Strategists say the midterms won’t prompt much introspection within the GOP—let alone a course correction.
Shortly after news outlets began officially projecting that Republicans would lose control of the House of Representatives Tuesday night, I emailed the GOP strategist Brad Todd to ask why he thought his party had lost.
“Lost?” he responded, almost immediately. “What are you talking about? We may have our largest Senate majority in history.”
He was overstating things a bit, but his sentiment was not unique. At the end of an ugly 2018 campaign season, Republican strategists told me the election results were unlikely to prompt much introspection within their party—let alone a course correction. Far from the blue-wave repudiation of Donald Trump that some were predicting earlier this year, the midterms yielded decidedly mixed results for the president’s party.
Republicans lost control of one chamber of Congress, while expanding their majority in the other. They suffered a net loss of at least six governorships and several state legislative chambers, but beat back Democratic insurgents in some of the country’s most high-profile races.
Party strategists acknowledged that losing the House was a significant setback, effectively killing the GOP legislative agenda for the next two years, and opening the door to an onslaught of subpoenas aimed at the White House. But they also noted that such a loss two years into a president’s first term was not uncommon historically—and it could have been worse.
“We are all in Republican politics for three reasons: to cut taxes, pick judges, and kill our enemies abroad,” said Todd, who is also the co-author of the book The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics. “You can do two of those with the Republican White House and a GOP Senate. And we did the other one last year.”
Of course, this rosy attitude might look less than prescient come next year, depending on how much damage House Democrats do to Trump with their expected investigations. But many on the right are betting that Democrats will go too far on that front—and Todd predicted that their majority would be “short-lived.”
“I am comforted by the fact that the people who are now running [the House] are complete lunatics and will remind Americans why they have no business being anywhere near power,” he said.
Asked how the election would influence congressional Republicans’ relationship with Trump, Terry Sullivan—who ran Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign in 2016— responded, “To quote the brilliant political strategist and philosopher Pete Townshend, ‘Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.’”
For both parties, Sullivan said, “the predictably muddled results of last night don’t give any guidance on the effectiveness of ‘Trumpism.’ Some places it works and some places it doesn’t … Both sides declare victory. Both sides’ supporters believe they’re right. And so it goes.”
As I wrote earlier this week, the president tightened his grip on the Republican Party in 2018 as Trump-averse candidates across the country lost primaries to outspoken champions of maga-dom. That trend continued Tuesday night, as Republicans got slaughtered in suburban districts where the president is unpopular, but thrived in conservative Trump country—producing a smaller, but more purely Trumpian, GOP caucus in the House.
Trump may not be completely without Republican dissenters. Senator-elect Mitt Romney, who’s headed to Washington from his adoptive home state of Utah, has pledged that he will continue to speak out against the president when he feels the need to.
But even GOP strategists who say they are repulsed by Trump’s toxic effect on conservatism aren’t getting their hopes up for a widespread Republican revolt as they look toward the 2020 presidential campaign.
“The lesson will be ‘Stand with Trump,’” one such party strategist lamented to me. He said he thought there was a strong case to be made for a “serious bipartisan ticket in 2020 against Trump and a more liberal Democrat,” arguing that it “would do really well in the suburbs, and might be the only thing to change the current political environment in the country.” But he also acknowledged that within the GOP, there is “no oxygen for a primary challenge to Trump outside of New Hampshire.”
When it comes to Trumpism, the strategist said, 2018 made clear what members of his party will do: “They will double down.”