as Politico reported, they're claiming that it was Republicans who failed by supposedly "not running harder on abortion restrictions."
Whether these arguments are delusional or simply bad faith hardly matters. The desperation is palpable. Christian conservatives are used to the Republican party being dependent on them, and therefore bending over backward to please them. But this data shows that pandering to the religious right might be hurting the GOP more than helping. Fundamentalists are learning they're just as dependent on the Republican party as the GOP is on them. No wonder they're doubling down. As more and more people leave their pews, their only foothold in staying relevant is to maintain control over the Republican party. As with Trump, they will not leave quietly, but continue to hold the GOP hostage to their increasingly unpopular agenda.
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