The most common political narrative outside MAGA-land is that the Republican Party is screwed, and richly deserves the ignominious future it faces.
Until recently the GOP was a reasonably normal and intermittently successful center-right political party, not wildly different from its counterparts in other countries with a two-party system, despite some racist and militarist habits that burst into view in times of stress. But then America elected a Black president, and Republicans went a little crazy, according to those outside their circles. First they abetted a destructively antediluvian Tea Party Movement and then lurched into the arms of an evil charlatan who somehow got elected president and spent four years trashing hallowed conservative principles and losing both Congress and the White House before his disgraceful and violence-inflected departure.
Worse yet, in the face of huge demographic challenges that beg for a new approach, the Republican Party has now lashed itself to a Trumpian mast going forward, following the most consistently unpopular president in American history in his bizarre crusade to deny he has ever lost anything. Meanwhile a shockingly united Democratic Party is whipping a few decades worth of liberal legislation through Congress as Republicans whine about “cancel culture” and try to sell the idea that Joe Biden is actually Che Guevara.
That’s the narrative you hear a lot. But there’s another way to look at political trends that points in a very different direction, and it begins with a stubborn fact:
Republicans will almost certainly win back the House in 2022
A byproduct of the surprisingly strong showing of downballot Republicans in 2020 is that even the smallest midterm wave will give them control of the House. An analysis from Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball projects that even without taking redistricting into account, Republicans are expected to flip nine seats in 2022 and enjoy roughly the same narrow but very real majority Democrats have now. And thanks to a dramatic underperformance by Democrats in 2020 state legislative races, redistricting of congressional districts will add to the high odds of a GOP House. The Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman suggests Republicans might pick up the five seats they need for control of the House via redistricting decisions in just four states (Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Texas).
As my colleague Eric Levitz has pointed out, since World War II the president’s party has lost an average of 27 House seats in midterm elections. Last time Democrats controlled the White House, they lost 63 House seats in the first midterm. It won’t be that bad in 2022, but suffice it to say that any remotely controversial legislation Biden hopes to enact in his first term better be on his desk by the end of 2022.
If Republicans do win the House in 2022, could they promptly lose it again in 2024? Of course they could, but the last time the House changed hands in a presidential election year was 1952.
Republicans will likely take control of the Senate by 2024
The usual midterm House losses by the White House party don’t always extend to the Senate because only a third of that chamber is up for election every two years and the landscape sometimes strongly favors the presidential party (as it did in 2018 when Republicans gained two seats). But there a still generally an out-party “wave” that can matter, which is why Republicans may have a better than average chance of winning in at least some of the many battleground states that will hold Senate elections next year (Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin). If they win four of the six you’ll probably be looking at a Republican Senate.
But it’s the 2024 Senate landscape that looks really promising for the GOP. Democrats will be defending 23 seats and Republicans just 10. Three Democratic seats, and all the Republican seats, are in states Trump carried twice. Four other Democratic seats are in states Trump won once. It should be a banner year for Senate Republicans.
The 2024 presidential election will be close, even if Trump is the GOP nominee
One very important thing we should have all taken away from both the 2016 and 2020 presidential contests is that the two major parties are in virtual equipose (given some well-known structural GOP advantages that lets them turn fewer votes into more power). The ideological sorting-out of the two parties since the 1960s has in turn led to extreme partisan polarization, a decline in ticket-splitting and and in number of genuine swing voters. Among other things, this has led to an atmosphere where Republicans have paid little or no price for the extremism they’ve disproportionately exhibited, or for the bad conduct of their leaders, most notably the 45th president.
Indeed, the polarized climate encourages outlandish and immoral “base mobilization” efforts of the sort Trump deployed so regularly. Some Republicans partisans shook their heads sadly and voted the straight GOP ticket anyway, And to the extent there were swing voters they tended strongly to believe (in part because key elements of the news media reinforced this view) that both parties were equally guilty of excessive partisanship, and/or that all politicians are worthless scum, so why not vote for the worthless scum under whom the economy hummed?
None of these dynamics show any sign of changing between now and 2024, whether or not Trump attempts a comeback and wins or loses his party’s nomination. If he does pack it in, Republicans have plenty of options among potential candidates who can simultaneously play to the MAGA crowd while implicitly representing a more respectable brand of politics. In any event, there is no reason to believe they will enter the 2024 cycle at some sort of terrible disadvantage.
To the extent Democrats might have a thumb on the scales in 2024, it would be in the form of presidential incumbency. And no matter what he is currently saying, I don’t know any knowledgeable political observer who really thinks Joe Biden is going to put himself through the rigors of a real presidential contest (not likely one in which his time and energy will be protected by pandemic conditions) at the age of 81. And while Kamala Harris could become an effective successor and go into 2024 with a united and enthusiastic Democratic Party, she could also face a progressive primary challenge just like the last “heir apparent” Hillary Clinton, and could struggle to become as popular as Biden (so far her favorability rating has remained stubbornly underwater). No one raised an eyebrow when Trump called her a “communist” and a “monster” in 2020, so we can assume Republican attacks on her will be unremittingly savage, and will probably appeal to every racist and sexist bone in the body politic.
Then there is the very strong likelihood that Republicans will continue to screw around with voting rules and election administration tasks to further skew future political races in their favor, secure in the knowledge that most of their voters and many independents think “everybody does it,” or that Democrats really are dragging “illegal aliens” across the border in order to have each of them cast 10 or 20 mail ballots. The same midterm trends discussed above are likely to award Republicans with crucial governorship and/or secretary of state positions in 2024 battleground states where their newly blatant determination to suppress votes and cook the books could be extremely consequential.
The bottom line is that anyone who assumes Republicans are in irreversible decline in presidential elections really hasn’t been paying attention.
The GOP’s long-term demographic problems may have been exaggerated
Republican gains among non-white voters after four years of hearing Trump incessantly attack people of color, immigrants and refugees, voting rights, racial justice protesters, critics of Confederate memorials, and inner-city residents were a clear warning to Democrats that demographics alone are not going to award them an automatic or permanent majority. Every cycle we are told the GOP cannot possibly wring more votes out of their white non-college-educated base, and then they do. Yes, eventually the GOP needs to find a youth cohort they can actually win, and their gains among Black and Latino voters should not obscure the fact that they are still getting hammered among minorities by large margins.
But demographic change is slow enough that Republicans can hang in there for a good while via modest success in appealing to young and minority voters while continuing to get members of the white MAGA base psyched out of their skulls with fear and hate lest the Radical Socialists padlock their churches and “cancel” Andy Griffith re-runs. Maybe in the long run the GOP is the north end of a south-bound brontosaurus, but a lot of damage to America can be wreaked before they march to extinction.
Democratic accomplishments just give Republicans something to undo
Yes, even if the Democratic trifecta is very likely to end next year, and even if Republicans win their own in 2024, there’s no way around the fact that in an amazingly short period of time Biden and his party may wrack up a mini-New Deal that reverses many years of atavistic Republican and meh Democratic policies. That has to be an enduring blow to Republicans, right?
Maybe not so much any more. One of the benefits of being conquered by a free-spending protectionist and isolationist is that the GOP is now pretty flexible in terms of its old Reaganite core ideology. As Rand Paul just cheefully said, if Democrats raise taxes – something that horrified old-school Republicans like the ugly face of sin itself – they’ll just lower them next time they have the power to do so! Biden’s accomplishments give the opposition an agenda, which is useful at a time when it isn’t exactly brimming with policy ideas. Republicans may very well embrace the most popular Biden initiatives while demonizing the ones that don’t poll so well. It’s an easier strategy than the one they followed in those more principled days when they lectured voters about the need for “entitlement reform.”
To be clear, I am not predicting that happy days will soon be here again for the Republican Party. But by the debased just win, baby! standards of the Trump era, and given an ossified partisan environment they have helped engineer, they aren’t too far from controlling the country, and have very little to lose by pursuing the most ruthless measures to claw back lost offices. It’s no time to pity them for their inability to get rid of Trump, or mock them for their fecklessness. They’re not going away.