The 2022 midterm elections were a catastrophe for Republicans, and a historic one at that.
Every meaningful trend favored GOP candidates: uneasy economic conditions, an unpopular president who seems better suited to a bingo hall, a volatile foreign-policy environment, and a midterm voter pool that has consistently favored Republicans. Democratic candidates won many competitive Senate races, and the nearly inevitable Republican takeover of the House barely materialized. Some candidates, like Kari Lake in Arizona, snatched defeat from the jaws of certain victory. And President Trump vented his frustration at pro-lifers who fueled his 2016 victory. It might be time to ask: Can Republicans still win at the national level?
History shows that American politics is reliably cyclical. So, too, is this kind of catastrophizing. After the 2004 election, some pundits spoke of the end of the Democratic Party; four years later, that same party emphatically won the White House and Congress, including a filibuster-proof Senate supermajority that allowed passage of Obamacare.
Furthermore, both parties are reliably incompetent at governing and, really, anything besides fundraising and generating anger. Once one achieves an edge, as Democrats currently enjoy, the hourglass starts pouring. Think about it this way: It’s only a matter of time until the party of drag queen story hour becomes embroiled in a major scandal or otherwise wrecks its credibility.
Yet, these observations rely on historical experience and ignore statistical realities that are increasingly unfavorable for conservatives. For all the left’s heartburn over the Electoral College, it’s a system that isn’t all that friendly to Republicans these days. If we consider Donald Trump a generational anomaly, the Republicans haven’t won under this system since George W. Bush did it in 2004, a time when states such as Colorado, Nevada, and Virginia still fell comfortably into the Republican column. Bush even won New Mexico, a state the Republicans don’t contest anymore.
Let’s use Trump’s 2016 victory map as a starting point. A nearly perfect set of circumstances delivered Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, states that hadn’t voted Republican in decades. The idea that this is easily replicable is an optimistic one. Then, are Arizona and Georgia’s Democratic turns just temporary blips? There is disappointingly little evidence for this theory. Pickups of states like Nevada or New Hampshire wouldn’t be shocking and could offset losses in other places, but they aren’t worth many electoral votes. And there is also the Republican Party’s need to maintain control of states like North Carolina and Texas; the massive migration of people from left-wing states to job-rich locales in the American South is no secret, nor are the Democrats’ ambitions in these places.
Thus, a Republican presidential victory relies on some combination of high performance in the Rust Belt and key holds in the Sun Belt. A candidate like Gov. Ron DeSantis, who seems lab-engineered to be president of the United States, running against an uninspiring Biden-Harris ticket amid poor economic conditions, might run this gamut. The smart money might even be on that outcome. But what about when these critical circumstances aren’t aligned in favor of Republicans? Can they hope to win even 50 percent of the time?
Even in the event of a comfortable DeSantis victory, he is probably looking at a ceiling of something like 315 electoral votes (Trump won 304 in 2016). By comparison, the Democrats start off with almost 200 from just the West Coast, Illinois, New York, and New England, places that would vote Democratic even if the candidate killed someone on camera.
Thus, in the coming years, we could see a departure from the seesaw that has characterized American politics for more than half a century. Democrats might be positioned to win well over half the time. For a glimpse of how this would work, one need only look at how Canada’s Conservative Party, contending with large-scale immigration and population consolidation in major metro areas, has lost three consecutive national elections and seems uncertain about how to achieve a different outcome.
This can play out in one of three ways. Most favorable for Republicans would be the wholesale realignment of voters, specifically the long-awaited migration of Latino voters to the GOP. This sort of process is inevitable in politics — Trump signs outside Pittsburgh union offices, for example, would have been unthinkable not so long ago, but it is slow and unpredictable, and neither politicians nor voters are known for patience.
Next, the Republican Party could endure a prolonged period of opposition, like the Labour Party in the United Kingdom or the Social Democratic Party in Germany during Merkel’s tenure. These parties have been large and influential enough to influence policy, but politics is about winning, and opposition parties by definition do not. It is also unlikely that American politicians of either party would have the discipline to prioritize principles over power.
That leads to the third possibility, in which the Republican Party moves leftward and abandons policy positions that it cynically deems troublesome. We witnessed an element of this recently when 39 Republican congressmen and 12 Republican senators accepted the “resistance is futile” ultimatum of influential societal institutions and supported the ironically named “Respect for Marriage Act.”
You can bet the Republican establishment is not willing to wave goodbye to its precious suburban, white-collar voters who sport pronouns in their LinkedIn profiles and want abortion on demand for a rainy day. Overtures to these voters would consign the more conservative elements of the Republican coalition to supporting a third party that can’t win or a lesser-of-two-evils party that doesn’t reflect their values. This is the worst of the three outcomes; conservatives should take it seriously and fight it uncompromisingly.