The risks and challenges to Democrats in this midterm election are well known. From their tiny majorities, to 160 years of midterm-election voting patterns, to the disadvantages that come with reapportionment and redistricting, a good case can be made that it’s an uphill climb for them to retain control of the House. The Senate looks to be, at best, an even-money proposition.
To the extent that any potential headwinds facing Republicans are discussed, it is largely limited to disunity within the party. Some call it a “civil war,” others a “purge” of any elected or party officials seen as disloyal to former President Trump.
Establishment-oriented Republicans are concerned that the pro-Trump zeal within the party base, combined with Trump himself potentially getting involved in primary elections, could cost the GOP seats that they might otherwise win. This is exactly what happened in 2010 and 2012.
In 2010, President Obama’s disastrous first-term midterm election, tea-party-sympathizing GOP primary voters nominated district attorney Ken Buck to face appointed Sen. Michael Bennet in Colorado; Bennet won by fewer than 2 percentage points. In Delaware’s open Senate race, Republicans nominated lightly regarded Christine O’Donnell over then-Rep. Mike Castle; O’Donnell lost to New Castle County Executive Chris Coons in November by a whopping 16 points. In Nevada, GOP voters tapped Sharron Angle to face Sen. Harry Reid, who was seeking his last reelection in that perennially competitive state; Reid prevailed by nearly 6 percentage points. Given the political climate that year and the circumstances in each of those states, less-flawed Republican candidates might well have won at least two if not all three of those races. Two would have been enough to flip control of the Senate to the GOP. They would have to wait another four years for that, in Obama’s second midterm election.
But before that, the GOP would make the same mistakes again in 2012. Indiana Republicans ended the career of longtime Sen. Richard Lugar, nominating Richard Mourdock as their standard-bearer; the result was a 50-44 percent loss to then-Rep. Joe Donnelly. In Missouri, the party tapped then-Rep. Todd Akin to face vulnerable Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill; Akin endured a 15-point drubbing. Forfeiting up to five Senate seats in two elections is quite something.
But there is another risk beyond nominating fringe or flawed candidates. Republican leaders and other elected officials in Washington and in many state capitals are projecting great confidence that this election will be a referendum on the incumbent president, rather than on their own actions. Granted, that is the norm, but it doesn’t seem as if many in the Republican Party are concerned about how their brand looks to anyone beyond their most loyal customers.
Given the coronavirus pandemic, it is a miracle that the 2020 elections came off as smoothly as they did. One reason was the efforts made by states and localities to accommodate the challenge, making it easier to vote by mail, creating drop boxes for people to turn in their ballots, and expanding registration and balloting time frames. A recent Census Bureau report found that 69 percent of ballots were cast either by mail or another form of early voting, up from 40 percent in 2016 and 33 percent in 2012. It would seem that many voters tried and liked what some call “convenience voting.” Does it risk soiling the GOP brand to be seen as taking it away? While the Republican base believes that voting fraud is rampant, there is little evidence that those outside the base think elections are being stolen.
Republicans’ posture on creating an independent, bipartisan commission to investigate the events of Jan. 6 is another potential risk factor. Once Democrats agreed to divide commission appointments evenly between the parties and wrap the whole thing up before the election year begins, the optics for Republicans changed rather dramatically, at least from the point of view of independent voters.
Our elections have now become mostly base-oriented, with people voting straight party tickets, but in really close races, those “pure independents” who do not lean toward either party, though few in number, can be decisive. Last fall, it was precisely this group, in my judgment, who had tentatively decided to vote against both Trump and GOP Senate and House candidates before having a change of heart. All the talk of a Democratic wave focused their thinking on the implications of that outcome—everything they’d been hearing about democratic socialism, abolishing ICE, and defunding the police, and wondering whether Medicare-for-all was just a Trojan horse to take away their private, employer-provided health insurance, or that talk by some Democrats of packing the Supreme Court and abolishing the filibuster indicated a desire to change the rules if they weren’t winning. Most did stick with Joe Biden, but enough peeled off to make that race closer than expected, and it did make the difference in a lot of Senate and House races that had seemed headed in a different direction.
Republicans should be concerned about the role of such voters next year.
This article was originally published for the National Journal on May 21, 2021.
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