Republicans won big in the 2014 elections. They captured the Senate and gained seats in the House. But they didn’t do it by running to the right. They did it, to a surprising extent, by embracing ideas and standards that came from the left. I’m not talking about gay marriage, on which Republicans have caved, or birth control, on which they’ve made over-the-counter access a national talking point. I’m talking about the core of the liberal agenda: economic equality.
Here are some of the themes Republicans ran on in this year’s Senate and gubernatorial campaigns:
1. Poverty. Democratic incumbents spent a lot of time talking about new jobs, economic growth, and other aggregate numbers that have been going in the right direction. Republican challengers undercut that message by focusing on people at the bottom. From California to Georgia to Virginia, Republicans called attention to high or rising poverty rates.
2. Minorities. Republicans also zeroed in on blacks and other underserved populations. In Louisiana right-wing candidate Rob Maness pointed out, “Unemployment for young black men in this state is three times the rate of unemployment for anybody else.” In Georgia, Republican Gov. Nathan Deal emphasized the state’s progress toward reducing the number of black men in jail.
3. Equal pay. Republicans researched how much money Democratic officeholders paid their male and female staffers. Any Democrat who paid women less was called out for it, regardless of circumstances. Republicans used this tactic in at least five states: Colorado, Illinois, Louisiana, New Hampshire, and Oregon.
4. Median income. One of the best ways to illuminate inequality is to measure the economy not by aggregate or average income, but by median income. Republicans hammered this figure in state after state, from Oregon to Arkansas to Georgia to Connecticut. “Over the last several years, median household income in this state has declined by over $4,000,” said Rep. Cory Gardner, the Republican Senate candidate in Colorado. “In fact, it’s been since 1999 that middle-class wages have stayed the same.”
5. Real unemployment. While Democratic incumbents bragged about declining unemployment, Republicans pointed out that this number omits people who are so discouraged they’ve stopped looking for work. This was a GOP talking point in Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Kentucky, Oregon, and Virginia. Dan Sullivan, the party’s nominee for the Senate in Alaska, put the argument this way:
We see these lower unemployment rates, but what that is masking is that that’s not because of significant job growth. That is because Americans are actually leaving the workforce. The unemployment rate comes down when people quit looking for jobs. We’re at the highest level of Americans who are out of the workforce since the late 1970s.
6. Underemployment. Several Republicans and libertarians raised this issue, from Montana to Georgia to Virginia. “Half the people in this state who are working are actually overqualified and probably underpaid,” observed Jeff Johnson, the Republican nominee for governor of Minnesota.
7. Part-time America. Kevin Wade, the GOP’s senatorial nominee in Delaware, decried the “separation of America into two Americas: a full-time America and a part-time America.” He pointed out that nearly all of the new jobs created in June were part-time. Other Republicans made the same point, from Louisiana to South Carolina to Maine.
8. Upward mobility. Rick Snyder, the Republican governor of Michigan, adopted this as the focus of his education and job training programs. Greg Orman, the independent Senate candidate in Kansas, made it the centerpiece of his welfare platform. Johnson raised it as his rallying cry in Minnesota. And in Virginia, Republican Senate candidate Ed Gillespie used it to open every debate. “I fear we are losing that kind of economic opportunity and upward mobility,” said Gillespie.
9. Income inequality. Rep. James Lankford, the Republican Senate nominee in Oklahoma, opened a debate by declaring, “We have income inequality. We have a lot of issues that we have to deal with as a nation. It is essential to us that we actually take those things seriously and ... work together to find real results.” Lankford predicted that conservative solutions would work best. But he accepted the liberal definition of the problem.
10. Labor vs. capital. Monica Wehby, running for the Senate in Oregon, complained that “Wall Street has never had it so good” while “our middle-class family incomes have dropped by $3,000 a year.” Rep. Bill Cassidy, running for the Senate in Louisiana, protested that “income inequality has increased” because while stockholders have made money, “the lowest fifth of income earners have seen their salaries suffer.” Rep. Tom Cotton, running for the Senate in Arkansas, concurred:
If you make a living off of assets or investments, like stocks or bonds—the top 5 percent of all income earners—you’re doing OK. Your income is up. But if you make a living by working, if your labor is your means of putting food on your table ... your incomes are down.
You’d expect to hear that kind of talk from Democrats, or maybe socialists. But Wehby, Cassidy, and Cotton are Republicans.
11. Minimum wage. Many Republicans dragged their heels on this issue, but others endorsed increases in the mandated wage. The list includes Snyder, Asa Hutchinson in Arkansas, Bruce Rauner in Illinois, Shelley Moore Capito in West Virginia, and Charlie Baker in Massachusetts.
12. Earned income tax credit. Several Republicans, such as Baker, Gardner, and Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, advocated this subsidy for low-wage workers. McConnell called it a “better way to target the low-income people” who need help.
13. Progressive taxation. The rich pay more taxes, so they benefit most from the GOP’s anti-tax posture. But in this election, Republicans zeroed in on taxes that affect ordinary people. Thom Tillis, the GOP’s nominee for Senate in North Carolina, complained constantly about his opponent imposing a sales tax that “harmed the poor and working families more than anyone else.” Tom Corbett, the governor of Pennsylvania, made the same point. In Massachusetts, Baker criticized Democrats for raising gas taxes, utility taxes, and everyday registration fees, all of which hit the middle class. In Illinois, Rauner said sales taxes should target “services that are more business-oriented rather than on low-income working families.” In Arkansas, Hutchinson aimed his tax relief package at people making $75,000 or less. Some Republicans and libertarians, including right-wing Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas, called for abolishing income taxes on low earners.
Republicans picked up other liberal themes, too. They harped on the injustice of cutting Medicare, the importance of educational opportunity as “the great equalizer,” and the folly of gambling pension money in the stock market. They endorsed health care as a fundamental right, ridiculed the description of wealthy people as “middle-class,” and championed midnight basketball.
No, Republicans haven’t become liberals. They still hate taxes and blame everything bad on President Obama, Obamacare, and big government. But their focus on wage stagnation and class stratification reflects the economy and the political climate. And when you use egalitarian benchmarks to indict the opposition, those benchmarks endure. In the next election, Republicans, too, will be measured by median income, black unemployment, and what they pay women. They’ll have to account for the poverty rate, the tax burden on low-income people, and the widening gap between investors and laborers. It’s these underlying benchmarks, not the partisan composition of Congress, that signal the fundamental direction in which the country is heading.