With Republicans in control of both houses of Congress, Donald Trump has been able to operate as if he is above the law. Congressional committees tasked with oversight and protection of the balance of powers instead have served as Trump’s personal protection racket. Even as Trump undermined national security, acting no differently than if he were an actual asset of a hostile foreign despot, Republicans but play-acted as if they cared, and in the end shrugged and abandoned even that pretense. They have supported his extremist agenda, and did nothing as he fomented every form of bigotry, even when it inspired murderous violence. But with Democrats soon to be in control of one house of Congress, things are about to change. And Republicans are going to have to make some choices.
The Democrats just won a massive wave election. The depth and breadth of that wave has become more clear, day by day, but Democrats picked up more House seats than in any election since 1974, just a few months after Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in disgrace. Which may be a clue and a portent. As in this can get even worse for the Republicans. Democrats also flipped seven governorships, at least eight state legislative chambers and over three hundred state legislative seats, and now hold a majority of state attorneys general. Their overall national popular vote margin for the House rivals that of the largest Republican waves, with only unethical, undemocratic gerrymandering preventing their seat gain from being even larger. Even more ominously for Republicans, the usual national political battleground that is the suburbs swung hard for Democrats, and it’s hard to see it swinging back even toward the middle anytime soon.
This election was a referendum on Trump, and Trump failed. And in failing, Trump failed his Republican Party. And the Republican Party that has been Trump’s protector, enabler, and lapdog failed at the polls because of its failure to stand up for democratic principles and basic human decency. And soon to be subject to legitimate congressional oversight, Trump is in deep trouble, and his next-level meltdown since the election suggests that he knows it. Even the supposed Republican consolation prize of having netted one or two Senate seats is much less than it seems, and is, in fact, yet another warning, particularly to those senators who will be up for re-election in two and four years.
Democrats this year faced a brutal Senate map. They had incumbents trying to hold seats in numerous states Trump won, while Republicans only had one incumbent running in a state won by Hillary Clinton, none in a state considered reliably Democratic. Of the six Democratic incumbents running in solid Republican states, three lost, two won, and one race is in a recount. And it’s notable that the three Democrats who lost all voted against toxic Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, which in some of the races might have made the difference. It’s therefore important to extend gratitude and respect to Senators Claire McCaskill, Heidi Heitkamp, and Joe Donnelly for standing up for principle, even if it cost them their Senate careers. The same goes for Senator Bill Nelson, who also stood up for principle, and may end up losing his seat, once all the votes are counted. And Senator Jon Tester joins them in deserving praise for also voting against Kavanaugh, and his race turned out to be closer than expected, but his Senate career survived. But in two and four years, Republicans are going to have to defend more Senate seats in states that are considered blue or purple, and that’s where the real story lies.
In this year’s election, no Democrat lost a Senate seat in a traditionally Democratic state. More tellingly, every Democratic senator running in a state that is considered purple not only won but did so fairly easily. Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), and Bob Casey (D-PA) had to defend Senate seats in Rust Belt states that narrowly gave Trump his Electoral College victory two years ago, and all three won easily. So did Sherrod Brown, in Ohio, which can be a swing state, but usually leans toward the Republicans. In Minnesota, which Hillary Clinton barely won two years ago, Senator Amy Klobuchar and the appointed Senator Tina Smith both faced the voters, and again, both won easily. If the Rust Belt is considered an important national political battleground, after nearly two years of Trump, that battleground has turned into a rout.
The final big warning for Republicans came in the two Senate races where Democrats took seats that had been held by Republicans. Nevada is considered a swing state, but this year it was a solid blue Democratic state. Democrats swept all the major races, gained a supermajority in the state Assembly, and came within a couple dozen votes in one race of likewise gaining a supermajority in the state Senate. In its U.S. Senate race, first-term Democratic Congresswoman Jacky Rosen defeated Republican Dean Heller, who became the only incumbent senator from either party to be defeated in a purple state. And just to the south, in usually reliably Republican Arizona, Kyrsten Sinema became the first Democrat to win a U.S. Senate seat in thirty years and the first in more than forty years to win without the advantage of incumbency. And in once solid red Texas, where Hillary Clinton two years ago halved President Obama’s margin of defeat from four years before, Beto O’Rourke came within a few points of becoming the first Democrat to win a Senate seat in thirty years.
In other words, the best the Republicans can claim from this year’s devastating election defeat is that they slightly expanded their Senate majority, but the details of that seeming silver lining are actually an ominous deep gray. Republicans picked up seats in Republican states but didn’t win one in a Democratic state. Republicans failed to pick up even one Senate seat in a swing state, not even in swing states that voted for Trump, despite multiple opportunities, and lost the only swing state seat where one of their own was on the ballot. And while Republicans failed to flip any Senate seats in blue or purple states, Democrats flipped the only one on the ballot in a purple state and even picked up one in a red state. And given the many blue or purple states that Republicans will have to defend in the next two election cycles, they could face massive losses. And they now have to consider whether they want to risk those massive losses by continuing to defend Trump the way they have.
In the last two years, Republicans have definitively proved that they have no principles about nation over party or the fundamental concept of no one being above the law, but now they are faced with the only thing that truly matters to them: political survival. They’ve seen that the voters have had enough of Trump. Young voters are moving to the Democrats in extraordinary numbers, and their turnout for a midterm election soared. And while Trump may be juicing Republican turnout, he seems to be juicing Democratic turnout even more. For Republicans, the lights are blinking red.
In the next two election cycles, the Senate map will flip from favorable to Republicans to strongly unfavorable, and with Democrats sweeping to victories at the state level, they soon won’t have gerrymandering to protect them in the House that they just lost despite it. And as investigations that they can’t stop further expose the depth and breadth of the corruption that is the defining feature of the Trump era, Republicans will have choices to make. Do they really want to continue to protect Trump? Is it worth it? They can’t be expected to do the right thing for the right reasons, but political self-preservation does tend to motivate them. Will it, or do they want their political careers and their political party to go down in metaphorical flames that they themselves lit? We’ll soon find out.