The obvious story of the 2013 election is America’s demographic transformation changing American politics. Chris Christie, the only Republican who won, tied his opponent among Hispanic voters and outright won the female vote, while losers Ken Cuccinelli and Joe Lhota got crushed in the minority and female demographics.
But beneath the surface, the election raises another set of hard questions for Republicans. Christie’s win and Cuccinelli’s defeat point to an ineluctable truth: the Republican Party is still married to big business, and cannot obtain a divorce (as many prominent Republicans demand) absent a wholesale reversal on social issues.
Between Christie and Cuccinelli, the latter is — by far — further to the social right. Yet that doesn’t make Christie a moderate. Contrary to popular belief, Christie is reasonably socially conservative: he defunded New Jersey’s Planned Parenthood, vetoed a marriage equality bill, and has deep pro-life credentials.
These views aren’t super-popular in New Jersey, yet they didn’t seem to cost Christie at the ballot box. That’s partly because of the Governor’s bipartisan rhetoric and legislative accomplishments, but not entirely. Another critical piece is Christie’s corporatism: his willingness to cut deals with businesses and interest groups, using public funds, that further his legislative agenda and political ambitions.
Christie supported the pet projects of influential Democrats in a bid to win their support. He also secured big business’ loyalty with massive, specific tax deals for New Jersey’s largest corporations.
This corporatism counterbalanced Christie’s solid, if understated, social conservatism, winning him the support of key constituencies and donors that might otherwise have been open to a social-issues pitch from his Democratic opponent.
But these corporatist policies, however politically effective, run afoul of the ideas of the Republican Party’s emergent populist wing. Hoping to turn the crony capitalism line into something beyond campaign rhetoric, a group of self-described “libertarian populists” want the future of the Republican Party to be oriented around hostility to both big business and big government. Their preferred name is a bit confusing, because the so-called “libertarians” tend to have fairly conservative views on abortion and marriage. So, for clarity’s sake, I’ll call just call them “populists.”
Christie is the anti-populist Republican. He’s the “golden boy” of the Republican “corporate establishment,” as Buzzfeed’s McKay Coppins puts it — the class of conservatives that the populists blame for the many of the party’s ills.
By contrast, the populists *loved* Cuccinelli. It wasn’t just his social conservatism — though some populists, who shared it, criticized him for not being outspoken enough on social issues. Rather, it was the joining of that social conservatism with an “anti-big” agenda that sold the populists on Cuccinelli.
Take this paean to Cuccinelli from Tim Carney, one of the leading writers in the movement. Carney called the candidate “a hero to the pro-life cause,” but that didn’t make up the core of his praise. Rather, Carney focused on Cuccinelli’s small-government bona fides, particularly his anti-corporatism: “Cuccinelli has angered much of his state’s business lobby by running against corporate welfare, opposing the tax hikes that Northern Virginia developers are seeking to pay for roads and public services and pledging to put special-interest tax credits on the chopping block.” The contrast with Christie couldn’t be clearer.
And unlike Christie, Cuccinelli got killed in the fundraising race. Business leaders reamed him out for social extremism and precisely the anti-corporatist stances Carney praised him for taking. These dual objections from the big GOP funders repeated themselves throughout the race.
Some even think it lost him the race. In a piece called “Revenge of the Donor Class,” Ross Douthat wrote that “Cuccinelli has won statewide races in the past while being outspent handily — but it shouldn’t be surprising that in a high-profile, hard-fought gubernatorial election in a leftward trending state, the money gap would be more devastating to [Cuccinelli's] chances.”
That’s the problem for populists in a nutshell. The Republican donor class is full of elite corporatists, lukewarm on social conservatism but hot for government handouts to big corporations. They are big business, so they’re not interested in funding a party of full of faith warriors who see the government-corporate nexus as yet another heretic to burn.
Christie’s corporatist Republicanism is one potential answer to this problem. Christie won as a solid, if not spectacular, social conservative partly by using corporatism to solidfy relations with more socially squishy constituencies. So if the GOP donor class really is repelled by social conservatism, then one way to keep them and keep the party’s socially conservative bent is placate the donors with corporatist handouts.
Now, if Republicans hate corporatism more deeply than they hold their social conservatism, they could try a more purely libertarian strategy down the line. There are very few, if any Republicans actually doing this, but there’s a plausible case to be made that a socially and fiscally libertarian GOP could hold on to its donor class even if it took a sharply anti-corporatist line. Big business may dislike Democratic taxes and regulations more than cuts to corporate welfare.
But the middle ground the populists want to tread — social conservatism blended with anti-corporatism — won’t fly. From the donor class’ point of view, it’s the worst of all worlds. And a party already on the demographic ropes can’t afford to trade its Chris Christies for more Ken Cuccinellis.