When he eventually processes his electoral defeat by Joe Biden, Donald Trump may take some solace in the fact that he had the best losing night of any incumbent president for at least the past century.
Trump had coattails, even if he lacked a coat. Besides cutting into the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, Republicans broadly performed well in state legislative and gubernatorial races at a key moment, with post-census redistricting coming up ahead of the 2022 midterms. The GOP is also in a strong position to retain crucial (albeit rather unstable) control of the Senate, assuming a Republican incumbent can win at least one of two runoff elections in Georgia. All this came despite widespread expectations of broad Democratic gains up and down the ballot.
In the longer term, Trump’s departure from the White House can only improve the prospects for a viable GOP presidential candidate to emerge ahead of the 2024 election. Though no one can know for sure whether he will run, Biden is less likely than most presidents-elect to seek a second term. Prominent Republicans may not want to say it for fear of alienating some portion of the roughly 72 million Americans who cast their votes for Trump, but the president’s defeat could turn out to be a useful strategic retreat that improves the party’s future prospects.
If the GOP holds the Senate, Trump deserves a lot of credit for not going through the motions of campaigning, despite polls that widely predicted (and mainly over-predicted) his defeat. Like an athlete who leaves everything on the field no matter the score, Trump traversed the country to rally his voters all the way to the end. This almost surely kept Democrats from defeating incumbent Republican Thom Tillis in North Carolina. It may also have saved Steve Daines in Montana and Joni Ernst in Iowa. Picking up even one of those seats would have meant Democrats needed only one Georgia seat to gain Senate control, rather than two. Picking up two of them would already have secured it. Just as important, Trump stayed out of the way while Maine’s Susan Collins separated herself from him and overcame her own negative polls to win reelection, despite a ranked-choice voting system that many observers expected to favor her challenger.
If Mitch McConnell remains in his post as Senate majority leader, that chamber will continue to be the wilderness where most House-passed legislation is lost forever. The tax law Trump signed during his first year in office will remain largely unscathed for the time being, despite Democrat hopes to undo much of it. Biden’s regulatory and judicial appointments will be constrained. Any talk of enlarging the Supreme Court or promoting statehood for Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia will be off the table.
But for how long is anyone’s guess. Republicans will have a difficult position to defend in the 2022 elections, just as they did in 2020. Those midterm elections will decide the fates of Missouri’s Roy Blunt, North Carolina’s Richard Burr, Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey and Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson, all of whom won their last election by 6 percentage points or less. Blunt is probably the safest, but the others are in states where any Republican is currently vulnerable. On the Democrat side, Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, Michael Bennet of Colorado and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire have similarly precarious histories. But all three are in regions that lately tend to be safer for their party.
Even before the midterm elections, Republicans could lose control of the Senate if they take a bare 51-49 majority by winning only one of the two Georgia seats. In that case, a single GOP senator from a state with a Democratic governor who dies or otherwise leaves office could shift the balance. In most places, governors can appoint a replacement to serve at least until the next general election, and there is often no requirement that the replacement be from the same party as the departed senator. McConnell, Burr, Toomey, Johnson and Tillis all hail from states with governors who are Democrats. So do two Republicans each from Louisiana and Nebraska. The reverse – a Republican governor and two Democrat senators – will be true in Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Arizona and Georgia, if Democrats gain control by taking both Georgia seats, leaving incoming Vice President Kamala Harris in a position to break the 50-50 tie. There are many ways a closely divided Senate could flip or become more secure for either party, depending on unpredictable events over the next two years.
This makes the GOP gains in the House all the more important. A president’s party tends to give up some ground there in the following midterms. This is hardly a foregone conclusion, but between the narrowed Democratic majority and the upcoming, largely GOP-driven redistricting, the second half of Biden’s term could feature a Democratic Senate and a GOP House. That would be good news for Biden’s judicial nominees, but would otherwise result in similar congressional deadlock.
Like so much else about the Trump presidency, his party’s strong showing concurrent with his own defeat is a historical anomaly. Herbert Hoover’s loss to Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932 was an epic disaster for Hoover’s party. That election added 101 seats to a preexisting Democratic House Majority and flipped Senate control to the Democrats as well. Republicans would regain Senate control for only four years in the following 48, and Democrats held the House for all but four years of the following 62.
Jimmy Carter’s defeat in 1980 was almost as bad. Ronald Reagan carried Republicans to Senate control. Democratic House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O'Neill, meanwhile, was left with a majority in name only. Republicans allied with conservative Democrats, who together gave Reagan crucial legislative victories in his first term, leading to his landslide reelection in 1984.
Republican Gerald Ford’s defeat in 1976 hardly counts. Ford never won election as either president or vice president, having been Richard Nixon’s replacement for Vice President Spiro Agnew. The congressional races in 1976 scarcely changed anything, leaving Democrats in control of both houses, but this followed a Democratic sweep in the post-Watergate 1974 midterms. In 1974, Democrats had gained four Senate seats (to a total of 60) and 49 House seats.
George H.W. Bush did not do his party too much harm in losing to Bill Clinton in 1992. Clinton’s Democrats retained control of both houses of Congress, with no change in the Senate and the GOP gaining nine House seats following redistricting. Democrats netted two governorships that year. The GOP would rally for major victories in the 1994 midterms. Those victories gave Republicans House control for the first time in a generation and returned the Senate to GOP hands as well. This may be the closest analog to the situation following Trump’s loss, in which the defeated incumbent’s party was still positioned for a resurgence if it played its remaining cards well.
In the current case, those cards include building on the inroads Trump made with Latino voters, notably in Florida but also in south Texas, and on his outreach to Black voters (where he had a small degree of apparent traction, mainly with men). The GOP’s weakness with women was amplified by Trump, so his departure alone may mitigate this problem, although it will not eliminate it. Republicans definitely have a lot of work to do.
Trump’s post-election intransigence is taking his give-it-everything campaign style past the point of reason. But his defeat, likely more by accident than design, leaves Republicans in a relatively good place. He might take some consolation in that, when he is ready to face facts.