If Donald Trump inaugurated a new era of conflict in American politics, Tuesday’s midterm elections were just another skirmish, not a turning point in the war. Republicans lost fewer seats in the House of Representatives than Democrats lost in 1994 or 2010, when Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were in their first terms as president. Mr. Clinton and Mr. Obama both went on to win re-election two years after those midterm routs.
And while Democrats also lost Senate seats in the first midterm elections under Presidents Clinton and Obama, Mr. Trump’s Republicans defied the historical trend by adding to their Senate majority.
Democrats and other critics of President Trump argue that given the health of the economy, the failure of Republicans to do better than just keeping the Senate amounts to a damning verdict on this administration. Democrats and their supporters also boast about winning the “popular vote” for the House by a wide margin — by more than 8 percent, according to early estimates. Taken together, these claims are meant to show that Trumpism as a program and style of politics is unpopular, a drag on the Republican brand, and puts winning future elections into great doubt.
The trouble for those who say this is that neither congressional nor presidential elections are decided by a national popular vote, and if anything, the results in 2018 have confirmed that Trumpism, or at least a Trump-led Republican Party, can indeed continue to win crucial presidential battleground states such as Florida and Ohio. If Mr. Trump were the abject failure that Democrats and some embittered former Republicans would like to believe, the Republicans should in fact have performed much worse on Tuesday, even with such a favorable economy. Indeed, if the administration were as incompetent and ideologically extreme as critics charge, the economy should not be doing well in the first place, some 22 months after Mr. Trump assumed office.
Republicans on Tuesday did lose the governorship of Michigan, and they failed to win races for governor and the United States Senate in Pennsylvania. Those states, too, were part of Mr. Trump’s electoral map two years ago and are apt to be critical in 2020. Would the president be unable to win them again? Lou Barletta, the Republican nominee for Senate in Pennsylvania (who lost to the incumbent Democrat Bob Casey), was a staunch immigration restrictionist, just as the president is. But Mr. Barletta ran what was almost universally deemed a poor campaign, and he had nothing of the president’s star power or talent for exploiting an opponent’s weaknesses through well-chosen insults. Democrats’ successes in Pennsylvania suggest little about how a Democratic nominee will perform in the state against Mr. Trump in two years’ time. The same can be said, with a little less confidence, about Democrats’ midterm successes in other Upper Midwest contests.
In an ordinary midterm election, turnout is low and the opposition party has an advantage, as is reflected in the long chronicle of losses for whichever party holds the White House at the time. In recent decades, only the 1998 and 2002 midterm elections were exceptions in which the president’s party gained seats. It’s easy to see why the president’s party is usually endangered: It has to defend the real record of a real leader, while the opposition party can criticize the president without having to offer an alternative. Strong criticism from one side and a necessarily weaker defense from the other is a formula for gains by the party out of power.
That was still the case this year. Yet Mr. Trump did something unusual by increasing turnout among his defenders as well as his opponents. Republicans felt that Mr. Trump had an agenda still worth fighting for, and they were heartened that on several key issues — perhaps most important, judicial appointments — the president had delivered what he promised. That helped to make Tuesday a good night for political engagement overall, and it kept Republican losses below what they would have been if Mr. Trump had simply been an unpopular and polarizing figure.
Mr. Trump made the election a real battle instead of a running retreat. He is indeed widely hated and feared, but he is also much loved as a champion of his voters — not only by those who are nationalists as the president is but by those, too, who are conventional Republicans who want lower taxes, fewer regulations and more conservative judges. Far from bringing about Mr. Trump’s repudiation, whether by a defeated and regretful right or by the country as a whole, the midterm election has only firmed up the lines of conflict for the future.
President Trump will be at the center of that conflict, not as an aberration or departure from the norms of politics but as an integral part of the Republican Party — its head as well as its right arm.
Daniel McCarthy (@ToryAnarchist) is the editor of Modern Age: A Conservative Quarterly.
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