The GOP is in a Trump trap
Trump hasn't been a consistent electoral success — but Republicans have had even fewer winning nights without him.
I’ve never been a huge off-year elections person. There are different types of election nerds, and I’ve always been more of a macro guy, interested in big-picture themes and long-term trends. That’s as opposed to being a micro guy who sinks himself into the details of any election I can find. I’m also skeptical that off-year or special elections are particularly predictive of what is likely to happen in presidential years, although that’s a topic we may revisit at some point — you can find some of my preliminary thoughts on that here.
But it’s worth noting that Democrats had a pretty darn good night tonight, and this is part of a consistent pattern. In Kentucky, not the bluest of states, Democrat Andy Beshear is on track to be re-elected governor by several points. In Ohio, ballot initiatives to create a constitutional right to abortion and to legalize weed passed easily. In Virginia, Democrats should retake1 control of the state legislature. And although Democrat Brandon Presley will probably fall short of holding Tate Reeves to a runoff in the Mississippi gubernatorial race, it’s not a bad margin for a Democrat in such a red state.
And really, this has been the new normal. Consider all the elections since Donald Trump became president in 2016 when Trump wasn’t on the ballot himself:
Nov. 2017: Democrats fairly easily win the gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey, defying pundit expectations.
Dec. 2017: Democrats win a special election to the U.S. Senate in Alabama! Granted it was against someone who was accused of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl. But they won a Senate race in Alabama!
Nov. 2018: Democrats have a strong midterm, gaining 41 seats in the House and winning the popular vote for the House by almost 9 percentage points, although they lost two Senate seats.
Nov. 2019: Democrats win two out of three gubernatorial races in red Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi.
Dec. 2022: Democrats again win a Senate runoff in Georgia to keep Raphael Warnock’s seat.
Sept. 2023: Democrats win control of the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
Nov. 2023: Another good D night; see above.
I honestly don’t think I’m cherrypicking these results too much. I should point out, I guess, that Democrats didn’t do well in the Louisiana gubernatorial race last month. There have also been various instances in which progressives lost battles to moderates, but those aren’t R-versus-D confrontations. In general, Republicans have consistently done badly in the Trump era when Trump himself wasn’t running.
True, it's not as though Republicans did great when Trump was on the ballot, either. Trump lost the popular vote in 2016. And Joe Biden’s 4.5-point margin over Trump in 2022 is obviously nothing to sneeze at against an incumbent, although the race was closer in the tipping-point states and it’s hard to know what baseline we should be measuring the race against in the middle of the worst pandemic in a century.
What’s also interesting about 2016 and 2020 is that Trump underperformed Republican Congressional candidates both times. In 2016, Trump lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by 2 percentage points, while Republicans actually won the popular vote for the House by 1 point. In 2020, the GOP lost the House popular vote by 3 points, less than Trump’s 4.5-point margin of defeat.
So the argument here is not that Trump is a popular candidate — he is emphatically not popular. Rather, it’s that Republican performance without Trump on the ballot may be even worse. They still suffer from selecting poor candidates — many of them endorsed by Trump — and having unpopular policies on positions like abortion. But they don’t get the enthusiastic turnout that Trump and his celebrity gives them. Instead, they often wind up with weird nominees that repel swing voters and motivate Democratic turnout without exciting their own base.
It’s also not as though Republicans have struck out. Trump won in 2016 in a historic repudiation of the established political order. And they have a 6-3 conservative majority on the Supreme Court, which overturned Roe v. Wade and could persist for decades. Those are some big wins to savor.
But it’s been one hell of a devil’s bargain: a choice between mediocre results with Trump on the ballot or outright poor results without him. And without a lot of other models of electoral success — John McCain and Mitt Romney lost; George H.W. Bush was a one-termer, and George W. Bush ended his tenure as an extremely unpopular president — it’s not clear how the GOP breaks out of the trap.
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This originally read “maintain control”, but Republicans previously held the House of Delegates, the state legislature’s lower chamber. Democrats now have control of both the House of Delegates and the upper chamber, the Virginia General Assembly.