In this edition: The GOP's 2022 comeback, the final polls of the Trump presidency and the first special election of the year gets underway.

Filing late to our editors to make sure it's the final newsletter of the Trump era: This is The Trailer.

Ryan Costello could be part of the next Republican comeback. The former Pennsylvania congressman, who retired in 2018 after courts redrew his district, always ran strong with the suburban voters who rejected President Trump. This month, when Costello took his first steps toward a 2022 Senate bid, his party was already talking confidently about its next majority.

Then came Jan. 6, and the storming of the Capitol by supporters of President Trump. Did that change anything for Costello?

“Oh my gosh, yes,” he said this week. “There was a palpable sense of excitement and, frankly, confidence, about 2022 ... And then the president stole the narrative and turned it into something else, putting Republicans on the defensive.”

Costello is still exploring a bid, and Republicans are closer to winning back the House and Senate majority than any defeated party in 20 years. It has been longer, 42 years, since a Democratic president escaped his first midterm election without losing control of Congress. But a party that has gotten very good at comebacks has never navigated terrain like this — tethered to a defeated leader, relying on courts to advance their agenda and driven by the whims of TV, radio and online pundits.

“There are some people who were tolerated because they were screaming in favor of Trump, but they never did anything,” said Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, who is girding for battle against the Biden administration’s expected spending and tax increases. “If Steve Bannon said something, you had to listen, because he might have the president's ear. Not to pick on him — you could pick a dozen people like him — but that’s gone.”

Republicans have been in far worse shape before. They confronted the incoming Kennedy, Carter, Clinton and Obama administrations deep in the minority, in need of an average of 50 seats to take back the House and 12 to take back the Senate. Next year, if two contested House races are settled in their favor, Republicans would need just five gains to take the House and one to take the Senate.

At the state level, the party is as powerful as it's ever been — in full control of 23 governments ahead of a redistricting process that was already expected to reward Republican-dominated states, such as Florida and Texas. The legislators who’ll draw the next decade of maps can also alter election laws, rolling back the changes (early voting, no-excuse absentee voting) that their base blames for their 2020 loss.

That’s a better starting position than Republicans had after their 2008, 1992 and 1976 defeats, which unfolded before Deep South states and rural areas had fully abandoned Democrats. But after each of those losses, the party made a clean break, dumping a defeated or unpopular leader and becoming a bulwark against liberal overreach. 

In 1993, that meant pledging to never to raise taxes. In 2009, it meant ditching the entire fiscal legacy of President George W. Bush and admitting that the party had spent too much money to build up government, a premise embraced by Reps. Eric Cantor (Va.) and Paul Ryan (Wis.), who would help lead the 2010 comeback.

That break isn’t possible in 2021. Donald Trump isn’t going away, and the party’s base doesn’t want him to. A supermajority of Republican voters think that Trump won the election; a majority don’t blame him for the riots at the Capitol, a story that will continue to consume Washington for months; a majority don’t think those riots were that big a deal, anyway.

“As I prepare to hand power over to a new administration at noon on Wednesday,” the president will say in a farewell video, “I want you to know that the movement we started is only just beginning.”

Trump earned that status by winning the presidency and abandoning the fiscal conservatism — tax cuts, paid for by slashing the welfare state — that Ryan brought into a failed 2012 presidential campaign. In 2010, for example, then-Senate candidate Ron Johnson attacked his Democratic opponent over the increase in the debt in the 18 years since he “went to Washington” — from $4 trillion to $14 trillion. 

“Washington’s overspending is costing us jobs and hurting Wisconsin families,” Johnson said. Ten years later, the debt’s at $27 trillion; the opposition to Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion stimulus plan is a shadow of the opposition to Obama’s $831 billion plan, which organized protests within weeks. The funding sources for the tea party movement are still around, as are some of its key organizations, but their activists have moved on. They voted with their feet, like the Fox News viewers incensed by the network's accurate 2020 election coverage who switched to Newsmax.

“I'm asked all the time, what happened to the tea party?” said Amy Kremer, a prominent activist in the 2009-2010 movement who now leads Women for Trump, at the president’s Jan. 6 rally. “Well, we're still here. We just grew and morphed into something bigger and better, the MAGA movement. And I'm convinced, were it not for the tea party movement, we would not have President Donald J. Trump today.”

Among Republicans, and in conservative media, there has been plenty of opposition to the Biden agenda. Conservative think tanks have opposed the stimulus package, and House Republicans have already condemned the Voting Rights Act update that Democrats intend to pass as their first non-impeachment business. But more time has been spent defending or arguing about the president's actions around Jan. 6. The party elected a diverse new class of House members in 2020, setting up their midterm strategy and changing the narrative about the party. Yet since the riots, members of that class have already splintered, with Rep. Nancy Mace of South Carolina criticizing Trump on MSNBC while Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia announces on Newsmax plans to impeach Biden.

What could Democrats do to spark a backlash, and how would these Republicans take advantage of it? In interviews, conservatives imagined a few Biden actions that would energize their voters, such as new gun restrictions or new limits on charter schools. One pointed out that the early, galvanizing issue for anti-Obama conservatives came out of nowhere — a homeowner rescue plan that inspired the original “tea party” rant, and Obama's comment that police who'd arrested a renowned Black academic outside his home had “acted stupidly.” A president who had delivered on nearly everything immigration restrictionists wanted would be replaced by one who supported wide-ranging amnesty, an issue that had never not inspired resistance.

Republicans will have the numbers to benefit from that, even if the outgoing president will define their image. David McIntosh, the president of the Club for Growth, said that reports of big donors holding back after the Jan. 6 riot were overrated. Some donors might give more to individual candidates, rather than risk a PAC donation that could go to someone on the wrong side of the election contest. But every incoming Democratic government raised taxes, and the Biden administration intends to raise corporate taxes, a topic that would shake people out of any stupor.

“If they're boycotting, I think they’re violating their fiduciary duty to their shareholders,” McIntosh said. “If we're talking about the corporate tax rate going back over 30 percent, by saying, ‘We’re no longer giving to members who can prevent that,' they’re making enemies of the very people who can save them.”

Reading list

What might be missing from virtual concerts.

Deep-cleaning for democracy.

What the insurrectionists admitted to, before the spin began.

Why some in state parties aren't happy to see Jennifer O'Malley Dillon again.

The financial sources of “Stop the Steal.”

Two election defeats later, the infighting continues.

What the people who study conspiracy theories expect next.

“How the QAnon cult stormed the Capitol,” by Daniel Bessner and Amber A'Lee Frost

Can millions of people be nudged out of a fantasy?

Poll watch

The Trump presidency ends in a matter of hours, and one of its legacies is set: No president was ever so unpopular throughout a full term. Trump never got the bounce that fellow one-term presidents benefited from — Jimmy Carter after the Camp David Accords, George H.W. Bush after swift victory in the Gulf War. No president was so vehemently opposed by voters identifying with the opposition party, smashing the record just set by Barack Obama. And no unpopular president enjoyed such rock-solid support from his base, with Trump typically enjoying support of 90 percent or higher from Republicans — a number he also frequently inflated.

Trump, who will exit the White House before President-elect Joe Biden arrives, never hit the rock-bottom numbers that George W. Bush did in his final weeks. But as this newsletter pointed out in December, even unpopular presidents tend to get a bounce on the way out of office, as the public stopped viewing them as political leaders and began seeing them as elder statesmen. It never happened for Trump, the first defeated president since Gerald R. Ford to not rule out another run. In FiveThirtyEight's average of all polling, the president's approval rating was at 44.5 percent on Election Day. It has fallen six points since then, to 38.5 percent, while disapproval has grown from 52.7 percent to 57.9 percent.

President Trump approval rating (Gallup, 1023 adults)

Approve: 34% (-5) 
Disapprove: 62% (+5)

The final Gallup poll of the president's approval rating finds it falling to the lowest levels of his presidency; for only the fourth time, disapproval of Trump has jumped above 60 percent. Although Gallup famously stopped doing “horse race” polling after 2012, it has been tracking presidential approval for decades, and Trump will leave office with two unwanted prizes: the first modern president never to crack 50 percent approval and the lowest average level of support throughout his term.

Do you approve of the president's handling of the covid-19 outbreak? (Washington Post/ABC News, 1002 adults)

Approve: 38% (-3) 
Disapprove: 59% (+1)

When news of the first FDA-approved coronavirus vaccines broke, the president and some allies were furious: Would voters have rewarded them if the announcement came two weeks earlier? We'll never know, but the sloppy implementation of vaccinations and the president's diverted focus on overturning the election results prevented him from getting any bounce. Support for his pandemic response dropped a little from before the election and hit its lowest level since July, as a second wave of the virus hit sunnier states such as Arizona and after the president's botched rally in Tulsa drew a backlash.

Do you think that Donald Trump should or should not be removed from office before January 20 because of his role in the events of January 6? (CNN/SSRS, 1003 adults)

Should be removed: 54%
Should not be removed:  43%

The expiration date for this poll result comes in just six hours, or 18 if you're counting until the exact moment when power transfers from Trump to Biden. By announcing that he wouldn't take up the House-passed Article of Impeachment until later this week, outgoing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) ensured that Trump would stay in office. More than 90 percent of Democrats supported removal, along with majorities of independents and moderates. But 88 percent of Republicans opposed it, along with 56 percent of White voters without college degrees.

Do you think that Joe Biden's victory in the 2020 presidential election is legitimate or not legitimate? (Quinnipiac, 1131 registered voters)

Legitimate: 64% (+4) 
Not legitimate: 31% (-3)

This is the second time Quinnipiac has asked voters whether they believe the November numbers, and since the events of Jan. 6 the share of voters who say the results were legitimate has ticked up. The movement comes mostly from Republicans; last month 70 percent of them questioned the election results, and this month, 67 percent do. White voters without college degrees moved from narrowly doubting the results to narrowly believing them.

What are your feelings toward the two major political parties? (NBC News/Wall Street Journal, 1000 registered voters)

The Republican Party
Positive: 29% (-8) 
Neutral: 19% (+3) 
Negative: 51% (+5)

The Democratic Party
Positive: 39% (-1) 
Neutral: 16% (+0) 
Negative: 44% (+1)

For the second time this century, Democrats are about to take full control of Washington with voters still viewing them more positively than Republicans. The GOP's net negative rating is at 22 points; Democrats have a negative rating of 5 points. That's a slight shift away from Republicans since the last of these polls, before the election, and it's the worst Republicans have fared on the question since mid-2016, when the party was in disarray over Trump's march through the primaries. The movement is most easily explained by reaction to the Capitol riot; while nearly half of voters have no opinion of the QAnon conspiracy theory, the proportion that views the movement negatively has jumped by 12 points since last year.

Special election watch

The race for Louisiana's 5th Congressional District heated up this week as endorsers got behind the field's best-known candidates and the window for new entries began to close. 

State Sen. Karen Carter Peterson got the endorsement of Georgia Democratic activist Stacey Abrams last week, and called in Monday night to a meeting of Our Revolution, the liberal political group founded five years ago by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). After accepting the group's endorsement, Carter Peterson emphasized her role in fighting antiabortion legislation in the conservative state, and talked about the agenda she'd bring to the House.

“I'll work to pass legislation to increase the federal minimum wage,” Carter Peterson said. “And I want to end the tax breaks for the big corporations and the wealthiest one percent.”

Carter Peterson, a former state party chair, made her first run for the seat 15 years ago, coming up short in a challenge to a scandal-plagued Democrat who'd soon lose reelection to a Republican. But she hasn't unified Democrats behind her current candidacy, and earlier on Monday former Rep. Cedric Richmond, whose Jan. 15 retirement kicked off the election, made a long-expected endorsement of another candidate, state Sen. Troy Carter.

“He has put in the time and the work to serve people, and we can count on him,” Richmond said in a Monday morning statement.

Qualifying for the March 20 primary officially begins tomorrow, and candidates must have filed and qualified to run by the end of the day on Friday. The Republican-drawn district stretches from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, a design meant to pack Democratic strongholds into a single seat, shoring up the state's GOP delegation; victory in the Democratic primary is a ticket to Congress.

Ad watch

Troy Carter, “Congressman Cedric Richmond endorses Troy Carter for Congress.” The former congressman ties his support of Carter, a local ally, to how seriously Richmond took his job. “In my last speech and vote in Congress, I was proud to protect and defend our democracy,” Richmond says, before pitching Carter as a serious legislator who has “led the fight for working families in Louisiana.”

Karen Carter Peterson, “Karen Carter Peterson for Congress.” Carter's chief rival speaks entirely for herself in her first spot, saying she has a record of “bold, progressive leadership” that she'll bring to the Hill. The field won't be set for a few days, but Carter Peterson is already sizing up the possible competition from liberal activists who are jumping into the race, and trying to sell herself as a grass-roots candidate running against the “establishment.” 

In the states

Republicans waged an aggressive campaign to overturn Biden's three-point win in Michigan, urging GOP members of the Board of State Canvassers to decertify the results. Had both of them done so, the four-member board would have deadlocked, kicking off a kind of legal battle that neither Democrats nor Republicans had fought before.

It didn't happen, because Republican board member Aaron Van Langevelde voted to certify. But the parties are picking new board members this month. Langevelde won't be returning, and Republicans have proposed three pro-Trump activists as potential replacements.

“I am confident that my decision is on the right side of the law and history,” Langevelde said in a statement to Detroit media on Monday. It comes as no surprise that I was not renominated to the Board of Canvassers after I voted to certify the presidential election.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) had the power to pick a new board member from the GOP's list; she went with Tony Daunt, the executive director of the Michigan Freedom Fund, a conservative group that criticized the state's handling of the 2020 election but distanced itself from efforts to dump the results.

“The election is over. The results are in, and here in Michigan, they’re not going to change,” Daunt wrote on Nov. 20. “What should, though, is the way Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson handles worries, accusations, claims and sworn affidavits about mistakes, fraud and malfeasance during the vote counting process.”

Turnout watch

The 2020 election is over. Again. Georgia has certified the results from its Jan. 5 runoffs, the final step required for Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock to join the Senate. The canvass period ended with both gaining votes since two weeks ago, when the races were called and Democrats began planning for their new majority. 

In the end, 4,484,954 Georgians voted in the runoff between Warnock and Sen. Kelly Loeffler. Fifty-two of these voters didn't cast votes in the race between Ossoff and Sen. David Perdue, while 49,303 voters skipped a runoff for public service commissioner. But the incumbent Republican in that race, Lauren “Bubba” McDonald, easily won the most votes of any Republican on the ballot: 2,234,689 of them, around 20,000 more than Perdue and around 40,000 more than Loeffler.

Republicans went into Jan. 5 thinking that a turnout of 1 million more voters would erase the Democrats' early-vote advantage. Turnout did blow past 1 million that day, but Democrats won anyway. Ossoff and Warnock both hit 92 percent of Joe Biden's total vote from November; the Republicans fell in at 89 percent of Trump's vote. That was the election, with Black voter enthusiasm hitting general election levels, while Republicans in their rural and exurban strongholds lagged behind.

Countdown

… one day until the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris
… 60 days until special House elections in Louisiana
… 140 days until primaries in New Jersey and Virginia
… 154 days until New York's primary