Republicans have spent the year attacking Democrats on inflation. Some conservatives worry that might not be enough to win in November
“Abortion is proving to be a much more galvanizing issue for Democratic voters than inflation is for Republican voters,” said Ryan Girdusky, a conservative commentator and campaign consultant. “The old Republican idea is that we’ll win suburbanites because they care about pocketbook issues. But to try and galvanize them on the fact they’re going to pay an extra quarter for bacon? They don’t care.”
A new Marist poll released Thursday found a 7-point drop since July in the proportion of Americans who cited inflation as their top voting issue this cycle (30%), though the issue remains the leading overall concern in the same survey.
Among the issues that conservatives want to see GOP candidates weave into ads and stump speeches are gender identity, critical race theory, and criminal justice reform, all of which they consider liabilities for most Democrats.
“It is too narrowly focused and it’s thoughtless if you think that the mom who is filling up her gas tank isn’t the same mom who is caring about her kids’ school and making sure that CRT (critical race theory) isn’t part of her kids’ curriculum. That mom is faced with both sets of issues, cultural and economic, and so elected officials need to meet voters where they’re at,” said Jessica Anderson, executive director of Heritage Action for America. Anderson said two “seasoned” Republicans fighting for reelection this cycle — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson — should be a model for other GOP candidates on confronting a wide array of economic and social issues.
“Go ahead and add this to the pile,” said a GOP strategist who requested anonymity due to their involvement in several races this cycle. “Republicans can’t agree on a message, we can’t agree on where to invest [campaign cash], and instead of hashing these things out behind closed doors, we’re bickering about it in public.”
But some conservatives say the party’s message is the most pressing problem because Republican candidates and outside groups are on the brink of starting to spend aggressively on advertising, and the content of those ads will need to send a jolt of energy through the party’s base if the GOP wants to remain well-positioned to retake the House of Representatives and, potentially the Senate, this fall.
“Our closing pitch must be compelling enough to make Republicans want to vote. ‘It’s the economy stupid,’ no longer fits into that category,” said a Senate campaign aide, who requested anonymity to speak candidly.
Spending on a counter-message
For that reason, one conservative group has begun taking matters into its own hands.
The dark-money Citizens for Sanity has committed to spending millions of its own this cycle to deliver a counter-message, targeting voters on the internet and airwaves with warnings about so-called wokeness in education, business, and politics. The group has launched a series of provocative radio, television, billboard and newspaper ads that stand in stark contrast to Republicans’ broader economy-themed message. A person familiar with the matter said the group has already spent seven figures this cycle between its advocacy efforts and advertising.
One of the group’s recent ads, which has accumulated more than 2 million views on Twitter in less than one week, is a 90-second montage of gruesome local news reports and surveillance footage depicting incidents of violent crime across the country. The ad accuses “woke far-left politicians” of enabling an “assault on public safety,” among other claims.
“Our advertising on crime, in particular, is being done in races where it makes the most sense,” said an SLF official, adding that, “generally speaking, economic concerns tend to be the top-rated issues.”
Ian Prior, a strategic adviser for Citizens of Sanity, said the group wants to capitalize on what he described as a “major realignment” in the current political landscape. The group, which has already spent about $670k on advertising since August, according to AdImpact data, will launch a new $600k ad buy across Washington, Texas and Arizona this week focused on crime, “woke craziness,” and gender ideology, Prior confirmed to CNN. The group is also “messaging aggressively” in Latino-dominated markets as Republicans try to maintain recent gains in Hispanic support, Prior added, and has previously launched ads in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado around the participation of transgender athletes in male and female sports leagues.
“Latinos are fleeing the political left over its embrace of ‘woke’ policies — an agenda created by and for wealthy white privileged coastal liberals,” Prior claimed in a statement. (An earlier CNN analysis found a 5-point shift toward Republicans in generic ballot preference among Hispanics, though a recent Pew Research Center study found that 56 percent of Hispanics oppose the ending of federal abortion rights, which could negatively impact Hispanic support for the GOP come November).
Striking a balance
So far, efforts to nudge Republican candidates and campaigns away from economic issues and toward cultural topics have occurred outside the party consensus.
By the end of July, Republicans had spent more than $40.6 million since the beginning of the year on TV ads that referred to inflation, according to the data firm AdImpact. Both privately and publicly, many GOP figures have also acknowledged that they consider inflation and kitchen table issues to be the most important to voters this cycle.
“Inflation is all that matters to the public… at the end of the day, people vote with their pocketbooks,” said conservative radio host Erick Erickson on his podcast in mid-August.
The SLF official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said the party’s internal polling has repeatedly shown that inflation ranks the highest among voters’ concerns, though there are instances where Republicans may need to offer a blended message that goes beyond inflation to focus on crime or immigration, too. The official said they had not seen evidence that wedge issues like gender ideology resonated deeply with broad swaths of voters.
“Inflation is cutting across most demographic and income groups. Everybody fills up their gas tank, everybody goes to the grocery store, and they are seeing these price increases affect their budgets in real time,” said the official, adding that Republicans have “a buffet of messages” that could work to the party’s advantage this cycle.
“There may be races where we talk almost exclusively about one or the other (inflation or crime and immigration) or we talk about both,” the official said.
Even conservatives who have been nudging candidates to talk more about cultural issues said they should balance those messages with proposals to combat economic problems.
“My advice to candidates is to do both at the same time; draw the contrast with the left and run on a winning platform that actually shows voters what you care about,” said Anderson. “Republicans, I think, have been doing this but they need to do it a lot more in the next 60 days.”
“Is it morally right that our children were forced to stay home from school while politicians dined out? When biological boys are allowed to compete in girls sports, does President Biden think that is fair?” McCarthy said while bemoaning “historic inflation” and “daily violence against innocent Americans” in the same breath.