by Henry Olsen
Arizona’s Senate race was perhaps the most surprising, and disturbing, midterm result for Republicans and Trump fans. Many struggle to understand how Barry Goldwater’s home state will send a former pink tutu-wearing antiwar activist to Washington. The answer is instructive regarding what Trump Republicanism must do to build a majority.
The biggest reason Martha McSally lost is the same reason Republicans lost control of the House: RINOs. Across the nation, moderate college-educated independents who had frequently backed Republicans in prior elections switched sides. We can see this trend both in the Arizona exit polls and the results reported to date.
Support for Republicans has collapsed since 2012 among college-educated Arizonans when Mitt Romney cruised to a 54-44 win over Barack Obama, crushing him by a 63-36 percent margin among college graduates. This year, while Republican Governor Doug Ducey even more easily won victory by a 56-42 margin, he barely carried college grads with only a 51-46 margin. McSally ran against a much tougher opponent in Kyrsten Sinema and ended up losing college grads by a 52-47 margin. Since college grads cast nearly one-quarter of the state’s votes, that 10-point swing added nearly 2.5 percent to Sinema’s margin. Since her lead is currently below two percent, this was the difference between victory and defeat.
Support for Republicans has also declined since 2012 among the smaller, and more liberal, groups of voters with graduate degrees. In 2012 Romney won them by a 54-42 margin. Ducey got clobbered among them 59-40, and McSally lost by an even larger 62-37 percent margin. They cast 14 percent of the vote, so that extra six-point difference added nearly another one percent to Sinema’s victory margin.
The actual returns bear this out. Phoenix’s Maricopa County is home to 60 percent of all voters and a much higher percentage of Arizona’s college grads. Romney carried it easily in 2012 by a 55-43 margin. McSally, however, lost it to Sinema by a 51-47 result, the first time a Republican had lost Maricopa County in a contested race for President, Governor, or Senator since the last century. Game, set, match.
McSally is far from the only Republican to lose because of the RINO’s revenge. Four Republican-held State House seats flipped parties, each in districts that had moved dramatically in favor of the Democrats between 2012 and 2016. Tucson’s 10th District voted for Obama by 5 percent and Hillary Clinton by 10 percent; the Republican there was living on borrowed time. But the other seats were in—you guessed it, Maricopa County—with between 39 and 46 percent of residents holding a four-year or a graduate degree. The 17th voted for Romney by 14 percent but only 4 percent for Trump, while the 18th and 28th both flipped from Romney to Clinton districts. House districts with similar profiles account for the lion’s share of Republican losses nationwide.
Other states could make up for the RINO defection with votes from blue-collar voters who switched from Obama to Trump. Arizona, however, does not have many of them. In the Midwest it is common to find areas where Trump outpolled Romney by 10-20 percent. Trump outpolled Romney in only two Arizona legislative seats, however, and by only 3.5 and 1 percent.
McSally was also harmed by a small number of defections from Trump-supporting Republicans. The exit poll shows she lost 12 percent of the Republican vote and 11 percent of people who approve of Trump’s job performance. This was higher than any of the other Republican challengers in targeted races except West Virginia’s Patrick Morrissey. Removing Morrissey, Republican candidates in six other similar targeted races (Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, and North Dakota) lost on average about 7 percent of Republicans and 9.5 percent of Trump approvers.
However you look at it, McSally’s higher defection rates made an even bad situation worse. Her higher GOP defection cost her about 1.9 percent of the total vote or about 3.8 percent on the margin, much more than Sinema’s 1.9 percent lead. Her higher defection rate among those who approved of Trump cost her about 0.75 percent of the vote or about 1.5 percent on the margin, nearly enough to close the gap.
These “MAGA fans for Sinema” were likely disgruntled backers of one of McSally’s two, more conservative GOP primary competitors, Kelli Ward and Joe Arpaio. McSally had not crafted a strong conservative record prior to her run for Senate and she had been the GOP establishment’s preferred candidate. McSally also attacked Ward in the primary for being insufficiently supportive of President Trump, which was more than ironic since Ward’s criticism of Trump was that he was being too liberal on one issue. We could just be dealing with survey error, but it appears some conservatives did not forgive and forget after the primary.
Some might contend McSally’s loss was simply a matter of liberal women coming out for a liberal woman, but the exit poll again shows this view is wrong. Both Democrats and Republicans comprised larger shares of the electorate this year when compared with 2016. The exit polls do show Sinema doing much better among both Democratic and Republican women than Clinton did, but they also show a significant shift of opinion among independent men. Trump beat Clinton by ten percent among independent men while losing to her by seven points among independent women. McSally, however, lost independent men and women by an identical three-point margin. The race would be a dead heat had she won these men by three points instead of losing them.
McSally’s defeat shows just how tenuous the Trump coalition’s hold on power is. Trump won the Electoral College while losing the popular vote by over two percent of the vote, something that had not been done in nearly 150 years. Trump has not added to that coalition in his first two years as president, and that cost his party control of the House while also preventing them from gaining more than two Senate seats on a highly favorable map. It’s possible he could gain a narrow re-election without gaining support if the Democrats nominate someone as unacceptable to moderate voters as Hillary Clinton. But he cannot change the direction of the country without secure and substantial majorities in Congress, and that will not be forthcoming without a change in course.
At a crucial moment in the Peter Jackson’s epic movie, “The Return of the King,” Elrond Half-Elven visits Aragorn with sage advice. “You are outnumbered,” he tells the Ranger. “You need more men.” So it is with Trump. Whether it is regaining a portion of the RINOs or a winning a much larger share of Hispanic or African-American votes, he and the MAGA movement need more supporters to succeed. If not, 2020 will see many more Martha McSally’s, making even a successful re-election a Pyrrhic victory.
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Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a think tank in Washington D.C. He is also an editor at UnHerd.com where he writes about populism and politics around the world. He is the co-author, with Dante Scala, of The Four Faces of the Republican Party (Palgrave, 2015) and is the author of The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism (HarperCollins, 2017).