In the aftermath of the midterm elections, Republicans have to weigh the value of culture war issues before looking to 2024.
With the midterms in the rearview mirror, it’s time for politicos to analyze the results and begin strategizing for the next major contest, the 2024 presidential election. After widespread predictions of a red wave, many analysts were shocked that Democrats retained control of the Senate. So how do the midterms shake up culture war issues in the Republican party now that both the White House and Senate remain in Democratic control?
One of the key takeaways lies in the Arizona senate elections, where Democratic incumbent Mark Kelly defeated Republican Blake Masters. Masters was backed by techno-libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel, who spent millions on his former employee to push an agenda fueled by message board posting and radical conservative activism.
Masters is a candidate that has no name recognition in Washington and has spent most of his career posting online and playing into conservative culture war positions. He was a baffling candidate to run such a crucial race in the Republicans’ push for Senate control. Masters ran almost purely on culture war divides, focusing more on censorship by big tech and fighting political enemies than the nation’s dire economic state. Culture war issues are differences in social and philosophical thought that are meant to divide voters, issues like police reform and abortion, conflicts that many modern politicians have chosen to run on over economic issues or foreign policy.
Master’s loss could signal that Republicans need to shift back to textbook conservative positions and abandon the cultural talking points. Exit polls from Arizona’s election show that more moderates went for Kelly and that the key suburban demographic leaned more Democrat. Issues like abortion played a part in a boost for Democrats, a position that Master’s walked back on, originally supporting late-term abortion and now going silent on the issue. This race could be the beginning of the end of these types of cultural issues candidates, but victories in other swing states paint a different picture.
Governor Ron DeSantis won reelection by almost 20% while flipping the former Democratic stronghold of Miami-Dade County red. He also ran largely on cultural issues, gaining headlines for going after Disney and signing many controversial bills into law on classroom instruction and parental rights. With possible White House ambitions, culture war policies have garnered huge success for the Republican governor.
Both Masters and DeSantis ran heavily on cultural issues but met two very different results. Several factors come into play, one being a Senate election with national control on the line versus a statewide election, but the electability of a culture war platform is called into question. Will these issues be enough to win a national election? Certain states seem to have reacted differently; in Florida, the cultural points are championed while in Arizona they are soundly rejected.
The most substantial takeaway from these two races is that candidate quality matters. Due to his rhetoric and stances, Kelly could paint Masters as a dangerous radical. Masters had nothing more to offer voters than these culture war points, but voters want more than just “family values” and knowing that their representatives can shoot a gun.
DeSantis had his tenure as governor to fall back on, touting his pandemic era policies, keeping schools open longer, and growing the economy and population of Florida. These talking points still fall within the same rhetoric over culture war issues but have greater legitimacy with voters as they hint to more bread-and-butter conservative ideas rather than just 4-Chan-style dog whistles.
DeSantis is able to play both ends of the culture war divide, engage traditional conservatives with open markets and offer a better economic solution to current challenges. However, he is also able to throw red meat to a newer brand of Trump conservatives that want to strike back at liberal media and entertainment establishments. Masters tried to appeal to one side of this spectrum but did not receive enough support from moderate independents or mainstream Republicans to get over the finish line.
DeSantis proves culture war issues can fuel a campaign, but an actual policy platform is still needed to back it up. With a possible showdown in the 2024 Republican primary with former president Trump looming, DeSantis will look to perform the same balancing act. Since Trump is a controversial figure that has split the moderate vote in the past, it is more important than ever for a potential post-Trump Republican party to be able to both win back the moderate vote and tap into Trump’s more radical base.
The culture war was never meant to be won, but if the Republican party can correctly tap into its ethos without losing moderate voters they may be able to overcome their current downturn and become a greater force in 2024.
Sean Rapley is a first-year Political Science major in the School of Public Affairs. He is a Guest Contributor for the American Agora.