Odd as it may sound to say, the midterm elections went about as well for Republicans as possible given that they lost control of the House of Representatives. The close races in the Senate mostly went their way, and they now have a real rather than a tenuous majority. The close races for governor broke for them, too, and they held on to such key states as Florida, Iowa, and Ohio.
The results seem to show that one political bet paid off and another did not. President Trump was widely criticized for raising the issue of immigration again in the closing days of the campaign. And while — as is often the case — the way he did it may not have been ideal, he had solid underlying points: The nation has to enforce its immigration laws, and Democrats have too many hang-ups on the issue to be counted on to do it. At the very least, his tactic does not seem to have backfired in the elections and may have helped bring some of his 2016 voters who were undecided off the fence.
The Democratic campaign against Justice Brett Kavanaugh, on the other hand, appears to have hurt them badly in Senate races in conservative states. Several Democrats who voted against his confirmation lost in states that usually vote for Republican presidential candidates; the one Democrat who voted for his confirmation, Joe Manchin, held on in another such state.
Republicans and conservatives will and should take cheer from these results. But they should not ignore the bad news. The loss of the House forecloses the possibility of enacting conservative legislation over the next two years, and maybe longer; and even in an age of administrative power, there are real limits to what the executive branch can do by itself to deregulate or to reform federal programs. We suspect as well that the House Democrats’ new subpoena powers will not be used solely to enlighten the public.
The election also revealed serious weaknesses in the Republican coalition, especially in the suburbs. In the three presidential elections Republicans have won in this century, 364 million votes were cast. A switch of 105,000 votes, distributed in the right times and places, would have nullified all of them. (That’s 0.02 percent of the total.) Trump’s own victory, impressive as it was in some respects, depended crucially on a weak opponent.
President Trump and congressional Republicans have delivered important conservative policy victories, but they have not expanded the Republican coalition. Trump himself has alienated college-educated suburban voters who used to back Republicans, and the congressional party has not won the allegiance of all the formerly Democratic working-class voters who backed him in 2016. To win the elections of 2020 — to hold the presidency and the Senate, let alone to rebound in the House — they will probably need to do better with both groups.
So Republicans will have to find ways over the next two years to split Democrats newly elected in moderate districts from their party; reveal the extremism of the bulk of that party; and — tallest order — devise an agenda that appeals to working-class voters without alienating suburbanites. (It would help if Republicans refocused the immigration debate on employers who hire illegal laborers.)
Conservatives should be very glad of their Senate-race victories, especially if another Supreme Court vacancy opens in the next two years. But without a favorable Senate map, the story of the elections would have been one of significant, albeit not catastrophic, defeats. If Republicans fool themselves about the election just concluded, the next one could go much worse.