A funny thing happened when Cory Gardner, the senator-elect from Colorado, went on Fox News Sunday: He reminded us of the extent to which he is an establishment Republican. He was hand-picked by establishment Washington Republicans, but that’s easy to forget because of the way that his campaign united Colorado’s right-of-center voters and won over much of the persuadable electorate. Gardner’s success, however, reveals problems in the establishment conservative platform and shows what it would take for a populist conservative with better policy ideas to get elected.
When asked about immigration policy on Fox, Gardner replied:
Well, I think when it comes to immigration, we’ve talked about border security. Let’s start with border security, as so many people are asking for. But border security in and of itself is not complete unless you have a meaningful guest worker program to go along with it, to create that way for a legal avenue of labor.
As a matter of policy, guest worker programs are wrong. As a matter of civic health and social cohesion, the people we allow to work in the U.S., whatever their country of origin and whatever their skill level, should be invited as future citizens rather than as units of labor. Conservatives should argue for an America that is made up of citizens and immigrants who will become future citizens. Let liberals be the party in favor of transforming the United States into a caste society. That is a winnable fight that is very much worth having.
But policy aside, Gardner’s statement is politically revealing. Whatever the Republican party’s electoral problems, support for guest worker programs is not the solution. At most, guest worker programs are a policy that a faction within the Republican party happens to supportand Gardner is a member of that faction. This doesn’t mean that Gardner was the wrong choice for the Colorado Republican senatorial nomination, given the alternatives. But we should not be surprised when Gardner reflects the priorities of the GOP’s lobbyist and donor classes. He isn’t betraying anyone. That’s who he is.
There are alternatives to Gardner-style business-class conservatism. Senator-elect Tom Cotton is a Harvard Law graduate turned infantry officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. While he was in the House of Representatives, Cotton signed a letter that argued in favor of restricting future low-skill immigration. What made this letter stand out was that the signatories (including Cotton) argued that employers of low-skill labor should hire from within the existing American low-skill labor pool and, if those businesses were having trouble recruiting workers, those business should . . . raise wages.
Cotton was elected senator from Arkansas. In 2012, Obama lost Arkansas by twenty-four points and won Colorado by four points. Can a Tom Cottonor someone who shares the politics of Tom Cottonbe elected from a swing state rather than a strongly right-leaning constituency? The answer is yes, but a more populist conservatism would likely have to resemble Cory Gardner in style, not in substance.
Populist conservatives in swing constituencies don’t have to attack the intraparty opposition anymore than is absolutely necessary to make their point. Gardner disagreed with populist conservatives on some issues, but he made it a point not to insult them. Without being unnecessarily divisive, populist conservatives can make the positive case for restricting future low-skill immigration, and making any amnesty contingent on the prior implementation of internal enforcement. They should have faith that they have the better ideas as to both politics and policy, and that Republican primary voters will have the sense to see this.
And, as is often the case, populist conservatives should try to learn from the example of Ronald Reagan. They will need the calm toughness of discipline. Reagan showed flashes of anger, but, most of the time, he sounded different from other conservatives who seemed alternately dour or angry. It is a cliché to call Reagan a happy warrior, but it is also truejust as it was true of Cory Gardner.
Populist conservatives also have to master emerging forms of communication and prioritize winning voters outside of their base. When Reagan ran for the governorship of California, he hired the political consulting team of Stuart Spencer and Bill Roberts. Spencer and Roberts had worked for the presidential candidacy of liberal Republican Nelson Rockefeller in the previous election cycle, but that didn’t stop Reagan from using their talents for his own purposes. Reagan ran a more disciplined campaign than his more liberal rivals (both in the GOP primary and the general election), and while he kept faith with his conservative base, he never seemed to be speaking only to his pre-existing conservative supporters.
Populist conservatives can win in swing constituencies without abandoning their principles. They need to be more outward looking and make the positive case that their policies (which should include a middle-class agenda) will appeal to general election swing voters as well as the conservative base. And, if they want to win in more swing constituencies, they should be more like Cory Gardner in styleeven as they are unlike Gardner in substance.