Though the GOP had a good night in the Senate, those results were hardly representative of the national mood. Republicans can win in Trump country, but they should start wondering whether they are going the way of the nearly-defunct California Republican Party, which doubled down on nativism during the 1990s, won on anti-immigration sentiment for a time, but made itself a permanent minority.
President Trump won’t see it that way. He will accept no blame, as President Barack Obama and President George W. Bush did when they suffered midterm election losses. He will refuse responsibility, though he has explicitly and repeatedly insisted that the election is a referendum on himself. He will deflect, rationalize, mislead and lie. Here’s how.
1. “I didn’t really campaign for the House. I really concentrated on the Senate.” Republicans had a historically favorable Senate map this year, with lots of vulnerable Democratic senators up for reelection in red states. It was not strategy, but the luck of the Senate calendar that kept the chamber in GOP hands. Trump will try to argue that the election was a “split decision,” and that “nobody thought we could keep the Senate.” And he will take credit. In the later days of the campaign, he campaigned in states with close Senate races. Yet over the course of the campaign season, he also toured tight House battlegrounds and insisted that a vote for embattled House candidates was a vote for himself. Insomuch as he has focused on the Senate, it is because he has had to all but give up on the House, despite his efforts.
2. “They” — vaguely defined, unless it’s George Soros or Michael Bloomberg — “spent so much to defeat us.” Democratic candidates raised gobs of money online this election cycle, often in low-dollar increments from small donors. This blunted Republicans’ usual advantage in murky outside political spending. Trump will claim that this wave of money shows Republicans were the ones facing unfair disadvantages, even though it showed that a lot of Americans were desperate to take back at least a piece of the government from an ever-more-Trumpified GOP.
3. “Lots of illegals voted for Democrats.” This has been one of Trump’s rationalizations for his popular vote loss in the 2016 presidential election. There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the United States, let alone fraudulent voting on the scale that would have accounted for Hillary Clinton’s nearly 3 million-vote 2016 margin. But Republicans — and not just Trump — have stoked paranoia about voter fraud for years, to justify new rules that make voting a big hassle for groups that tend to vote for Democrats. Thirty to 40 percent of the country are prone believe him.
4. “Many of the people who lost weren’t really Trump Republicans.” In wave elections, the least extreme members of the ousted majority tend to lose. They are more moderate because they represent swingy districts. Though the term “moderate” can only be used in a relative sense in reference to the House GOP — which has steadily purged its ranks of actual centrists — members of the far-right Freedom Caucus didn’t have to worry about their seats. Lawmakers such as Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), who lost in the purple Virginia suburbs to Democrat Jennifer T. Wexton, were the ones in danger. It would not have helped if they had been Trumpier.
5. “Republican congressional leaders were weak.” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), as usual, kept disgracefully silent throughout a campaign marked by racist and nativist appeals. But he condemned Trump’s idea to eliminate birthright citizenship, showing that even Ryan has a limit. Trump responded, “Paul Ryan should be focusing on holding the Majority rather than giving his opinions on Birthright Citizenship.” The message: It will help Republicans win if people fear a bloodthirsty mob of brown people, who are potential terrorists, surging over the border to birth anchor babies; go talk about the caravan. Yet that was the GOP message in the last several weeks of campaigning, dominated by the president’s apocalyptic warnings that Democrats want to invite MS-13 killers, human traffickers and drug dealers into the country. It did not play in the areas Republicans needed to hold.
This election was about Trump. The exit polls said that. The president made sure of it with his nationalization of the congressional race during his prejudice-saturated anti-immigration tour. With a historically strong economy, Republicans should have been able to contain any midterm election losses this year. Instead, the president’s decision to continually inflame base has deformed the party. To any reasonable observer, the GOP’s transformation into a reactionary party rather than a conservative one has been a grave moral and intellectual failure. That descent is has now resulted in electoral failure, too.