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Former Trump aide: Culture war fights are 'the wrong focus for Republicans' ahead of midterms
08:56 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Rusty Hills is a political adviser who has worked on US presidential campaigns for over four decades. He served as the chair of the Michigan Republican Party in 2000 and 2001 and held leadership roles in the Michigan Governor’s Office and the Michigan Department of Attorney General for 23 years. Hills, who previously worked as a reporter, anchorman and speechwriter, is a lecturer in public policy at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

Winning political campaigns do two things.

First, they learn from their mistakes, because every candidate makes them along the campaign trail.

Rusty Hills headshot

Second, they learn the right lessons.

When Ronald Reagan campaigned for President in 1980, he made his share of mistakes. But, more importantly, he ran a positive, optimistic campaign built around a set of ideas: Supply-side economics to put money back in the hands of the people and a foreign policy built on peace through strength.

After winning the White House, Reagan and his allies moved quickly to act on these public policies. They cut taxes while boosting America’s military and defense spending. As the saying goes, “promises made, promises kept.”

The result? When Ronald Reagan stood for reelection, he carried 49 states.

When Donald Trump ran for President in 2016, he, too, made his share of mistakes attacking Gold Star families, belittling the sacrifice of former prisoner-of-war Sen. John McCain, mocking a disabled reporter, insulting the wife of Sen. Ted Cruz, and denigrating the service of former Republican President George W. Bush, to name just a few.

Despite those mistakes, Trump won the White House in 2016 because he demonstrated that there is a populist majority in America. He had the support of traditional Republican voters and made inroads in previously blue counties, appealing to swing voters to create a majority base.

Clearly, Trump understood that many voters felt they had been let down and left behind; by the government, the establishment, and society in general.

The generation before them enjoyed good jobs, solid paychecks, and a pension that would last through retirement. Now, for many, the jobs are outsourced, the paychecks are minimum wage, and pensions have gone the way of their father’s Oldsmobile.

But instead of delivering on many of the economic promises that appealed to these voters, Trump and the Republican Party doubled down on all his mistakes: fudging the facts, ignoring the truth, belittling opponents, peddling conspiracy theories and utilizing hateful rhetoric.

What was the result?

Trump lost his reelection bid, becoming the first incumbent president to lose since 1992. And on his watch, Republicans lost the majority in both the US House and Senate.

Despite these losses, Trump has continued to insert himself into Republican primaries and nominating conventions across the country, most notably in Michigan, where he endorsed candidates Kristina Karamo, who is running for secretary of state and Matt De Perno, who is running for attorney general.

And Trump’s sway among the base of the party still holds, with both of his preferred candidates winning big at the Michigan Republican Party’s endorsement this past weekend.

But those candidates, too, appear to have absorbed all the wrong lessons from Trump. While the incumbent Democrats in Michigan are vulnerable, the Trump-endorsed candidates have built their campaigns around the disproved claims of a rigged 2020 election – an issue that may not have much traction among swing voters.

In his endorsement of DePerno and Karamo, Trump said, “The presidential election was rigged and stolen and because of that our country is being destroyed. We did win, we did win … We won by a lot, not just a little. (DePerno and Karamo) will protect us from a corrupt election.”

For her part, Karamo has said, “We cannot have our election stolen.” As a poll watcher in Detroit on election night in 2020, Karamo alleged that “egregious crimes” occurred (claims of widespread voter fraud in the state have been debunked). Her own website claims she is championing a “research team” that is ” investigating the ‘governmental pathologies’ which prevent the Office of the Secretary of State from operating according to the rule of law.”

DePerno, who has centered his campaign around election integrity, is calling for a “forensic audit” of the 2020 election in Michigan, where Biden defeated Trump by about 154,000 votes. DePerno recently lost another lawsuit related to an audit of the presidential vote in Antrim County, Michigan – a county which Trump won by 61%.

And how will the election conspiracy argument work out for these two Trump-supported candidates?

Re-litigating the outcome of the 2020 election results may play well in a small, highly-partisan nominating convention (and even among this group, the fallout has begun).

For many Republicans, this issue may be of such staggering importance that it dwarfs concerns about inflation or crime.

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    But I am hard-pressed to believe that focusing on the integrity of an election – an issue that has been settled numerous times in the last two years – will be the driving force that animates most voters to the polls in a large, swing state like Michigan come November 2022.

    All of which begs the question: how many elections do Republicans have to lose before they learn the right lesson?