Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, liberal or conservative, predisposed toward labor or business, your eyes should now be squarely pointed to the races below the presidential level.
Self-immolation is not the precise word to describe President Trump’s debate performance, but whatever it was, it was enormously self-destructive to his already-challenging reelection prospects and may well cost some Republican members of the Senate and House their seats.
Anyone who doubted how bad this is for Trump should take another look at the Fox News national poll showing him now 9 and 10 points behind Joe Biden among registered and likely voters, respectively. Or the CNN poll that showed him 15 points back among registered voters, 16 among likelies. Or the ABC News/Washington Post and NBC News/Wall Street Journal polls, which show the president trailing by 12 to 14 points.
The closer a GOP House or Senate incumbent was to the edge before the debate, the whole lot closer to that edge they are now—if not over the side. As the 2018 midterm elections demonstrated, Trump was already toxic in many suburbs. The debate performance on the heels of the coronavirus pandemic took the toxicity to a whole new level.
For some time, pollsters of all stripes have been seeing that Trump’s political problems were metastasizing and now infecting many GOP members of Congress in competitive states and districts, with some voters referring to Republicans on both sides of the Capitol dome as “enablers” of the commander in chief.
But in perhaps a even more worrying development for the GOP, various Republican consultants I have spoken with since the presidential debate are reporting some signs of a drop in enthusiasm and intensity in the GOP base, something that has absolutely not been a problem for the Republican Party at any point since the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation fight two years ago.
The turnout challenge for Republicans is whether many Trump backers lose heart when they see their president not just trailing Biden like he had trailed Hillary Clinton in many 2016 polls, but trailing Biden now by double digits, anywhere from 5 to 8 points behind his 2016 levels. This race is a lot more uphill than that one was, dubious theories like “shy Trump voters” and “fake polls” notwithstanding. Let me offer one non-polling metric: When was the last time you saw an incumbent Republican president cancel advertising in some key swing states to save money? Money is not only a fuel for campaigns, it is also a sign of political health.
The other turnout challenge is “soft Republicans,” those that may not be in love with Trump personally, but stayed with him because they liked his economic policies—and they really liked the conservative judges. But his coarse, rude, and belligerent performance in the debate may have been a bit too much for them. To the extent that many of them decide simply not to vote, the loss of support among downballot Republicans could be fatal to reelection hopes.
Indeed, House Republicans already have little chance of reclaiming the majority they lost two years ago. David Wasserman, The Cook Political Report’s House editor, puts the most likely outcome as a 10-seat GOP loss, give or take five seats. (My own hunch is to take the higher end of that over/under.) The only GOP president in the post-World War II era to avoid a net loss in House seats during his time in office was George H.W. Bush, ironically the only elected Republican president during that time to lose his own reelection. By my calculations, a net loss of more than 14 House GOP seats this year, on top of the 40 seats they lost in 2018, would put Trump’s presidency at the top of the list of lost House seats, passing Gerald Ford’s net loss of 54 seats. To put it another way, if the GOP loses more than 12 seats, the combined 2018 and 2020 losses would be more than Bill Clinton lost in the GOP’s 1994 tidal wave election.
Lower on the ballot, this election has taken on the look and feel of a midterm wave election, something that’s only happened twice in a presidential election year in modern times—1964 and 1980. The 49-state reelection landslides for Richard Nixon in 1972 and Ronald Reagan in 1984 were “lonely landslides,” their party only picking up House seats in the teens and losing two Senate seats in each case.
My advice to any Republican member in a competitive district or state: Don’t leave a dime in your bank account. Almost every election ends up with some incumbent looking foolish for having money in the bank as they are unexpectedly upset for reelection. Don’t be that incumbent.