Republicans will now have four years to think about what they did to themselves this year, plenty of time to contemplate the consequences of handing over their party’s car keys to the tea-party movement and watching as the quintessential tea partier, Donald Trump, drove the car over a cliff. If Republicans are really, really lucky, their current 54-46 Senate majority will only be cut back to 51-49. Losing the Senate is at least an even bet, and some analysts think the GOP’s chances are much worse than that. If the Republicans are really fortunate, they can keep their House losses down to 15 seats or so, half of their current margin. Then there are the 12 gubernatorial races, where Republicans once hoped to pick up three to four seats. Also in play are 5,920 of the nation’s 7,383 state legislative seats, 80.2 percent of the total, according to Ballotpedia. State legislative seats are a party’s future, their seed corn. Democrats can tell you what having devastating midterm elections can do, as it happened to them in 2010 and 2014.
On several levels, this political car wreck wasn’t supposed to happen. Six times since the end of World War II we have had a party that has held the White House for two terms seek a third term. Five times out of six, the American people instead voted for change. Maybe it’s the cumulative grievances with a party that builds up over eight years; maybe it’s because voters think it ill-advised to leave one party in power for too long. For whatever reason, that’s the way it usually happens. Arguably it should have this year.
It’s also true that when a party nominates a candidate for president whose unfavorable ratings exceed his or her favorable ratings at the beginning, middle, and end of the campaign, the nominee shouldn’t win. But Hillary Clinton is going to win with unfavorable numbers that average 9 or 10 points higher than her favorables. Even so, the question to be decided on Election Night is how far over 300 electoral votes she will go. Keeping in mind that you need 270 to win, will Clinton surpass President Obama’s 2012 electoral vote total of 332? Could she even get up to the 365-vote level Obama hit in 2008? How many normally Republican states will turn blue on Nov. 8? Arguably Republicans could have nominated a potted plant and do better than they will in 17 days.
And what about the tea party, the Freedom Caucus in the House, and other Trumpeteers with no political philosophy except resentment? Will they slink off into the night and allow the rest of the GOP to begin repairing the party of Lincoln and Reagan, or will they continue to sabotage it for another two or four years? Nobody knows at this point.
In 2018, Republicans theoretically have a chance to put their party back on track. Midterm elections, with 40 percent fewer voters, feature an electorate that is generally older, whiter, more conservative, and more Republican. We also know that midterm elections are usually unkind to the party in the White House. In only three midterm elections in the last century has the party holding the White House not lost seats: in 1934, Franklin Roosevelt’s first midterm election, when Americans were not finished kicking the daylights out of Herbert Hoover’s party; in 1998, when voters punished the GOP for trying to impeach President Clinton despite a strong economy; and in 2002, when voters were not about to vote against their commander in chief in the aftermath of 9/11. The GOP should have an edge in the Senate in 2018. The seats to be contested belong to lawmakers who won in 2012, when President Obama was reelected; Democrats have 25 seats at risk, to just eight for the GOP.
Then there is the economy. As was aptly pointed out in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal, the current, albeit anemic, economic recovery began 88 months ago in June 2009, making it the fourth-longest period of growth since 1854. While economic expansions are said not to die of old age, something has to kill them, and I suspect they grow frail with age, particularly when they’re as sluggish as this one and the world economy is in even worse shape. On top of that, interest rates are already at rock bottom, the Federal Reserve Board has few arrows in its quiver, and a dysfunctional political process in Washington is unlikely to respond quickly and boldly with stimulus. No matter who wins, the odds of a recession over the next four years are pretty good, something obviously bad for the country but giving Republicans an opportunity to bounce back—but only if they right a party apparatus that is currently listing at about 45 degrees.
When I talk to smart Republican leaders and strategists, they have a very good idea of what their party’s problems are, and they know what needs to be done. But my colleague Amy Walter recently reminded us of a great line by former House Speaker John Boehner: A leader without followers is simply a man taking a walk. Republican leaders are faced with a party in which about half of its members believe that compromise is a four-letter word and hold some pretty exotic views of what this country is and where it is headed—views that are very different from where the country actually is and where it is going.