In 2010, President Obama, surveying the wreckage of his Party in the midterm elections, deemed the results a “shellacking.” In November, President Biden may soon be appropriating the same term, or seeking a synonym. But Republicans will face an identity crisis in the wake of midterms victory, and that crisis could prove more dangerous to the GOP than defeat at the polls may prove to the Democrats.
Polls show Republicans poised to take control of the House of Representatives and possibly the Senate. Granted, there are good reasons to view these polls with skepticism. But those reasons suggest that the polls, if inaccurate, are probably understating the Republicans’ prospects, not overstating them. Andrew Prokop of Vox has analyzed 48 close (within 10 points) Senate elections from 2014 to 2020, and found 40 elections in which polling understated Republicans’ margins by an average of 5 percentage points. In contrast, he found only 8 elections in which polling understated Democratic candidates’ margins, and then by an average of only 1.8 percentage points.
Nate Cohn of the New York Times notes that only 0.4% of pollster dials result in a completed interview. That means that a pollster must spend two hours making calls to obtain a single response. Republican voters, already suspicious of pollsters, are more likely than Democrats to be among the huge majority ignoring such calls.
In addition, between now and November 8, the numbers, to the extent they move at all, are likely to move favorably for the GOP. In late September, the Real Clear Politics average of polls projected Republican gains in the House in the range of 5 to 38 seats. This week, the range has grown to 12 to 49 seats. If these trends continue, the range will almost certainly be higher on election day, meaning that a Republican net gain of 50 House seats is a real possibility.
Turning to the Senate, Republican candidates are moving up in all of the toss up races. As with the House, the current crop of polling results likely understates the dimensions of the coming Democratic disaster. The Real Clear Politics website projects a net gain of 3 seats, meaning a 53 – 47 Republican majority. (We may have to wait until December to see the final numbers because neither Party candidate is likely to surpass 50% in Georgia – necessitating a runoff the following month under that state’s peculiar rules.)
Again the RCP projection may understate GOP prospects. It assumes the Democrats will hold the New Hampshire and Washington senate seats occupied by incumbents Maggie Hassan and Patty Murray. But Hassan has seen her lead over Don Bolduc shrink from 7.6 points in September to 3.4 points, and Murray has seen her lead over Tiffany Smiley diminish from 13.7 points to 5.0. Republicans have a real shot at flipping one or both seats.
To sum up, on November 8 we may well see a Republican “wave” election, in which the GOP not only secures control of Congress, but does so decisively, gaining close to 50 seats in the House and 4 or 5 seats in the Senate.
At the state level, Republicans also stand to make substantial gains. The GOP begins the contest in a strong position, controlling the governor’s office and both legislative chambers in 25 states. There are only 16 states where the Democrats exercise such complete control. Three of those 16 Democratic states are Nevada, Maine, and Oregon, where Republicans have strong prospects of picking up either the governor’s office, a legislative chamber, or both. In Alaska, North Carolina, and Wisconsin, where state political power is divided, Republicans have a shot at winning veto-proof legislative majorities.
There is no law commanding political trends to continue. Some races have turned around in the final days. In 1980, for example, a Gallup poll of registered voters, taken one week before the election, showed Jimmy Carter ahead of Ronald Reagan by 8 points. During that final week, the candidates debated, the country marked the one-year anniversary of the Iranian hostage crisis, and the public mood shifted. Reagan defeated Carter by 10 points in the popular vote, and by a margin of 489 to 49 in the Electoral College.
This year, the brutal attack on Nancy Pelosi’s husband by a crazed assailant shouting “Where’s Nancy?” could blunt Republican efforts to capitalize on the crime issue. But eleventh hour turnarounds are very much the exception. Odds are that current trends will continue through November 8, and the Democratic Party will endure another “shellacking.”
If that happens, as both Parties pause to assess the results, the Republican Party ironically will find itself facing greater danger than the Democrats. For the Democrats will merely have to reckon with failure. The GOP, on the other hand, will have to reckon with ideological fissures so deep that they threaten its very existence as a viable political party.
The Democratic reckoning will start with Joe Biden. There is already strong sentiment within the Party against his running for reelection in 2024. To date, Party leaders have kept such views quiet. Expect that to change on election night. As the scale of the disaster becomes evident, more Democrats will come forward to demand, not just suggest, that Biden announce that he will not run in 2024. The contest for the 2024 Democratic presidential nomination will begin on election night.
The Democratic reckoning will also lead to an examination of the Party’s base. Two Democratic policies book-end this issue. On his first day in office, Biden issued an executive order cancelling the Keystone XL Pipeline, effectively killing 10,000 union jobs. In one of his last actions before the midterm elections, Biden issued another executive order, forgiving up to $10,000 in federal student loan debt for borrowers earning under $125,000. Ten thousand jobs, ten thousand student loan dollars. These numbers illuminate one of the choices facing the Democratic Party. Will it remain the Party of blue collar union members? Or will it forsake its traditional base and re-emerge as the Party of college-educated, environmentally-minded, socially conscious voters. Can it be both without alienating either?
The Democratic reckoning will also cause the Party to reflect on the wisdom of its strategy of supporting far-right candidates in the Republican primaries, in the hope that such candidates would be easier to defeat in November. According to one estimate, Democratic-aligned organizations spent $53 million helping pro-Trump, election-denying Republican candidates and attacking their more centrist opponents in the primaries.
On election night, Democrats may see that strategy backfiring. Kari Lake won her primary victory to become the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Arizona with Democratic support. She now leads in the polls and is likely to win her race.
In New Hampshire, Democratic organizations spent millions of dollars in the Republican Senate primary attacking the moderate candidate state Senate President Chuck Morse, thereby helping his opponent retired Army General Don Bolduc — a man whom fellow Republican Governor Chris Sununu has called a “conspiracy-theory type.” With Democratic support, Bolduc eked out a narrow one-percentage point win over Morse. As mentioned above, Bolduc is now gaining in the race against Democratic incumbent Senator Maggie Hassan, and may flip the seat.
Even where the strategy has succeeded, the Party will have to reckon with its inherent contradiction. How can the Democratic Party make an issue of subverting democracy, while it is supporting election-denying Republican candidates? The hypocrisy is manifest.
But these challenges are minor compared to those the Republican Party will face starting on election night, even as it dusts off the victory party confetti.
To date, having lost the White House, the Senate, and the House – all of which it controlled only four years ago – the Republicans have been able to limit themselves to condemning the Biden administration. But with control of Congress restored, the GOP will have to do more than condemn. It will have to articulate alternatives.
That will not prove easy for such a splintered Party.
On taxes, health care, aid to Ukraine, abortion, and many other issues, there is no “Republican position.” Instead, there are conflicting Republican positions. The only issues where any semblance of Party unity exists are crime (which is largely addressed at the local level) and inflation (which is largely managed by the Federal Reserve).
The absence of a coherent set of policies is not accidental. It stems from the fact that there are deep philosophical fissures within the Party.
For over a century, the Republican Party has been the home of conservatism, a political philosophy embracing limited government and free enterprise at home, and a strong military to protect the national interest abroad. In addition to its substance, there is a conservative style. A hallmark of conservatism has been its optimism personified by Ronald Reagan, a man who appeared to harbor no doubt that his side would eventually prevail and, perhaps for that very reason, no bitterness toward his opponents.
The modern Republican Party is having second thoughts about both the conservative philosophy and style.
In a much discussed article published on the Federalist website, John Davidson argues that “we need to stop calling ourselves conservatives.” In place of small government, Davidson wants Republicans to be the party of big government. “If conservatives want to save the country they are going to have to rebuild and in a sense re-found it, and that means getting used to the idea of wielding power, not despising it. Why? Because accommodation or compromise with the left is impossible.” He goes on:
The left will only stop when conservatives stop them, which means conservatives will have to discard outdated and irrelevant notions about “small government.” The government will have to become, in the hands of conservatives, an instrument of renewal in American life — and in some cases, a blunt instrument indeed.
In place of free enterprise and strong foreign policy, Davidson urges conservatives to terminate their alliance with “market-obsessed libertarians and foreign policy neocons.”
In place of Reagan’s sunny optimism, Davidson offers this bleak assessment: “The conservative project has largely failed…. It was about maintaining traditions and preserving Western civilization …. Well, too late. Western civilization is dying.”
It should be noted that John Davidson is not some fringe pundit venting in some extreme media outlet. The Federalist is a serious “conservative” publication, whose website garners about 5 million visits per month. His contentions are receiving serious consideration.
The Republican Party faces an identity crisis. What does the Party stand for? What is its vision of the future?
As long as the Party was out of power, it could avoid answering those questions. That luxury will likely end on the night of November 8 as the election results pour in.