On Election Night, Republicans were able to tell themselves a comforting story about how the midterms had gone.
Yes, Republicans had lost control of the U.S. House after eight years, putting to an end their unified control of the federal government after only two years. But voters almost always punish the president’s party in the midterm elections, especially when there is unified control. Republicans, meanwhile, had defeated several Senate Democrats and appeared to be on track to gain at least three seats in that chamber. On Election Night, it looked as though they had suffered fewer losses than expected in the House and in governorships. In the electorally important states of Florida, Iowa, and Ohio, they had won governor’s races where they had not been favored. There had been no “blue wave,” Republicans said.
The more time has elapsed since the polls closed, however, the less justified Republicans’ relief has seemed. As more votes were counted, Democrats won more and more House seats. At this writing, they have taken 36 seats from the Republicans, which is the most they have gained in a midterm since 1974, following Watergate and President Richard Nixon’s resignation, when Democrats picked up 49 seats. What seemed to be a slim victory for the Republican in the Florida Senate race was called into question, and the lead for the Republican in the Arizona Senate race was reversed when ballots were fully tallied, almost a week after the election. (Democratic candidates for governor of Florida and Georgia insist that they may have won those races, too, but this appears unlikely.)
If the Democrats turn out to have won the Senate race in Florida, then Republicans will have gained only one seat in the chamber — even though 27 Senate seats held by Democrats and only eight held by Republicans were on the ballot, and even though five of those 26 Democratic seats were in states that usually vote for Republican presidential candidates. Only one of the Republican-held seats was in a state that has gone for Democrats in the last three presidential elections: Nevada, where the Republican incumbent senator Dean Heller lost to Democrat Jacky Rosen.
Whether the elections went so badly for Republicans that they constituted a “blue wave” is not an important question, although it has been much debated since Election Day. A realistic assessment might, however, be helpful to Republicans trying to figure out what they should do to win future elections.
A lesson they should not draw is that President Trump is doomed in 2020. For one thing, we should all have learned in 2016 either that it is not wise to bet against him or that events assigned a low probability can happen, or both. For another, presidents have often rebounded from calamitous midterms to win comfortable reelections. Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama all had that experience.
To have a better election in 2020, however, Republicans would almost certainly have to improve their performance with two groups.
The first are suburban moderates; this group has frequently voted Republican in the past, but many of them refused to support President Trump in 2016 and congressional Republican candidates in 2018. These voters generally do not like what they consider rigid conservative positions on guns, abortion, and immigration. And they find Trump repellent, which is a problem for Republicans insofar as he is not going to change the traits and behaviors that revolt them and he is highly likely to be the nominee again.
The second group, much discussed after Trump won the presidency, played an important role in Republican defeats this year: white voters without college degrees, especially those who voted for Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016. For many of them, support for Trump does not appear to have led to support for congressional Republicans as well. They have not been enthusiastic about Republican legislation on taxes and health care.
In 2018, then, Republican candidates paid a price with some voters for their association with Trump without receiving the reward from other voters that the association might have brought. It was the worst of both worlds, and it leaves Republicans with a dilemma of coalition management. Softening on immigration in an attempt to court people who voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 and Hillary Clinton in 2016, for example, would run the risk of worsening Republican numbers with the mirror-image group of voters who backed Obama and then Trump. And while 2020 may be a better year for Republicans than 2018 because they will have an incumbent president up for reelection, the economy has more room to decline than to improve between now and then.
While Republicans face certain challenges peculiar to the Trump era in American politics, it is also worth noting that the weaknesses on display in the midterms have afflicted them for many years. Republicans have won the popular vote for president only once since the end of the Cold War (in 2004, when George W. Bush was reelected). Their victories have also tended to be narrower than Democratic ones. They won in 2000 by 537 votes in Florida, in 2004 by 118,601 in Ohio, and in 2016 by 77,744 in three states. If fewer than 107,000 votes had switched in the right places — out of 367 million cast in those three elections — they would have been completely shut out of the White House over the last quarter century.
Senate elections tell an even longer-running story of Republican weakness. Since 1945, Democrats have held more than 55 seats in the Senate on 14 occasions — most recently during President Obama’s first two years, during which period the Democrats passed Obamacare, a major financial regulation, and a controversial stimulus bill. Over the same span of time, Republicans have never had more than 55 senators.
This political history goes a long way toward explaining the frustrations and disappointments of Republicans of all stripes: moderate and conservative, pro- and anti-Trump and in between. Many Republicans are glad that they got a major tax-reform bill enacted last year. They should be less happy that it will be the only significant conservative legislative success at the national level over the entire 16 years from 2005 through 2020.
If Republicans want to make big changes to the way the federal government works, they must win more elections. That means that they have to convince more voters that they do not seek to advance the interests of only some groups in our society, such as white people or rich people. It means, as well, that they have to build a larger coalition, one that includes a lot of people who do not always see eye to eye with one another. A good start would be to win back people who voted for Romney and people who voted for Trump.
– Ramesh Ponnuru is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he studies the future of conservatism with a particular focus on health care, economic policy, and constitutionalism. He is also a senior editor for National Review, where he has covered national politics and public policy for 20 years, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, and a contributor to CBS News.