After polls closed Tuesday in Kentucky, it didn’t take long for Trump’s team to start reshaping the reality of what happened. The reality, of course, is that a Republican governor in a state that Trump won by 30 points appears to have lost his reelection bid. Sure, Gov. Matt Bevin was deeply unpopular and contentious in a way that stood out even for a politician, and sure, down-ballot Republicans fared much better, but it’s hard to escape the fact that the Republican Party pushed hard for Bevin to hold his red-state seat. Trump himself visited on Monday, exhorting voters to return Bevin to the State Capitol, lest the media “say Trump suffered the greatest defeat in the history of the world.”
It wasn’t the greatest defeat in the history of the world, but it was pretty obviously a defeat. Though, according to Trump’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale, even that is unfair. According to Parscale, Trump “just about dragged Gov. Matt Bevin across the finish line, helping him run stronger than expected in what turned into a very close race at the end.” That the race was even within reach, the argument goes, is a testament to Trump’s power. (Mind you, after Trump’s rally on Monday, Parscale bragged about the campaign’s savvy in engaging infrequent voters.)
Tuesday morning dawned with Trump making an even bolder claim. Not only did Trump throw Bevin onto his shoulders and struggle toward the finish line, but also Bevin started from 15 — maybe 20! — points back. Why, to hear Trump tell it, this was nearly one of the biggest come-from-behind victories in modern political history!
You would be forgiven if that lack of specificity about the scale of this miracle seems a bit suspicious, the sort of inflation that’s a centerpiece of Trump’s rhetoric. Republican Party Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel put a more specific number on the gap: 17 points, neatly in the middle of the range offered by Trump. Sure, polling had Bevin leading or showed an even race, but McDaniel and Trump had a nonpublic poll that conveniently showed just how powerful Trump is in electoral politics.
“No one energizes our base like @realDonaldTrump,” McDaniel crowed.
There’s a lot of this going around, these polls that show Trump doing far better than you might expect. There was that polling in North Carolina’s special elections, seen only by Trump, which showed how remarkably the Republicans running in those Republican districts beat the odds, with Trump’s help. And, of course, there are those polls showing Trump’s approval rating at 95 percent in the Republican Party, an approval rating unmatched in any public polls, but, I mean, it’s not as if the president is going to make this up, right?
We take Trump’s word for it that the polls exist, if we wish.
“Let me just tell you,” he told reporters over the weekend. “I have the real polls. I have the real polls.”
There are variations in polling, certainly. It just does seem like a coincidence that the polls showing how robust Trump’s electoral strength is and how long his coattails are are ones that only he and his defenders claim to have seen.
Cynics that we are, we must point out an overlapping consideration, the sort of complicating factor that might inspire a president to want to claim more political support than he enjoys. There is that inconvenient impeachment inquiry in Washington, a probe by the Democratic-led House that poses an admittedly small risk to Trump’s presidency. If he is impeached in the House, 67 senators could vote to remove him from office.
Republicans control the Senate, of course, so hitting that number necessitates 20 Republican senators turning on Trump. Something they’re not likely to do … unless they start to see Trump as a political liability.
We aren’t there yet. That Democrats took control of both chambers of Virginia’s legislature and that Bevin lost are not good signs for the GOP, but they also aren’t doomsday. Virginia has been getting more blue in each cycle. Bevin was unpopular, and his loss didn’t affect the party down-ballot. (On Monday, Trump was quick to celebrate his party’s victory in the attorney general race.) It was yet another subpar performance for the party, but it wasn’t as bad as, say, 2018.
The question Republicans might be asking themselves, though, is how much of an asset Trump is. He fought hard for Bevin, who lost. Trump endorsed one candidate in Virginia, who also lost. He campaigned for the Republican in Mississippi’s gubernatorial race, who won, but when you’re relying on deep-red-state statewide off-year victories as a consolation, things might be looking a bit shaky.
So what happens next year? What happens when Trump demands that they stand by his side, or else face Twitter repudiation? What happens if they stand by his side? You know who else is an unpopular politician? Donald Trump. What happens when they’re on the ballot next to Trump, after another year of investigations and revelations? How much can they count on him to deliver votes for them?
In 2008, Barack Obama assembled a formidable coalition of voters that powered his massive presidential victory over John McCain. Two years later, a question loomed: Could Obama deliver for his party even if he wasn’t on the ballot? He couldn’t; Republicans romped in 2010. Two years later, the question was flipped: Could Obama deliver for himself? He did, and with the presidential-year boost in turnout, Democrats regained ground. But in 2014, with Obama moving into lame-duck territory, Democrats got walloped again.
Republicans watching the results of these off-year elections would be justified in wondering what electorate turns out in 2020. Is it the same electorate as 2018, the one that voted resoundingly and obviously to wrench power away from their party and their president? Or is it the one that elected Trump in 2016 — albeit it only thanks to 78,000-vote edge in three states? To what extent will Trump rally his base to the polls, and to what extent will that benefit other Republicans? If Trump goes full-court-press in a close election in a red state and can’t get the job done, is it worth holding him close as 2020 looms?
Trump doesn’t want his party asking these questions. He wants Republicans to be in fear of his electoral prowess. He and his team don’t want presidential primaries that he has to contest, and they don’t want close races to be seen as Trump failures. They certainly don’t want Republican senators to think that there is any political utility at all in doing anything but wearing a MAGA hat 24/7. Even those Republican senators not on the ballot next year need to be in fear of what Trump can bring to bear.
Trump doesn’t want his base asking those questions, either. Strength and victory are Trump’s political brand as surely and shakily as luxury and class were his brand in real estate. There have been moments when Trump seems to have taken a hit — such as after the 2018 elections — and his base has gotten ever-so-slightly wary. (Trump spent much of the cycle insisting that a “red wave” was coming and falsely bragging about his track record in endorsing candidates.) Trump needs his base to win, but also needs it to keep the rest of his party in line. He needs all of them to think that Bevin’s loss wasn’t Trump’s loss but, somehow, Trump’s victory.
It’s not that the glass is half-full. It’s that it is as full as Trump says it is, and Republicans are offered little choice but to take a drink.