'The Gipper' strategy: Six bold ideas for Trump, Republicans to rebound from 2022 midterms

Party faithful want Trump and other Republicans to act like Reagan did after ’76, and not like Oscar the Grouch.

Updated: November 13, 2022 - 1:09am

After an underwhelming midterm election, the Republican Party and its enigmatic leader Donald Trump find themselves in a political wilderness, much like Ronald Reagan did after losing the 1976 nomination.

The Biden Democrats with hiding Kathy Hochul and hobbled John Fetterman seemed as beatable as bumbling Gerald Ford, and yet somehow the Reagan and 2022 GOP teams lost the process even though polling data showed they had won the hearts of the faithful. And the despair of knowing a far left regime (Jimmy Carter and Joe Biden) might rule for another election cycle led many to throw hands up and point fingers.

Not Reagan, who many openly said could not possibly run for president in 1980 at the age of 69 (then the oldest candidate in history.)

"The Gipper" knew differently. While painfully aware he had lost the process at the convention, he also could see the groundswell forming around his conservative agenda. He recognized it needed tweaks and adjustments and a post-election commitment to better own the narrative to appeal to independents. He also knew internal fighting and blame would only distract from the opportunity.

While others whined and cast blame, Reagan projected optimism and a clear strategy to fix what needed fixing as evidenced by a personal note he wrote a depressed supporter shortly after his '76 defeat.

"Going on with what God has given us, confident there is a destiny, somehow seems to bring a reward we wouldn't exchange for any other," the eventual 40th president penned his fan.

Reagan's rebound strategy was imposed instantaneously and with four years of relentless discipline.

He worked to own the narrative, starting with daily radio commentaries. He plotted to sew two very different wings of the party together, eventually unveiling a once-unthinkable Reagan-Bush ticket. He backed Republican lieutenants in Congress and the states by focusing on their strengths, not their perceived weaknesses. And he learned how to harness an electoral process that defeated him at the contested convention, plucking a youthful Paul Manafort from Ford's team to run what become known as the "Southern Strategy."

Five days into the overtime election of 2022, the Trump GOP finds itself much like Team Reagan. It underperformed expectations but its performance provided nonetheless  evidence of a pot of gold inside the electorate. It won the popular vote handily, according to morning after analyses. It won married and unmarried men, and married women. The only demographics lost were unmarried women, who tilted 70% to Democrats, and voters under 30.

More than 7 in 10 Americans believe the Biden Democrats — like the Carter Democrats — are taking the country off a cliff. That's a massive advantage waiting to be seized with a fine-tuned message.

Like Reagan, the 2022 GOP lost the process in the key battleground states where Democrats once again ran up a massive pre-election advantage with no-excuse absentee early voting, one that could not be overcome by day-of vote in places like Pennsylvania, and Arizona. Pre-election voting is now a fact of life and one Republicans will have to learn to win with.

Finally, the GOP had strong candidates with national appeal in 2022 from a television doctor to a wealthy tech executive. But congressional races are won on the strength of local appeal and local sentiments. Dr. Mehmet Oz is a great example.

Pennsylvanians chose Fetterman over Oz because they are proud of homegrown, even if quirky, candidates. They distrust outsiders and have a clear dislike for candidates who waffle on abortion. (Heck, they even keep electing an anti-abortion Democrat to the Senate.) 

Oz simply never closed the deal with all-important evangelicals or independents. Adam Laxalt missed the mark with independents in Nevada too.

So like Reagan, a few dials need to be adjusted on candidate selection and messaging and appeal to independents, women and young voters. But the environment for GOP wins is target rich. 

Just the News interviewed two dozen political strategists, donors and thought leaders across different factions of the Republican and Democrat parties. Here are the six boldest ideas they offered:

Fix the GOP's leadership relationships in the House and Senate.

Republicans can't go into another election cycle with large parts of their House and Senate caucuses distrusting their leaders. Mitch McConnell greatly alienated some in his own ranks by talking down candidates and in some cases running against GOP nominees, like Kelly Tshaibaka.

Kevin McCarthy missed two years of opportunity to find agreement with the restlessly conservative Freedom Caucus wing in this party, though he has built as strong relationship with one of the caucus' icons, Rep. Jim Jordan, helped raise $420 million and win more seats in 2020 and 2022.

McConnell is facing an unexpected backlash, led by Sens. Marco Rubio, Rick Scott and Ron Johnson.

Some prominent voices, including the influential Heritage Foundation and its Heritage Action arm, are ready to dump both McConnell and McCarthy. That's one possible fix. The other is for the two leaders to take Reagan-like action, acknowledge their failings and make meaningful concessions to their rank and file to unify their caucuses.

McCarthy has the best chance to do this, in part because there is no clear heir apparent. Jordan is the most popular alternative, but the GOP needs him at the helm of House Judiciary to impose accountability on the FBI and other institutions that have so harmed Americans. And Jordan told Just the News he is sticking with McCarthy as leader.

The Freedom Caucus has a list of demands and ideas. Its members want "regular order" returned to the House where bills get the proper process without backroom deals, a regular budget process instead of temporary spending bills, an unbreakable commitment to reduce runaway spending, a willingness to stand up to Biden, and the ability to fight a recalcitrant bureaucracy by restoring the Holman Rule that defunds federal officials, offices or programs that don't comply with Congress.

McCarthy could signal he will provide these along with changing the House rules so that investigative chairman can unilaterally issue subpoenas without Democrat support. He could also acknowledge his stewardship of the Commitment with America was too slow and too dense, failing to build the sort of messaging platform and timetable to let the best conservative ideas reach the dinner table well before Election Day.,

McConnell is faced with a similar set of demands and has the added pressure that there are credible alternatives to his leadership like Scott. He too has a chance to change the GOP processes to create more latitude and trust with his rank and file or risk being ousted.

Make the Georgia Senate runoff the party's unifying moment.

Reagan knew he had to heal the GOP from his bruising battle with Ford. Trump's relentless barrage has created undeniable hard feelings with Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. The three must bury the hatchet and make Georgia a rallying cry for all Republicans, even if Democrats control of the Senate is already decided by the Nevada race. Why? Republicans have suffered from an us-them divide that won't translate to victory in 2022.

Donald Trump is the George Steinbrenner of politics. He can relentlessly beat down stars like the late Yankees boss did to Reggie Jackson, Billy Martin, Dave Winfield and Lou Pinella and then rehire or reendow them because winning mattered more. Trump has the sole ability to set this in motion and make Georgia's Senate runoff a much needed victory.

Stop unilateral disarming on absentee ballots.

For two straight elections, Republican efforts to show they were morally superior by eschewing absentee balloting in the states where it is lawful have backfired. Democrats have run up massive early vote totals in states like Nevada, Arizona, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania that Republicans have been unable to overcome on Election Day.

There are only two options. If the GOP is principled enough, it has to change the laws to get rid of no-excuse absentee ballots. If not, it must play by the same rules and outperform early Democrat voting in the states where it is lawful. Trump's daughter, Ivanka, recognized this back in 2020 but couldn't get her viewpoint enough traction. Brian Kemp's efforts in 2022 in Georgia show Republicans can win in an early voting state without compromising principle. Others should take note.

Reagan's team has a simple rule: Always be princpled, but never unilaterally disarm. The 2023 version of the GOP should take note,

While legitimately taking on mail-in balloting for 2024, Republicans also should work to change the laws to ensure that all ballots are filed and counted on Election Day, a concept that 80% of Americans support.

Impose Reagan's 'No exploding hand grenades in the foxhole' rule.

In my final interview with George H.W. Bush, the former president recounted the most famous advice Reagan gave him. "George, if you are ever tempted to pull the pin on a hand grenade in our own foxhole again, for God's sake toss it into the enemy's bunker from now on," Reagan told Bush, according to the 41st president's recounting to me.

Trump is the P.T. Barnum of hand grenades. His social posts are as lethal — and attention-grabbing — as the American Sniper's scope and rifle. In the beginning, Trump's willingness to say the unspoken and exploit the weakness of his opponents was a strength that endeared him to his base before he was president.

Today, the same tactic coming from a former president from whom much is expected feels to many interviewed for this story as fingernails scratching a chalkboard. Some political brand managers even suggested it makes Trump look insecure in the face of a new younger generation of Republicans who have embraced his America First agenda and translated it to their states, like Glenn Youngkin and Ron DeSantis.

When Trump carries the burdens of the American people on his shoulders, he is an invincible politician. But when he carries his own political and personal grievances on his sleeve, he becomes unbearable to key portions of the electorate, like independents, women and young voters.

Major donors key to winning 2024 and emissaries to the all-important women's voter bloc are also demoralized by some attacks they see as unncessary.

Reagan's advice to Bush adopted at this moment in the GOP's history would create a huge shockwave. Trump has succeeded in making America First the winning philosophy of his party, but his own hand grenades have the potential to frag it to death, many experts warn.

Adjust the messaging to the dinner table without compromising the platform. And sprinkle a touch of environment into the promise.

Reagan's biggest feat in the aftermath of his loss to Ford was the way he retooled his message. He rejected the notion of media pundits that his policy was too extreme to win nationally. Instead, he embraced delivering his winning values in ways that resonated at the dinner table, starting with his daily radio addresses and fireside chats.

Goldwater's desire to win the Cold War — destroyed by the "daisy child" ad of 1964 — was transformed to "peace through strength" against an Evil Empire. And supply side economics — derided as "voodoo economics" or "trickle down" economics — became a war on failed government that would put more money in the pockets of hardworking Americans.

Polling unequivocally shows that Americans reject Biden Democrats' policies much like they did Jimmy Carter's and that the solutions Republicans offered in the Commitment with America are embraceable. 

But McCarthy's plan came out too late and too dense (150 agenda items) to be translated to the American people where it matters most: at the dinner table. It needs to be simplified to dinner table slogans that are meaningful. Like Reagan, Trump is a master at such marketing.

Republicans, for the most part, don't need to change their platform. They need to change how they market it so they own the narrative of solution ... as well as they own the narrative of the problem. 

There is a Ione exception. Republicans need to bust the Democrat monopoly on climate change and the environment, which holds a deep spell on voters under the age of 30.

A generation ago, Reagan, the Californian, also was acutely aware that the environment was a wedge issue that appealed to women and young voters. He embraced clean air, water and conservation in the tradition of Teddy Roosevelt — not the silly sweater-wearing message of Jimmy Carter — and eventually solved the atmosphere's ozone hole that troubled women and young voters with the Montreal Protocol

Republicans have an opportunity to ditch the false promises of solar, wind and EVs as an instant solution. And they need to put forth an alternative to attain the same carbon emissions targets that Democrats promise by using nuclear power and natural gas, and at a fraction of the cost.

It's a no-brainer that at present has no GOP brain pushing it. Much of the work was already done during the Trump administration by former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the energy secretary.

Do the unthinkable — form a Trump-DeSantis super ticket.

No one ever thought Steinbrenner would rehire Billy Martin after a tumultuous firing in the 1970s — but the Yankees boss did and kept winning.

A Trump-DeSantis ticket seems nearly as outrageous to suggest. But nearly every expert interviewed for this story — including Democrats — suggested it had the chance to create a generational alliance under the America First brand with a decade or more of winning consequences for Republicans.

It also would save donors an intraparty war that would drain hundreds of millions of dollars of donations that could otherwise be trained on Democrats for two years to break their hold on unmarried women and young voters

Both men would have to check massive egos and tempers at the door. Both would have to make concessions to each other to erase the mutual distrust. Both would have to put the mission of saving country ahead of their personal interest to make such a deal. 

But both are smart enough to know the Democrats don't have an answer to a Trump-DeSantis ticket. And both know the risks of a head-to-head battle.

It will be bloody, expensive, and one or both would be severely wounded in the process. Trump can't afford to be a two-time loser. And DeSantis can't afford to be the heir apparent who shot and failed to kill a king whose base is more loyal than anything seen in modern GOP politics.

DeSantis can't withstand the withering attacks that Trump uniquely delivers, ones that will certainly make DeSantis look irrational and unworthy to be president. If the Florida governor has any doubt, he should ask the 15 Republicans who Trump dispatched in 2016.

The consultants eager to get rich off a nuclear Trump-DeSantis war are certain to press each man to laugh off the super ticket notion. 

The same happened back in 1980 when nearly every man in Reagan’s orbit pressed to the final hour to get Ford to be Reagan’s running mate. Reagan declared he was unwilling to accede to Ford’s many demands. And the future president then uttered the unthinkable just minutes before he was expected to announce his running mate: “Well, let's get Bush on the phone.” 

Sometimes a president’s instincts are far better than the the advice of six-figure consultants.

Trump has many of the tools of Reagan, especially marketing a populist, patriotic agenda to everyday Americans disenfranchised from their government. What he has failed to consistently achieve is  Reagan’s temperament.

If he can seize it with discipline, settle the DeSantis feud and return to carrying the greviances of everyday Americans he creates a united GOP that has a high ceiling for 2024.