Op-ed: The year of the normal Republican

  • By Rich Lowry
  • Sunday, October 9, 2016 9:49pm
  • Opinion

Mike Pence’s vice-presidential debate victory was a striking blow for normality.

In fact, beneath the sound and the fury of the Trump campaign, normal Republicans are having a pretty good year. Pence had an exemplary introduction on the national stage. GOP Senate candidates are holding their own. House Speaker Paul Ryan, flying the banner of a traditional Republican agenda of uplift, could well minimize Republican losses in the House.

Of course, normal Republicans lost in a rout to Donald Trump in the primaries, and their fate is intertwined with his. He is still running close to Hillary Clinton, which keeps everyone in the game. If the bottom falls out for him, it will inevitably sink other Republicans, too.

But Trump’s incendiary populism is represented only at the top of the ticket, where it is losing a winnable race, while more conventional down-ballot Republicans are so far hanging in there.

Republican Senate candidates consistently outperform Trump. According to the latest batch of Quinnipiac polls, Marco Rubio is at 48 percent in Florida and Trump is at 44. Rob Portman is at 55 in Ohio and Trump is at 46. Pat Toomey is at 50 in Pennsylvania and Trump is at 43. Richard Burr, though, is even with Trump at 46 in North Carolina.

According to the RealClearPolitics average, Kelly Ayotte is running 10 points ahead of Trump in New Hampshire. Even an embattled incumbent senator like Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson is doing 3.3 points better than Trump in his state.

This is not typical. A Republican consultant who looked at data going back to 1996 found that swing-state Senate incumbents tend to run even with the presidential candidate and no more than 2 points ahead, except in a couple extraordinary cases.

Consider Rob Portman. He is no one’s idea of a bomb-thrower. His political hero is George H.W. Bush. But he is doing better than Trump in a Trump-friendly state. Portman has a strong and trusted political brand that he has carefully protected this year, endorsing Trump while distancing himself from him at the same time. And the Ohio senator has done the fundamental blocking and tackling of a serious, disciplined candidate determined to win.

In a year when all the rules are supposed to be suspended, the rules are still highly useful. Mike Pence prepared for the debate in boringly conventional ways. He studied up. He held mock debate sessions with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. He had a strategy and executed it, deflecting things he didn’t want to talk about (i.e., most of Trump’s controversial statements and heterodox positions) and pivoting back to things he did want to discuss.

If Trump had done the same in the first presidential debate, the race might look different today. His highly combative and unorthodox campaign style, coupled with a focus on trade and immigration almost to the exclusion of anything else, is proving to be an obstacle to overcome, rather than a boost for the party and himself. In other words, the question is whether Trump can win despite his abnormality rather than because of it.

This isn’t to say that Trump doesn’t have distinctive strengths. Surely, if Mike Pence had run for president this year, Trump would have squashed him like a bug just like he did everyone else — festooning him with an unflattering nickname and belittling and unmanning him at the debates.

Nonetheless, Trump has been at his best this campaign when he has tried hardest to attain a simulacrum of normality. His new discipline after his August swoon was the reason —- together with Hillary Clinton’s struggles — that he nearly pulled into a tie before the first debate. If he is going to come back again, it won’t be with 3 a.m. tweets and attacks on ordinary people who have crossed him.

It still wants to be a change election, which is another way of saying that it wants to be a Republican year — if Trump can somehow act the part.

Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com.

More in Opinion

The official ballot for the Aug. 16, 2022, Special General Election features ranked choice voting. (State of Alaska Division of Elections)
Voices of the Peninsula: Check out the ballot before you vote

This kind of ballot is not something you have seen before.

Former Gov. Bill Walker, right, and his running mate former commissioner of the Department of Labor and Workforce Development Heidi Drygas, speak to Juneauites gathered for a fundraiser at a private home in Juneau on Tuesday, June 7, 2022. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: Why I’m voting for Walker

Walker is the only candidate with the potential to govern effectively for all Alaskans.

Nick Begich III campaign materials sit on tables ahead of a May 16 GOP debate held in Juneau. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: Nick Begich is who Alaska and America need now

It is in Alaska’s best interest to elect a member of the Republican party

State Sen. Josh Revak (Photo provided)
The time has come to end Big Tech’s rule

The hope is that the bipartisan American Innovation and Choice Online Act (S. 2992) will come to the Senate floor for a vote

Michael Heimbuch attends a memorial service for the late Drew Scalzi on Aug. 5, 2005, at the Seafarers Memorial on the Homer Spit in Homer, Alaska. (Photo by Michael Armstrong/Homer News)
Point of View: King salmon: The clash of culture and science

People do some pretty awful things to king salmon stocks

Lieutenant governor candidate Edie Grunwald speaks at a Charlie Pierce campaign event at Paradisos restaurant in Kenai on Saturday, March 5, 2022. (Camille Botello/Peninsula Clarion)
Election Integrity: An Alaskan question with an Alaskan answer

A needless round of feel-good meetings and what-if conversations will be a thing of the past

This photo shows the University of Alaska Southeast campus in Juneau. (Jonson Kuhn / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: I’m a longtime educator, and I’m supporting Walker/Drygas

The issues our state faces are significant with regard to education.

Larry Persily (Peninsula Clarion file)
Opinion: Congress could keep health insurance costs from rising, but it has to act fast

The cost of health insurance will rise substantially next year for about 13 million Americans

The offical ballot for the Aug. 16, 2022, Special General Election features ranked choice voting. (State of Alaska Divison of Elections)
Opinion: Alaskans deserve an election system that represents our differences

The new system’s goal is to make this election cycle transparent, secure and easy for all Alaskans to vote

UAA Chancellor Sean Parnell (Courtesy)
Opinion: UAA’s career certificates are helping to fill Alaska’s workforce pipeline

At UAA, we are announcing a new suite of certificate programs responding to some of the state’s most critical needs

Opinion: Remaining vigilant after 30 years

Exxon Valdez spurred both federal and state legislatures, the industry, and the public to come together