A lot of attention has been paid to Republicans’ Trumpian shift toward nativism. The national party has focused on immigration, trade and race. And it hasn’t played well in New Jersey, where a host of formerly Republican districts now have tight races with Democratic challengers. That narrative, with Republicans embracing Trumpism and Democrats running against it, has been the foundation of these races until the recent Senatorial and CD3 debates, where both MacArthur and Hugin attempted to appear as moderate Republicans. Why the shift in strategy, and was it effective?
We’re all familiar with the first part of the nativism strategy. Stir fear about the “other.” Call Mexicans rapists. Chant for a wall. Stoke fears about Colin Kaepernick. Wink at a candidate’s heritage by saying “he’s not one of us.” But the performances of Hugin and MacArthur showed a second potential path that nativism can take. Campaigns and PACs that beat the drum of “otherness”, while a candidate attempts to stay above the fray and speaks directly to the people and reassures them that he is one of them. That he can’t be as bad as everyone says. That he is normal. Bi-partisan. Moderate. Independent (even if, as in Hugin’s case, he was a big fundraiser for Trump, or as in MacArthur’s case, he has supported the president on key legislation even when other NJ Republicans did not).
This too is a nativistic call. It is a reminder that not only are “others” to be blamed and feared, but it is an appeal to similarity as reasonable and moderate. The Republican candidates can’t be extremist, they look, think, and yes, talk like you do. It is the same pivot that Nixon made when he called to the silent majority.
It was striking to see both Hugin and MacArthur take this same tack, made perhaps more effective by the contrast with Trump who rarely attempts to seem reasonable. I left asking, had Democrats overplayed their hands? Has demonizing Republicans actually allowed them to play the “reasonable” card in these debates?
Or has calling out nativism for what it is created a dynamic so challenging that this strategy can’t radically alter what New Jersey residents think about Republicans? Was it right to make sure everyone knows MacArthur’s prominent role in attempting to kill Obamacare? Or Hugin’s fundraising efforts for Trump?
Probably yes. But it was still hard to watch Republican candidates grabbing for the “reasonable” label.