Can Republicans Acknowledge Their Midterm Defeat?

Representative Mia Love speaks at the Utah County Republican Party Lincoln Day Dinner, in Provo, Utah, February 16, 2018. (Jim Urquhart/REUTERS)
Republicans must learn the lessons of 2018.

If there has been one thing missing from analyses of the 2018 midterms, it’s been a Republican postmortem.

Part of the reason for this is that the full extent of the Democrats’ victory in flipping control of the House wasn’t clear on Election Night. There’s also the fact that Republicans did well in a number of key statewide races and that the GOP wound up increasing its majority in the Senate.

Though President Donald Trump declared victory in a post-election press conference that is now remembered for CNN’s Jim Acosta refusing to give up the microphone after his latest attempt to trounce the president, there’s no sugarcoating the fact that the loss of 39 House seats was a serious defeat. That’s especially true when you consider that most of those losses came in competitive suburban districts because both female and younger voters went heavily for the Democrats this year.

National exit polling shows that the shift between 2016 and 2018 among these voter groups played a crucial role in these Republican losses. In 2016, Trump carried 52 percent of white women, 54 percent of whites between the ages of 30 and 44, and 47 percent of whites ages 18 to 29. Republicans in 2018 received the support of only 49 percent, 48 percent, and 43 percent of the same groups respectively. While the GOP decline among such groups nationally wasn’t as precipitate as some media reports have portrayed it, the shrinkage of Republican votes in these categories outside of red rural districts was extreme.

That leaves pundits, as well as many Republicans, asking what, if anything, the party can do to address these defections. Yet the answer — both from within the party’s leadership and from a not very sympathetic mainstream media — appears to be that not much can be done.

The reason for this is that if this year’s voting was a referendum on the incumbent president, as most midterms in a presidential first term are, then the only person in a position to make a course correction is Donald J. Trump, not the Republican party or its congressional leadership. And since Trump shows no sign of changing anything in his approach to his job, his party has little choice but to stick with him.

Trump is a unique president who has broken almost all of the rules of national politics in the last three years, but there’s nothing particularly unique about that aspect of Republicans’ post-midterm dilemma.

No party can abandon its leader and hope to prosper. That was just as true in 2010 when Democrats lost a historic 63 House seats and five more in the Senate after the first two years of the Obama presidency. Democrats paid the price for passing Obamacare when most Americans opposed it at the time. This rebuke notwithstanding, Democrats didn’t back down on Obama’s signature accomplishment. Instead, they did their best to demonize the tea-party insurgents who had been the engine of the Republican victory, and they placed their faith in Obama’s personal appeal and sat back and watched as the new GOP House majority struggled to cope with the limited power it had acquired. While that wasn’t an effective strategy for winning back the congressional seats Democrats had lost, it didn’t stop Barack Obama from being reelected in 2012.

Is that a viable model for Republicans looking toward 2020?

The argument for GOP optimism after the midterms rests on putting faith in history and in Trump’s personal appeal.

Republican House losses were more severe than an incumbent party averages in such midterms. But giving the Democrats at least partial responsibility for governing will let Trump and the GOP spend the next two years blaming likely House speaker Nancy Pelosi and her party for everything that goes wrong. And unless Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s eventual report links Trump to collusion with Russian operatives in 2016, or presents evidence of some impeachable or criminal offense, a public perception that Democrats are more interested in investigating Trump than governing will only help the president.

Faith in Trump’s political acumen is also not to be dismissed after his successful intervention in a number of key states, including Florida and Georgia, which showed that he can still drive GOP turnout even for less-than-brilliant Republican candidates.

There is also the fact that in the objective measures of national success — especially in terms of the economy, trade, and foreign policy — the Trump administration is doing well. The problem isn’t policy. It’s the way Trump’s personal conduct and continued willingness to troll his opponents on Twitter have alienated voters who were prepared to embrace him in 2016 as an alternative to Hillary Clinton and the political establishment she represented.

Yet so long as Trump retains the support of the overwhelming majority of Republican voters — as both polling and the midterm results illustrate — that leaves the party little room to maneuver in terms of learning the lessons of its midterm rebuke. Like it or not — and many of those who have led the GOP for the past decades don’t like it one bit — it is Trump’s party. He may have alienated many women and young voters, but by staying relatively faithful to conservative principles on policy, he has solidified control of the GOP.

That doesn’t get House and Senate leaders completely off the hook in terms of preparing for 2020.

A big part of their 2018 disaster can be traced to the fact that many Republican incumbents chose not to run for another term, out of either disgust with having to answer for Trump or because they feared that they couldn’t be reelected in what was always going to be a good year for the Democrats. But whether they neglected to plan for this contingency, or simply lacked good prospects, the GOP failed to find electable replacements for those who were leaving Congress.

This means that Republicans need to work much harder to find viable congressional candidates for 2020 — including female candidates who are not necessarily Trump loyalists — to run in districts where the president is unpopular.

The fate of Utah’s Mia Love is symbolic of Republican problems: She narrowly lost her bid for reelection in a highly competitive purple House district and then was mocked for her pains by Trump because she had rightly feared that embracing the president would have worsened her prospects. Trump and the GOP need to understand that without candidates like Love, they will be writing off their chances of making up some of their losses. But so long as the president regards personal fealty as the only measure of a candidate’s worth, he’s undermining the party and sending a damaging signal to his base that they don’t have to turn out for moderates. Even with a better recruiting effort, Republicans may have to wait until the first midterm of the next Democratic president to retake the House, but the 2018 midterms show just how much damage a paucity of viable moderates to run in the suburbs can do.

Nevertheless, a more detailed postmortem won’t fix the GOP’s problems, especially since any honest reckoning of their failures and their successes points in the direction of the White House. The fate of the party rests directly on the ability of the president to keep the economy on track and to avoid the sort of scandals that Democrats and their media cheering sections pray Mueller will deliver. But no matter how that drama plays out, Republicans must now count on Democratic blunders and Trump’s continuing appeal to working-class voters to ensure that 2020 won’t be another unwinnable referendum on the president.


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