Looked at from one perspective, the 2018 midterms are very bad news for President Donald Trump. The Republicans’ loss of the House of Representatives was in a very real sense a national defeat, with Democrats scoring gains across the nation, flipping toss-up seats as well as some districts that under other circumstances the GOP should have held. The Republicans were soundly defeated in the suburbs and among independents. The gender gap has grown to a 19-point deficit among female voters.
All that ought to make Democrats optimistic about their chances for defeating Trump in 2020. And considering that his victory in 2016 was something of a bank shot made possible only by razor-thin wins in a handful of states that gave him an Electoral College victory despite losing the popular vote, Democrats have every right to be hopeful. Provided, of course, that they manage to nominate a presidential candidate who is not as disliked and politically maladroit as Hillary Clinton.
But the day after the midterms, Trump not only claimed victory but acted as if his reelection chances had received a shot in the arm. His dustup with the media during his first post-election press conference seemed to stop just short of an all-out verbal brawl, reminding his critics of everything they hate about him and reminding conservatives of everything they don’t like about a biased liberal press. Amid the brouhaha, Trump radiated optimism about the future, and it’s probably not just the usual Trump braggadocio.
The midterms illustrated plenty of problems for the GOP, but they also demonstrated the enduring strength of the Trump brand, the president’s acute political acumen, and the fact that his path to a repeat of his 2016 victory is not only far from impossible. In fact, his reelection is a realistic scenario that should have Democrats worried.
The key fact to glean from the midterms is that in virtually every place where Trump staked his personal appeal, in a toss-up race in the closing weeks, his candidate won. Most of his predecessors have failed at this. Indeed, for all of his vaunted charm and popularity, President Barack Obama was not able to save any of his allies when they were in close races in either the 2010 or 2014 midterms. Though it is a political truism that personal political appeal is not a transferable asset, in Trump’s case, it can be.
Granted, Trump picked his spots and avoided contests such as the Kansas gubernatorial race where Kris Kobach, his hand-picked choice for the Republican nominee, was trailing badly. Kobach was handily defeated by his Democratic opponent. Nor did Trump wade into any of the suburban House races where GOP candidates were facing a tide of anti-Trump resentment. In his press conference Wednesday, he unfairly mocked those Republicans — such as Mia Love and Barbara Comstock — who had avoided his embrace in an effort to save their candidacies; in their districts, being seen as pro-Trump would have been a kiss of death. Both women distanced themselves from Trump; Comstock lost, and Love is left hoping that some uncounted ballots will save her.
But where Trump did wade into toss-up contests, including in Florida and Georgia, where the polls showed Democrats with a good chance of winning, most of his allies won. Those victories ensured that Republicans would gain seats in the Senate. They also made clear that Trump’s hold on the affection of red-state voters is undiminished, as has already been demonstrated by polls showing that up to 90 percent of Republicans approve of him.
More to the point, the gubernatorial races in Florida and Georgia also provided what may well be an interesting preview of the 2020 presidential contest.
In each of those states, Republican primary voters rejected more moderate — and theoretically more electable — conservatives in favor of candidates personally endorsed by Trump. In each case — Ron DeSantis in Florida and Brian Kemp in Georgia — his choices consciously patterned their campaigns after the presidential model and had no shame about portraying themselves as Trump clones.
That should have been a handicap in states that are changing from red to purple owing to demographic changes. In the recent past, the Democrats have won victories in the South by nominating so-called blue-dog centrists. But neither of the Democratic candidates — Andrew Gillum in Florida and Stacey Abrams in Georgia — could credibly appeal to the center, because they were running as hard to the left as DeSantis and Kemp were heading to the right. Gillum and Abrams campaigned as unabashed progressives and were widely applauded by both national Democrats and their media cheering section. The Democrats counted on distaste for Trump and the hope that fellow African Americans would turn out in the same numbers for them that they had for Obama in 2008 and 2012.
Both parties clearly ignored the conventional wisdom that elections are won in the center. Indeed, they acted as if the center no longer mattered. Yet what matters about this is not just that the two Republicans prevailed (though uncounted ballots in Florida could still pose an issue), and that Trump’s help was of more benefit to his protégés than the interventions of Obama and even Oprah were for Democrats. The key takeaway is that even in a midterm election with a president whose national favorability rating remains deep underwater, when one would expect the opposition party to prevail in competitive states, Trump’s brand won.
Florida and Georgia may be perfect stand-ins for a national contest two years from now that will pit Trump against a liberal candidate, likely a woman and/or a minority.
If the political climate in Georgia and Florida had tilted far enough to the left to enable even progressives to beat Trump stand-ins — both of whom stumbled badly coming out of the gate after primary victories — then we could assume that the president’s chances of reelection were doomed. But while the margin of victory for both DeSantis and Kemp was tiny, we should take stock of the evidence of Trump’s continuing appeal. It means he must be considered the favorite to win both states again in 2020.
The same is true for every red state where Trump’s influence made the difference. Most pundits thought that Trump had erred in reminding voters of the perils of illegal immigration, rather than focusing exclusively on the booming economy on his watch. Results proved, again, that his political judgment was sounder than that of the so-called experts.
In addition, the Democrats’ capture of the House does not necessarily set up Trump for two years of unmitigated misery, as his media critics assume.
House Democrats seem intent on harassing Trump with investigations, in hopes of forcing the release of his tax returns or uncovering conflicts of interest and revelations about all sorts of skullduggery that they are sure must be about to be discovered. They and their supporters may also still be counting on the Mueller probe into supposed collusion with Russia to somehow make the bad dream of 2016 go away. That might happen, but Democrats shouldn’t count on it.
Nor is it likely that a party whose base is bent on “resistance” will countenance any compromises struck with Trump in order to get legislation passed, even if the president were willing to dump conservative principles to burnish his reputation as a dealmaker. If they do their base’s bidding and try to impeach Trump, the president will have a convenient scapegoat to run against in 2020. Incumbent presidents of the past have used divided government in this way, as a stick with which to beat their opponents — many of them stronger than the legion of Democratic hopefuls now preparing to challenge Trump.
A president like Trump who does not expand his base will probably always be burdened with negative favorability ratings nationally. He will also face another uphill climb in some of the states that he won in 2016, including Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin — he avoided these this year lest he be tainted by the defeats he knew GOP candidates would suffer there.
Democrats scored some victories in the midterms and remain convinced that Trump’s 2016 victory was an aberration, never to be repeated. But the midterms actually make it clear that although his reelection is far from certain, it is also by no means unlikely.