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The ahead road for Republicans after the 2022 midterms

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Along with the vote count this weekend, we're also paying attention to what the midterms tell us about the opportunities and challenges for both of the country's main political parties. Once all the votes are counted, Republicans might still eke out majorities in both houses of Congress, but that's a lot different than the significant gains many analysts and historians predicted. Instead, it was the worst midterm performance for a party out of power in two decades. So what now? We decided to get a view from someone who served under one of the most popular Republican presidents in the modern era.

Linda Chavez served in several roles in the Reagan administration as the director of the Office of Public Liaison and as staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. She currently leads a center-right think tank called the Center for Equal Opportunity. Linda Chavez, welcome back. Thanks for joining us.

LINDA CHAVEZ: Great to be with you.

MARTIN: So just briefly, if we could just remind people of your background, you began your political life as a Democrat, but then you turned to the Republican Party. And I remember your telling me at one point that you voted for Ronald Reagan while you were still registered as a Democrat. So as briefly as you can, because these issues are always complex, but what was it that mainly attracted you to the Republican Party?

CHAVEZ: Well, I think it really had more to do about the Democratic Party, which had gone, in my view, too far left. I was very interested in foreign policy and defense issues and very, very disappointed in Jimmy Carter. And so I cast my vote as a Reagan Democrat in 1980 and again in 1984 and didn't become a Republican until 1985.

MARTIN: Then there was an historic shift for you in 2021. You announced you were leaving the GOP in a - frankly, in a fairly blistering message, which you delivered on Twitter and other platforms. Why is that?

CHAVEZ: Well, I think, again, as the Democratic Party drove me to the Republican Party, the Republican Party drove me out of the Republican Party. It really did have to do with election denialism. I saw people that I thought, you know, should be behaving much differently behaving in a way that I thought was antithetical to democracy. And I decided I just couldn't be a member of the party anymore.

MARTIN: Overall, what struck you about the midterm results, those that we know about so far? What stands out to you?

CHAVEZ: I think in many ways, this was a real boon for democracy. I think that, you know, everybody said that democracy was not a big issue in the campaign. I don't agree. I think the election results showed that most Americans want to be - see sensible candidates. They want to see candidates who are not crazy and denying elections. And I think that's what we saw.

MARTIN: You know, people have often said the midterms are really - it's a referendum on the party that holds the White House, that it's often a referendum on the economy. Why do you think that that strategy did not succeed as well as Republicans had hoped?

CHAVEZ: The one thing that I think Republicans have to learn is that the more that Donald Trump is either actually on the ballot or is perceived as hovering over the ballot, the less well Republicans are going to do. And we saw that in the closing days of the campaign. Donald Trump was running around the country having rallies, and many of the people that he was trying to help ended up being hurt, I think, by his presence.

MARTIN: You remember that after the 2012 presidential election, there was this so-called autopsy report by the Republican National Committee. It was led by people who had had high positions in the party, had been successful as both candidates and political leaders themselves. And the report said that the party should expand its outreach to communities of color, to women and young voters.

Of course, in 2016 and then beyond, the former president Donald Trump, you know, ran campaigns where he demonized immigrants from Mexico and Latin America. He focused on kind of white grievance and issues like abortion. This year, Republicans did field a substantial number of candidates of color. That's a fact. But many of them leaned into the same extremist positions that you were just talking about. Is there some mechanism for the kind of discussion that the party had in 2012? Does that even happen? Is that even possible?

CHAVEZ: It is difficult right now because the party itself is divided. And a lot of people like me have left the party, those of us who have a more moderating influence, not so much moderating in terms of our position on issues but moderating in terms of our style, in terms of the way we kind of approach the issues. And I think that is going to make it more difficult to do the kind of 2012 autopsy. But they've also - even though they have fielded minority candidates, they - often, those candidates are mouthing the same kind of election nonsense that the people like Steve Bannon have been mouthing. And I think what we find is that that doesn't necessarily help the Republican Party win those suburban voters that they need to woo back in order to be able to actually win elections.

MARTIN: And so, of course, I guess all roads lead back to the former president, Donald Trump. Is that about right? I mean, is this basically the issue for the party is what he does or doesn't do?

CHAVEZ: Donald Trump is the elephant in the room, no pun intended. He really is going to make or break the Republican Party. If he insists on injecting himself, if he insists on making everything about him, Republicans are going to continue to lose elections.

MARTIN: I guess the question would be, are there any candidates that you currently see or any officeholders who you think would be listened to who can present the case to the Republican Party that the way forward is this and not that? Is there anybody sounding that message in a way that you can get behind or that you consider credible?

CHAVEZ: Well, I'm waiting to see what Liz Cheney is going to do because I think she is going to try to present a kind of third way, if you will, for Americans who are more conservative. We've seen that kind of movement among Democrats. And it actually - the Democratic Leadership Committee from back in the Clinton era was very transformative of the Democratic Party. It's one of the reasons Bill Clinton got elected.

I think there needs to be something similar in the Republican Party, and - I don't know - Liz Cheney may be the person to do it. She may be too polarizing for some of those people who held their nose and voted for Donald Trump but still think that he was badly treated in impeachment and in the January 6 hearing. But somebody has got to try to reach out to those Republicans who still hold right-of-center views on issues but cannot support the kind of election denialism that Trump has been pumping out there for the last two years.

MARTIN: That was Linda Chavez. She's the chair of a conservative think tank, the Center for Equal Opportunity. She is a former official in the Reagan administration, and she's held a number of positions in public life. Tomorrow, we look at the road ahead for the Democratic Party. Linda Chavez, thanks so much for joining us today.

CHAVEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.