This Version of the GOP is Here to Stay
The Republican Party looks divided and weak, but it remains a party with a host of political assets.
Being on vacation means different things for different people. Some like to go hiking or camping and enjoy nature. Others like to see a piece of history and sightsee in a major city. Many people enjoy lazing by the beach and catching some rays.
Me, I like to catch up on my New Yorkers.
This week, though I’m nominally on vacation, I finally read Jelani Cobb’s excellent piece on the future of the Republican Party. Cobb posits that the GOP is in serious trouble because it is out of step with the political mainstream, and its political base is shrinking. He suggests that the party could go the way of the Whigs and other American political parties that have been swept into the dustbin of history.
It’s a very smart piece, and I highly recommend reading it, but I am skeptical. Republicans may remain a minority party, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be successful.
The reason is polarization.
Last month, I wrote a long piece here arguing that political polarization was good for progressives because it removed more moderate and centrist members, shrank the Democratic Party to its liberal base, and heightened the contrast between Democrats and Republicans. This has made it easier for liberals to see their policy agenda adopted by the party (which is happening right now).
But polarization is not a one-sided game (and unquestionably, polarization has been a net negative for Democrat candidates writ large).
It is keeping the Republican Party afloat.
Cobb is correct that the GOP is out of step with the majority of Americans. It has no recognizable policy agenda. Its one arguable source of unity - Donald Trump - is also an albatross that will limit the party’s ability to win national elections. The GOP is an increasingly white and aging party in a nation that is becoming more diverse and more progressive. Though Trump did much better among Black and Hispanic voters than previous Republican candidates, the party is still badly losing both groups and is getting walloped among women voters. The margin in 2020 was 57 percent for Biden and 42 percent for Trump. Republicans have lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections. Moreover, there is no indication that the GOP will be moderating any time soon. If anything, the party is getting more extreme and more reactionary.
Yet, even with all those deficits, the GOP still has extraordinary political assets - control of 30 state legislators and 27 governors; a 50/50 split in the Senate; a narrow minority in the House, and seemingly unsurpassable electoral advantages in more than 20 states.
Even as the trends in the last two national elections have gone against them, the GOP has remained formidable. In 2018, Democrats won the largest share of the popular vote in a midterm election since 1974. It allowed them to pick up 41 seats in the House of Representatives. That’s a big victory, but it’s actually on the smaller side for a wave election.
Here are some of the largest wave elections in the House since 1922, put together by Rob Oldham and Jacob Smith for the website Ballotpedia:
The 2018 Democratic victory was impressive, but it wasn’t quite in the same category as other major waves.
On the Senate side, the story is even worse. Democrats actually lost two seats in the upper chamber. Granted, the Democrats had an incredibly unfavorable map in 2018, and only losing two seats was a significant accomplishment, but only losing two seats is hardly something to brag about. Democrats did pick up 7 governorships, which is the middle of the pack for midterm waves, but flipped around 350 state legislative seats - one of the lowest totals in history for a wave election.
Gerrymandering and partisan redistricting played a disproportionate role in limiting the size of the Democratic victory. It was simply harder for Democratic candidates to compete in as many seats as they had in the past. But in what clearly was a nationalized election, Republicans more than held their own. For example, in the Senate, which is unaffected by gerrymandering, four Democratic incumbents lost reelection - in Missouri, Indiana, North Dakota, and Florida. On the flip side, three Democratic incumbents in red states won reelection - West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, and Montana’s Jon Tester. But in all three cases, candidate quality played a considerable role in these victories. These are also the only three Democratic senators in states won by Donald Trump in 2020.
By 2020, an election in which the incumbent Republican president lost by a significant margin, Republicans fared well down-ballot. On Election Day, Democrats picked up two Senate seats in Arizona and Colorado and gave one back in Alabama. But in every close election waged in a red state, Democratic candidates underperformed the polls and lost badly (Democrats also lost a winnable Senate race in Maine). Of course, Democrats would later pick up two additional Senate seats in Georgia, which had much to do with Trump’s post-election blunder of suppressing Republican voters - and motivating Democrats.
In the House, most political pundits expected Democrats to add to their majority. Instead, Republicans won 15 seats, defeating 12 Democratic incumbents. In state legislative elections, Democrats badly underperformed, and Republicans flipped two chambers in their favor. Democrats switched none.
All of this is a long way of saying: that Republicans continue to do quite well in places with significant numbers of Republican voters. They continue to win Senate seats in red states, even when the top of the ticket is a drag - and they are more than holding their own in toss-up House races.
What makes all of this possible? Polarization and, even more specifically, the extraordinary loyalty of Republican voters. Democrats have shown the ability to maintain their advantages in states that lean blue. They have arguably added two states to their ledger where they were not competitive before - Arizona and Georgia.
But that comes after Republicans have shown political dominance in places that not long ago were toss-up states: Missouri, Ohio, Florida, Iowa, to a lesser extent North Carolina. Of these four, Barack Obama won the first three twice and the last in 2008. Trump won them all in 2016 and 2020. Texas was once thought to be trending blue. In 2020, Trump won it decisively.
Indeed, it was a mere 13 years ago that many political pundits concluded that Democrats had a nearly unbeatable advantage in the Electoral College, which included Midwestern states like Michigan and Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Donald Trump won all three in 2016. Now it is Republicans who arguably have the advantage in the Electoral College.
In today’s hyper-partisan political environment, GOP loyalty to the party, and antipathy toward Democrats, is so intense that it’s hard to imagine any scenario that would lead to the Republican’s losing their clear political advantages - well, except for one: if the GOP were to moderate its politics. That’s highly unlikely, which further moves the party to the far right and, in turn, creates even more polarization. So polarization and heightened animosity toward Democrats keep the GOP base loyal and voting for Republican politicians. And the more intense polarization becomes, the more difficult it will be for Democrats to wrest away Republican voters in traditionally red states.
The 2022 Senate map offers yet more evidence.
There are several Republican incumbents not running for reelection, but arguably the only state where it’s likely to make a difference is in Pennsylvania. Democrats have a strong candidate in Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, who has already won state-wide. The 2020 presidential outcome suggests that Trump’s victory there in 2016 was a bit of a fluke. In North Carolina, Republican Richard Burr is retiring, but Democrats haven’t won a Senate seat there since 2008 and have lost three straight presidential races. In Wisconsin, Ron Johnson has not announced whether he will seek reelection, but the race will likely be a toss-up if he runs. But in Missouri and Ohio, where GOP incumbents are retiring, few political observers expect Democrats to prevail. The same goes for Florida and Iowa. The good news for Democrats is that few of their incumbents are vulnerable either, but if they were facing a party nearing a crack-up, one would expect that they’d have more of a short-term political advantage. They don’t.
On the House side, Republicans are the odds on favorites to win control of the body in 2022, in part because of the traditional advantage that non-incumbent parties have in midterm elections, but also because of partisan redistricting efforts, which Republicans control in several key states. If that were to happen, it would allow the GOP to stymie what’s left of Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. Republicans could also potentially take back the Senate in 2022. In other words, it’s not hard to imagine the GOP controlling Congress and possibly the White House in the near future.
That is, quite simply, not the profile of a party that is in danger of disappearing anytime soon.
Of course, things can change very quickly in American politics. If the country is past COVID and the economy is humming, it’s not hard to imagine Democrats benefiting across the board in 2022 and 2024. Moreover, being out of touch with a majority of voters and counting on a political base that is old and extreme while overwhelmingly losing young voters is not a long-term recipe for success.
But again, in 2018, with an unpopular incumbent and 2020, amid a deadly pandemic, down-ballot Republicans in red states were politically successful. In an environment where policy outcomes appear to matter less than partisan identification and presidents benefit less from strong economic growth than they have in the past, it’s more likely than not that red-state Republicans will keep winning.
The current version of the GOP is anti-democratic, anti-science, increasingly racist and xenophobic, and out of touch with a majority of Americans. It also remains a potent political force that we will need to reckon with for the foreseeable future.