Meanwhile, the Republican Party at the moment does have a provisional model for channeling but also restraining populism. Essentially it involves leaning into culture-war controversy and rhetorical pugilism to a degree that provokes constant liberal outrage and using that outrage to reassure populist voters that you’re on their side and they don’t need to throw you over for a conspiracy theorist or Jan. 6 marcher.
This is the model, in different styles and contexts, of Glenn Youngkin and Ron DeSantis. In yesterday’s primaries it worked for Idaho’s conservative incumbent governor, Brad Little, who easily defeated his own lieutenant governor’s much-further-right campaign. Next week the same approach seems likely to help Brian Kemp defeat David Perdue for the governor’s nomination in Georgia. And it offers the party’s only chance, likely via a DeSantis candidacy, to defeat Donald Trump in 2024.
Unfortunately this model works best when you have a trusted figure, a known quantity, delivering the “I’ll be your warrior, I’ll defeat the left” message. The Cawthorn race, in which the toxic congressman was unseated by a member of the North Carolina State Senate, shows that this figure doesn’t have to be an incumbent to succeed, especially if other statewide leaders provide unified support. But if you have neither unity nor a figure with statewide prominence or incumbency as your champion — no Kemp, no Little — then you can get results like Mastriano’s victory last night in Pennsylvania: a Republican nominee for governor who cannot be trusted to carry out his constitutional duties should the presidential election be close in 2024.
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