Ideologically, the GOP isn’t broken. Today’s Republican Party is the honest representation of everything its ideology celebrated—government so small you could drown it in a bathtub, unable to respond to a global mass-death pandemic. Racism so central to its core, that a key Trump reelection plank is defending the confederacy. An utter disdain for science and experts so deep that we are the global leaders in mismanaging the coronavirus pandemic, and have lost over 130,000 people (and counting) as a result.
But electorally? Donald Trump has been the worst thing to happen to the Republican Party since Richard Nixon.
2016: Trump was selected in our country’s bizarrely undemocratic Electoral College (thank you, Alexander Hamilton), in an election that otherwise saw Democrats gain two seats in the Senate (in Illinois and New Hampshire) as well as six seats in the House (though remaining in a deep 241-194 minority). Given the sturm und drang of the year’s election, the tight results ended up representing a sort of stalemate. Unfortunately, Trump squeaked through, and the world was turned upside down.
2017: The first big electoral battle of the Trump era was in late 2017, filling the Alabama Senate seat of Jeff Sessions, off on his ill-fated turn as Trump’s first attorney general. Democrats picked up this seat, in a state that Trump won 62-34. Sure, Republicans had nominated child predator Roy Moore, but even that was a reflection of modern GOP priorities—that Republican had made his name by unconstitutionally insisting that a statue of the Ten Commandments be displayed in the rotunda of the Alabama Judicial Building. Performative piety trumped, in the minds of Republican voters, any history of sexually assaulting teenagers.
We had the epic battle in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, as Republican Karen Handel narrowly won a historically deep-red district in suburban Atlanta, a seat Republicans had easily won 62-38 just a year prior. This was the first sign of the suburban realignment that has wrecked GOP electoral chances since 2016. The Democratic nominee, Jon Ossoff, got 46% of the vote, and laid the foundation that Democratic nominee Lucy McBath built upon when winning the seat two years later.
Democrats also won the two governorships on the calendar—New Jersey, where Chris Christie had stunk up the joint for eight years, and Virginia, at a time when Republicans still thought the state was competitive, and when they still held legislative majorities. Again, the suburbs played a starring role. Things were shifting, but was it a blip? The sample size was too small.
2018: The first midterm in a president’s service is always a bit of a blood bath. According to Gallup, presidents under 50% approval ratings averaged 37 seats in the House. Trump never came close to sniffing 50%, and by October 2018, he sat at 40%, according to Gallup.
Ultimately, Democrats exceeded that historical average with a 41-seat pickup, despite dealing with Republican-written district maps in most of the country, designed to give their candidates unfair advantages.
Luckily for Republicans, the Senate map was heavily tilted in their favor, with Democrats defending twice as many seats, and in tough states like North Dakota and Missouri. When the dust settled, Republicans gained a net two seats—winning in deep-red states of Indiana, Missouri, and North Dakota, while also winning a heartbreaker squeaker (as usual) in Florida. Meanwhile, Democrats presaged their new strength in the Sun Belt by picking up seats in traditionally red Arizona and Nevada. Also importantly, Democrats held their Senate ground in red Montana, as well as the midwestern states that Trump rode to victory—Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Republicans also made a bid for two seats in Minnesota, where Trump had narrowly lost in 2016, but those races weren’t even close.
Democrats picked up seven governorships—Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, and Wisconsin. That shifted the Republican advantage nationwide from 33-16 to 27-23. Again, we saw the reversal of Republican fortunes in their critical midwestern Trump states. It’s no accident that Trump won those previously Dem-leaning states. They picked up governorships and the legislature in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin in the 2010 Republican wave, and proceeded to gerrymander themselves into safe majorities and undermine voting rights and organized labor over the subsequent decade. Democrats finally get them all back.
Democrats gained seats in 62 state legislative chambers, and lost seats in only 10, for a net gain of 309 seats. Democrats flipped control of six chambers—Colorado Senate, Maine Senate, Minnesota House, New Hampshire House and Senate, and New York Senate. Democrats gained supermajorities in both chambers in California, Illinois, and Oregon, boosting their full-control total to seven states. They also won a supermajority in the Nevada Assembly. Republicans lost their full legislative supermajority in North Carolina, leaving them with 16, and lost supermajorities in the Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Texas Senates.
Speaking of Texas, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz barely hung on to his Senate seat, by a measly two points. In Texas. The reason? The suburbs!
In a coup for Democrats, Tuesday night proved that Harris County has ceded its title of the biggest battleground in Texas. Democrats ended a long streak of remarkably thin electoral margins in the state’s biggest county in 2016 when it awarded Hillary Clinton more than a 12-point margin of victory. O’Rourke grew that advantage this year by several more points.
Perhaps more notable was O’Rourke’s performance in neighboring Fort Bend County, another suburb that had long been considered red but is in the battleground category now.
The most ethnically diverse in the United States, Fort Bend swung by 12 points in the Democrats’ column in 2016. It was an electoral flip that Democrats hoped would be a sign of things to come, particularly given that the county’s demographics could help it turn this diverse pocket of Texas reliably purple in the future. If Abbott’s razor-thin margin of victory — just .3 percent — and losses by other statewide Republicans are any indication, future elections don’t bode well for the GOP.
Democrats won every elected county-wide office in Harris (Houston) and all but one in Dallas Counties.
2019: With governorships in Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi on the docket, it should’ve been an easy year for Republicans, right? Not in the era of Trump.
Democrats held their governorship in Louisiana, a state Trump had won 58-38 in 2016, and picked up the governorship in Kentucky, a state Trump won 63-33. The Mississippi governor’s race had no business being competitive, and yet Republicans held on by only a 52-47 margin. Trump had won the state 58-40.
Once again, the suburbs came through for Democrats, with the Cincinnati suburbs on the Kentucky side of the border coming through big for Democrats. And in Louisiana:
At the state legislative level, Democrats won control of both chambers of the Virginia legislature, while losing ground in Mississippi and Louisiana.
But the most devastating Democratic defeat of 2019 was in Wisconsin, were Democrats came just short of picking up a 10-year term on the state’s Supreme Court, a failure that will haunt them for … a decade.
2020: If 2019 was a heartbreaker in Wisconsin, 2020 was … invigorating. Not only did Democrats pick up one of those 10-year terms on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, but they did so by double-digit margins, in the face of Republican obstruction forcing the election to take place in the COVID-infested Democratic stronghold of Milwaukee. The results were not only encouraging on their own merits (the GOP’s advantage on the court has been whittled down to 4-3), but also for what they presaged for November, as Wisconsin has seen some of the tightest results in recent years.
And that brings us up to date, as the GOP’s eroding base of support among suburban white women, along with increased engagement among Democratic core constituencies (youth, voters of color, and single women), threaten to bring the whole edifice of the GOP crashing down.
In the presidential race, Trump is well on his way to losing, and losing big. He wove an impossibly tight path to 270 Electoral Votes in 2016, and that avenue appears closed to him. The big drama? Will Trump even salvage Texas? Yes, yes, we can’t be complacent. No one is breathing easy or taking a vacation. But the reality is that Trump is in deep, deep trouble, and nothing in the news, from the coronavirus to the racial justice protest movement, is giving him any hope for recovery.
And the GOP malaise is seeping down-ballot, where Republicans haven’t just given up on the House: they may lose even more seats. In the Senate, GOP chances of holding the chamber already look slim, and the chances of a complete and utter rout increase by the day. Democratic fundraising is going gangbusters, and pickup opportunities look solid in Arizona, Colorado, Maine, and North Carolina, and are about even in Iowa, Montana, and Georgia (where two seats are up for grabs). Meanwhile, Democrats have longer-shot chances in a growing number of states—Alaska, Kansas, South Carolina, and Texas. Meanwhile, Democrats risk losing a single seat—that Alabama seat they picked up in 2017.
That’s 11 Republican seats currently competitive, and just one that is Democratic. Democrats need a net pickup of three seats and the presidency to take over the Senate. A four seat net pickup would be a clean majority.
Democrats are continuing to focus on state legislative races as they erode the GOP’s ability to draw state and federal legislative districts for this decade. Arizona, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Texas are in particular focus, though as the GOP’s national standing worsens, new opportunities in Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Montana, West Virginia, and Wisconsin are emerging.
So is Trump’s pro-Confederate statue campaign really going to turn all this around? What about another 150,000 coronavirus deaths by Election Day? Additional economic devastation, with Republicans holding up government assistance in the Senate? How about calling Black Lives Matter a “symbol of hate”? Or pretending that there’s such a thing as “Obamagate”?
Republicans tied themselves to Trump, who in turn brought out all of the GOP’s dog whistles into the open. And yes, the Republican Party’s white male base lapped up the racism and xenophobia and hatred for all things smart and learned. But it turns out they were dog whistles for a reason—and not only has it split suburban white women from their coalition, but it has even split off a chunk of the GOP itself, with the never-Trumpers suddenly becoming a serious factor in the race (even going after the Republican Senate). That chunk may only be 8-10%, but in a 50-50 country, that’s a legit number.
Nothing is sure until the votes are cast and counted, and we have a lot of work to get the wave election we desperately want and deserve. But the seeds are there for the final coda of the Trump era—the mass electoral annihilation of once-dominant Republican majorities.
Let’s keep working to make it happen.