Sens. Josh Hawley (Mo.), Ted Cruz (Texas) and Marco Rubio (Fla.) are emerging as the new champions of conservative populism at a time when many Republicans think former President Trump’s grip on the party is slipping.
All three GOP senators voted with almost the entire Senate Democratic caucus to give seven days of paid sick leave to 115,000 rail workers who threatened to go on strike because of an impasse in labor negotiations.
Trump touted a new brand of Republican populism that brought many first-time voters to the polls for the 2016 presidential election and helped him stun political experts and handicappers by defeating Hillary Clinton.
While Trump’s popularity among Republican voters may be slipping, this group of Senate conservatives, who are thought to harbor their own presidential ambitions, are embracing the populism that worked so well for him in 2016.
Hawley has been at the front of the push to remake the GOP from the party of corporate executives to the party of the working man and woman.
“GOP wants to be a working class party, or should want to. We’re about to have our first test vote — with the workers or with Biden,” Hawley tweeted shortly before the Senate voted on giving workers sick leave.
It’s not the first time Hawley has called on his party to remake itself into one that appeals more directly to workers.
He redoubled that effort by calling for a change in party leadership and voting against Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.) serving another term as Senate Republican leader.
“The old Republican Party is dead,” Hawley declared in a Washington Post op-ed published after Republicans fell short of expectations of recapturing control of the Senate in the Nov. 8 midterm election.
He argued that it’s time for Republicans to “forge something new — a party that truly represents the cultural backbone of this nation: America’s working people.”
Cruz walked over to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on the Senate floor Thursday and gave his liberal colleague a fist bump after voting for the sick leave measure, which Sanders had introduced.
“I think one of the most consequential political shifts of the last decade is that Republicans have become a blue collar party. We are the party of working men and women. We are the party of truck drivers and steel workers. And we’re the party of the railroad union workers,” Cruz said on his podcast, “Verdict.”
Rubio also announced his solidarity with rail workers early last week, taking a shot at the freight rail industry’s focus on profits instead of workers.
“I will not vote for any deal that does not have the support of the rail workers,” he declared on Tuesday, adding, “Wall Street’s drive for efficiency has turned rail workers into little more than line items on a spreadsheet.”
The proposal to give workers more paid sick days ended up falling eight votes short of passing — 52 to 43. Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), who plans to run for governor of Indiana, and Sens. John Kennedy (R-La.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a close Trump ally, also voted for it.
Steven S. Smith, a professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis, said the vote gave potential White House hopefuls a perfect opportunity to grab the spotlight.
“When the outcome is really fully known in advance, that’s when you get lots of posturing. And it’s more about the rhetoric than how you voted,” he said. “It basically was a free vote, at least for a handful of Republicans.”
The Senate was largely expected to vote to impose a labor deal on railway workers to avoid a nationwide strike after the House voted overwhelmingly for the measure, 290 to 137, on Wednesday. And it did, passing the measure 80-15.
The companion provision to give workers sick leave was expected to fail, as it gained only three Republican votes in the House and didn’t appear to have much traction in the Senate GOP conference before Thursday’s Senate vote.
Rubio later criticized colleagues who voted overwhelming to force railway workers to accept a tentative labor deal brokered by the Biden administration that four unions had rejected.
“This is hard work. So we’re going to make life even more unpleasant? We’re going to send a message that once again that hardworking people that work with their hands in difficult conditions are going to get screwed?” he said.
This type of rhetoric would have been hard to imagine coming from a Republican senator before Trump stormed onto the national political scene seven years ago.
But rising conservative stars see it as the future of the Republican Party at a time when more and more working-class voters are casting ballots for GOP candidates and more college-educated voters vote for Democrats.
“The Democratic Party has become the party of the rich,” said one Senate GOP strategist who is pushing candidates he advises in a more populist direction.
Exit polls from this month’s midterm election showed that 54 percent of college graduates voted for Democrats while 55 percent of voters without college degrees voted for Republicans.
However, 58 percent of voters who reported more than $200,000 in family income said they voted for Republicans, compared to 41 percent who said they voted for Democrats.
Even so, there appears to be growing conviction among ambitious Senate Republicans with an eye on higher office that appealing more broadly to working-class voters is a recipe for future success.
“Donald Trump has made populism popular among Republicans. It worked for Trump and I suspect those conservative Republicans with presidential aspiration has come to conclusion that a populistic tint is politically useful,” said Ross K. Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University who has served several stints as a Senate fellow.
Recent polls show Trump’s popularity waning among Republican voters, especially since the disappointing midterm election when candidates he embraced or endorsed failed to win races in key states.
A Club for Growth Action poll of likely Republican voters conducted from Nov. 11-13 showed Trump losing ground to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) in Iowa and New Hampshire, which traditionally hold the first two contests of the GOP presidential nominating calendar.
A nationwide Pew Research Center poll of 5,098 adults conducted from Oct. 10-16 showed Trump’s popularity among Republicans significantly lower compared to April of 2020 and July of 2021.
Support for the former president fell most dramatically among college-educated Republican or Republican-leaning voters, dropping from 63 percent who said they felt warmly about him in July of 2021 to 49 percent who said they felt that way last month.
Trump’s decline in popularity among voters without college degrees was much smaller, dipping from 69 percent who felt warmly about him in July of 2021 to 65 percent who said they felt that way in October.
Hawley, however, told The Hill that he has pushed working-class issues since coming to the Senate in 2019.
“I’ve been at work on this since I came to the Senate. This is one of the reasons I proposed my blue-collar bonus,” he said, referring to the legislation he introduced last year to issue automatic, advanceable tax credits to workers who earn below the median wage.
Hawley also joined Sanders last year in promoting a plan to tax big companies who don’t pay their workers at least $15 an hour.
He and Sanders teamed up in December of 2020 to push for a second round of $1,200 federal stimulus checks.
Rubio, meanwhile, introduced a pro-worker labor reform bill in February. It would provide authority for employers and employees to establish voluntary employee involvement organizations to discuss workplace issues.
It would also authorize these employee involvement organization to elect representatives to serve as nonvoting board members in companies with more than $1 billion in annual gross revenues.
So far, only Trump has formally announced his plan to run for the presidency in 2024, but senators on both sides of the aisle think there’s a good chance Cruz decides to jump in the race.
Both Cruz and Rubio challenged Trump in the 2016 Republican presidential primary.
Hawley has said he’s not interested in running for president, but he may decide to throw his hat in the ring if Trump stumbles or to boost his national name identification, even if Trump stays in and locks up the status of frontrunner.
“The assumption was that populism was simply a Trump phenomenon but I think people who have looked into it more closely, those Republicans with presidential ambitions, realize that it’s very much at the heart of Trump’s appeal. If Trump is out of the picture, somebody has got to occupy that turf?” Baker said.