“It’s the time to take this country back,” proclaimed Senator Rick Scott. “I’m here to tell you the American people are going to give a complete butt kicking to the Democrats this November!”
The audience of religious conservatives clapped and whooped. No one felt that the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee was making an empty boast. Going into the midterm elections, the party has opinion polls, economic worries and history on its side.
Republicans exuded confidence this week at the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s “Road to Majority” conference in Nashville, Tennessee, eager to regain power after a punishing few years that saw them shut out of the House of Representatives, Senate and White House.
Party officials, prominent supporters, senators, representatives and former president Donald Trump took the stage – set in a faux classical temple – in triumphal mood, denouncing Joe Biden for presiding over inflation and rising gas prices, though they were more vague on how they would fix it.
Addressing the faithful on Friday, Scott declared: “Now, the Biden presidency has brought us one new thing. They’ve figured out how to merge radical leftwing policies with absolute gross incompetence.”
The Florida senator highlighted a 12-point plan to “rescue America” that appears designed to “trigger” liberals and has proved controversial even in his own party. But it offers an insight into likely rightwing priorities for Republicans if they gain majorities in the House and Senate.
Point one states: “Our kids will say the pledge of allegiance, salute the flag, learn that America is a great country, and choose the school that best fits them.” Point three: “The soft-on-crime days of coddling criminal behavior will end. We will re-fund and respect the police because, they, not the criminals, are the good guys.”
Point four: “We will secure our border, finish building the wall, and name it after President Donald Trump.” Point seven: “We will protect the integrity of American Democracy and stop leftwing efforts to rig elections.” Point nine: “Men are men, women are women, and unborn babies are babies.”
Scott had good reason to scent opportunity. History shows that the party that controls the White House tends to lose seats to energised opposition in midterm elections. This November Democrats face an added sense of malaise, with gas prices at $5 a gallon, a shortage of baby formula and some business leaders predicting recession.
Republicans are ready to pounce. Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina told the conference: “Inflation is crushing American families and the White House tells us that inflation could be good for our economy. Excuse me? … Gas prices, inflation, economic instability. We have to be the party that saves our economy by looking back to 2016 to 2020 when we were in charge.”
Scott predicted: “I believe that we’re going to win the House and bring it back to the right. I believe that we’re going to win the Senate and bring back it back to the majority. I have a dream that with the House on our side and the Senate on our side and the White House back on our side, we will show America what leadership looks like.”
Ronna McDaniel, chairperson of the Republican National Committee, added: “I can’t think of an election where we will have economic issues play such a big role, which we know they will with the gas prices and inflation. And also our values and our cultural issues will be on the ballot.”
The gathering, held at a sprawling resort near the Grand Ole Opry House in the home of country music, also heard from former ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, Senator Lindsey Graham and Congressmen Dan Crenshaw and Jim Jordan. But former vice-president Mike Pence, a devout Christian, did not attend after falling out with Trump over the 2020 election and being booed at last year’s event.
Attendees agreed that economic concerns are paramount. Tommy Crosslin, 54, a singer-songwriter, said: “Look at America right now. Inflation is high. Gas prices is high.
“Workers are hard to come by because of certain situations that we’ve been put in. I don’t think most Americans wanted the Keystone pipeline shut down and I think there was a trickle effect from the beginning of President Biden’s take over. The American people will voice their opinions in the midterms.”
Few believed that the televised congressional hearings into the Trump-inspired insurrection at the US Capitol on 6 January 2021 will provide much counterweight. Joseph Padilla, 42, a retired Marine who works for a non-profit, said: “Every time we go to a grocery store, every time we go to get gas, we’re not reminded of January 6, we’re reminded of what administration is in this country right now. It’s going to be a red wave.”
The conference also underlined the important role that religious conservatives still play in Republican politics. Attacking abortion rights was a popular applause line, although an imminent supreme court decision on Roe v Wade received few mentions than might have been expected.
Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, told the Politico website: “In the Republican presidential nominating process, evangelical Christians today, in the Republican party, occupy a position of criticality and centrality that is analogous to the role that African Americans play in the Democratic party.”
Several speakers made a point of quoting from scripture. Trump, who forged an unlikely alliance with evangelicals to win the presidency, told the audience: “This is going to be the biggest turnout in midterm history, we think without question, and it’s going to have conservative Christians all over the place.”
The former president elicited one of the biggest cheers of the day when he said: “Above all else, we know this. In America we don’t worship government, we worship God.” Hearing the reaction, he joked: “I think this room loves God a lot.”
The Senate is a close call in November but opinion polls suggest the question is not whether Republicans win a majority in the House but by how much. A 35-seat gain would give the party its biggest majority in more than 90 years. An 18-seat gain would eclipse the one it secured in 1995 when Newt Gingrich first became speaker.
Such an outcome would enable Republicans to block Biden’s legislative agenda and aim to turn him into a lame duck president. They have also vowed to launch investigations into everyone from Biden’s son Hunter to infectious diseases expert Dr Anthony Fauci. And ominously the new intake is likely to include numerous election deniers who back Trump’s “big lie”.
Such a prospect gave Trump loyalists at the Nashville event a renewed sense of swagger. Hogan Gidley, a former White House official, said: “The whiplash effect of all the prosperity that people were feeling just two years ago versus the the effect of the bad policies is what’s going to drive people out to the polls in the midterms.
“It’s the juxtaposition of the success now with all the failures, and the braggadocio of the Biden administration saying, ‘Look, we’re doing everything opposite, we’re doing everything that Donald Trump didn’t do, we’re changing everything.’ Well, the effects of those policies matter to the American people and they’re hurting families in this country.”
Gidley, now director of the Center for Election Integrity at the America First Policy Institute thinktank, added: “They can try to shift blame all they want to. These aren’t things that are happening to Joe Biden; they’re happening because of Joe Biden. That’s why I think a lot of people show up to events like this. They’ve never been more excited. They’ve never been more engaged. They’ve never been more willing to put skin in the game.”
Critics say there is some irony in the Republican party capitalising on economic woes to brand itself the party of competence, noting that George W Bush presided over the Great Recession and Trump left office with the worst labour market in modern American history.
Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University in Washington, observed: “The Republicans don’t have any answers to the economy or to inflation, It’s not as if oh, if we vote Republican, that’s going to solve it all. That’s ridiculous. But if you lose your democracy, you’re not getting it back. That’s infinitely more important than come and go inflation.”