Opinion We can now quantify Trump’s sabotage of the GOP’s House dreams

Former president Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Latrobe, Pa., on Nov. 5.
Former president Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Latrobe, Pa., on Nov. 5. (Shuran Huang/For The Washington Post)

Philip Wallach is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Heading into this midterm election cycle, most forecasters expected House Republicans to gain 20 or 30 seats, giving them a comfortable majority. Instead, they find themselves scrapping for every last seat in hopes of getting a bare majority of 218, with a cushion of a few seats beyond that if they are lucky. This disappointing performance can be attributed — at least in part — to Donald Trump’s influence on candidate selection. But just how much?

We can put a number on it by seeing how Trump-supported candidates did relative to those Republicans he did not endorse. If we look at all 401 contests in which a single Democrat faced a single Republican, there is not much difference. Relative to baseline expectations derived from their districts’ recent voting patterns (as calculated by the Cook Partisan Voting Index), 144 Trump-endorsed candidates exceeded their baselines by an average of 1.52 points. In 257 races where Trump did not endorse a general-election candidate, Republicans exceeded their baseline by 1.46 points.

But that similarity is driven mainly by Trump’s endorsements of many Republicans cruising to easy reelection in uncompetitive districts. If we focus exclusively on districts where the margin of victory was less than 15 points, such that the seat was conceivably in the balance, the picture that emerges is quite different.

In these 114 districts, candidates bearing Trump endorsements underperformed their baseline by a whopping five points, while Republicans who were without Trump’s blessing overperformed their baseline by 2.2 points — a remarkable difference of more than seven points.

To give a clearer sense of what this cost House Republicans, we can examine the election returns visually. In the chart below, the lower-right-hand quadrant shows races in which Republicans lost (the Republican margin was negative) even though the district had favored Republicans in recent elections (the expected Republican margin was positive):

Considering only competitive

races, with margin of victory

or loss below 15 points,

most Trump-endorsed

candidates underperformed

Candidates endorsed by Trump

Not endorsed

Republican candidates near this line

performed as expected

Margin of GOP win

15%

Above

expectation

10

5

Margin of

expected

GOP WIN

Margin of

expected

GOP loss

−5

Below

expectation

−10

−15

−10

−5

5

10

15

Margin of GOP loss

Sources: Cook Partisan Voting Index; Ballotpedia

(Trump endorsements); author’s calculations.

Philip Wallach for THE WASHINGTON POST

Considering only competitive races,

with margin of victory or loss

below 15 points, most Trump-endorsed

candidates underperformed

Not endorsed

Candidates endorsed by Trump

Republican candidates near this line

performed as expected

Margin of GOP win

15%

Above

expectation

10

5

Margin of

expected

GOP win

Margin of

expected

GOP loss

−5

Below

expectation

−10

−15

−10

−5

5

10

15

Margin of GOP loss

Sources: Cook Partisan Voting Index; Ballotpedia (Trump

endorsements); author’s calculations.

Philip Wallach for THE WASHINGTON POST

Considering only competitive races, decided by 15 points or less,

most Trump-endorsed candidates underperformed

Not endorsed

Candidates endorsed by Trump

Republican candidates near

this line performed as expected

Margin of GOP win

15%

Above

expectation

10

5

Margin of

expected

GOP loss

Margin of

expected

GOP win

−5

Below

expectation

−10

−15

−10

−5

5

10

15

Margin of GOP loss

Sources: Cook Partisan Voting Index; Ballotpedia (Trump endorsements); author’s calculations.

Philip Wallach for THE WASHINGTON POST

The orange dots, representing Trump-endorsed candidates, are plentiful in the area where candidates performed below expectations, while they are almost nonexistent on the other side. In other words, nearly all Trump-endorsed candidates in competitive races underperformed their expectations.

In some races, Trump-backed candidates fell well short of expectations but still won their seats. For example, Lauren Boebert, one of the House’s loudest election deniers, has a tiny 1,100-vote lead in her R+7 district, which should have been an easy win for the GOP. (The expectation would be a 57-43 win.)

But there are five races in which the Trump penalty was probably decisive:

  • Republicans were expected to win a newly created North Carolina district in the state’s Research Triangle area, rated R +2. But 27-year-old, Trump-endorsed Bo Hines, who drew comparisons to the recently defeated Rep. Madison Cawthorn, lost the seat to Democratic state Sen. Wiley Nickel, 51.3-48.7.
  • With Trump’s endorsement, former pageant winner Madison Gesiotto Gilbert won a 28.6 percent plurality in the primary in Ohio’s 13th District, vacated by Tim Ryan, who ran for Senate. Although the district is rated as R+1, she lost by five points to Democrat Emilia Sykes, 52.6-47.4.
  • In northern Ohio, Trump-endorsed J.R. Majewski “gained fame for painting his lawn into a giant Trump shrine,” according to Politico. He lost his party’s tentative backing after the exposure of various misstatements about his military record in September. Although the district was rated R+3, incumbent Rep. Marcy Kaptur dispatched him with ease, 56.5-43.5.
  • In a prime pickup opportunity in northeastern Pennsylvania’s 8th District, Democratic incumbent Matthew Cartwright had to defend his now R+4 seat. He fended off the Trump-endorsed Jim Bognet without too much difficulty, winning 51.2-48.8.
  • In Washington’s 3rd District, Trump-endorsed Joe Kent narrowly beat out incumbent Republican Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler in the primary, attacking her for her January 2021 vote to impeach Trump. Kent went on to lose the R+5 seat to Democrat Marie Gluesenkamp Pérez, 50.8-49.2.

New Hampshire’s 1st District, rated as dead even, is a closer call. Karoline Leavitt, a 25-year-old former assistant press secretary to Kayleigh McEnany, lost to Democratic incumbent Chris Pappas by eight points, 54-46. Another close call is Michigan’s 3rd District, rated as D+1. Incumbent Republican Peter Meijer would have been well positioned to defend his seat, although redistricting had made it less favorable for him. Instead, he lost his primary to Trump administration veteran John Gibbs, who attacked Meijer for his vote to impeach Trump. Gibbs lost decisively to Democrat Hillary Scholten,54.8-41.9.

We still do not know the outcome of the contest in Alaska, but Trump’s influence might well cost Republicans that seat, too. He threw his weight behind former vice-presidential nominee (and fellow reality TV star) Sarah Palin to replace the late Rep. Don Young (R) in a special election earlier this year. Using the state’s new ranked-choice voting format, Palin lost out to Democrat Mary Peltola despite Republicans winning more first-choice votes. The November election seems likely to repeat that result, giving the R+8 district to Democrats.

In short, Trump remains quite popular among Republican voters, and his endorsement was decisive in plenty of House primaries this summer. But close association with the twice-impeached president was a clear liability in competitive 2022 House races, turning what would have been a modest-but-solid Republican majority into (at best) a razor-thin one. For die-hard loyalists eager to see their party purged of any “RINO” elements, that might be a price worth paying.

But for those Republicans focused on building their party’s coalition and improving its performance in the 2024 presidential election (relative to Trump’s 46.1 percent in 2016 and 46.8 percent in 2020), the evidence from this year’s House races overwhelmingly suggests that conforming the party to Trump’s vision is an electoral dead end.

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