For Republicans, the Worry Is Just Beginning

Charlie "Chuck" Cook
January 26, 2021

For most of us, the last year has been an emotional roller coaster. But that’s especially true for Republicans.

In February, when it briefly looked like the Democratic nomination might go to Sen. Bernie Sanders, GOP insiders thought they had died and gone to heaven.

Sanders of course lost the primary contest to President Biden, but it was President Trump’s botched coronavirus response that really alarmed Republicans, as it sent not only his own poll numbers into a freefall, but also those of Republicans further down the ballot. After recovering during the convention season, a second plunge followed after Trump’s disastrous Sept. 29 debate, only to rebound yet again.

When the Nov. 3 election results started coming in, Republicans took heart at Trump running stronger than expected. His losing margin was narrower than predicted in several states, and he won Florida and Texas by comfortable margins, not squeakers. Almost across the board, Republican candidates were beating the point spread, gaining seats in the House and at the state legislative level and keeping their Senate losses to a single seat—not losing control until the two Georgia runoffs this month.

It certainly wasn’t the apocalyptic outcome that many in the party had feared. Only three weeks before the election, Sen. Ted Cruz admitted he was “worried” that the election could become a “bloodbath of Watergate proportions” for his party.

Invoking a term from mathematics, Cruz said, “the delta is enormous,” meaning the range of possible outcomes was great, specifically noting that the GOP could win the presidency, the House, and the Senate, or could lose all three.

The next day, former 1984 Reagan reelection campaign manager Ed Rollins, who last year headed up a pro-Trump super PAC, declared the presidential race over, warning other GOP candidates that the time had come to fend for themselves.

Midterm election history offers considerable hope for Republicans given the narrow Democratic majorities in both chambers. Since the end of World War II, elected presidents have averaged a three-seat loss in the Senate and 22 in the House. In first-term midterm elections, the average is a one-seat Senate and 23-seat House loss.

With the House split at 221 Democrats, 211 Republicans and three vacancies (two previously held by Republicans, one by a Democrat, and possibly two more House Democrats joining the Biden administration) Democrats are hanging on by just a couple of threads there.

But GOP gains aren’t guaranteed: Look to Bill Clinton’s second midterm and George W. Bush’s first midterm for exceptions to the rule. In fact, there’s uncertainty out there to keep Republican strategists up at night. For starters, will Trump be the face of the Republican brand for the next two or four years, or will he fade as a dominant force?

Extraordinary numbers of Trump devotees cast ballots in both 2016 and 2020, one reason why he was able to outperform the polls in both elections.

But in the 2018 midterms, when his name was only figuratively, not literally, on the ballot, the GOP didn’t benefit from the same Trump-triggered turnout surge.

The challenge now for the GOP, as former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie put it on CNN Wednesday, is to separate their message from the messenger, creating some distance from Trump while still benefiting from some of his popular policies.

Trump is a double-edged sword. He did bring his backers out to vote in November, voting for other Republicans while they were there. But simultaneously he offended many swing voters and conventional Republicans, particularly women, who could not tolerate his bellicose style. One GOP pollster privately told me: “If Trump hadn’t led, along with crazies [Trump lawyers and conspiracy theorists] Lin Wood and Sydney Powell, the most effective voter-suppression effort I’ve ever seen, we’d still have control of the Senate. But we don’t.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has made it no secret that he holds Trump personally responsible for the party’s losses in Georgia and thus, control of the Senate.

As Karl Rove wrote in his weekly Wall Street Journal column Thursday, “Looming over any effort to rebuild is Mr. Trump, who was backed by 74 million voters but angered 81 million others, driving many to the polls to vote for Mr. Biden. Some were independents, and others were Republicans who could no longer stomach the president.”

One concern for Republicans is a civil war within their party. According to Whit Ayres, another well-regarded GOP pollster, “The GOP is sharply split between the governing wing and the populist wing. The governing wing used to dominate, and still does among elected officials.” Pointing to the tea-party movement, Ayres continued: “The populist wing predates Trump, but Trump expanded it and energized it, and it now dominates in Republican primaries, although it has never achieved majority support in the country.”

Trump has threatened to back primary challengers to GOP Senate and House members who he sees as not sufficiently loyal, from Sens. John Thune of South Dakota and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska to Govs. Mike DeWine of Ohio and Brian Kemp of Georgia. The danger of divisive intra-party fights in primaries such as the open Senate seats in North Carolina and Pennsylvania, currently held by Republicans, is particularly worrisome for GOP strategists anxious to turn to a new chapter.

Under that scenario, the biggest question is which faction’s voters stay home in the general election. To their thinking, the worst-case scenario is Trump supporting the development of a “Patriot Party,” siphoning votes from GOP general-election candidates.

The second concern that GOP pros raise is just how Biden and his party will govern? As Ayres frames it, “Does the Biden administration govern from the center, or get pushed to the left by the progressive wing?”

Houston-based GOP pollster Jan van Lohuizen puts it like this: “Our best hope, frankly, is that Pelosi drives a hard-core liberal agenda and brings us back together.”

This article was originally published for the National Journal on January 22, 2021.