President Trump’s political credo is never admit a mistake or setback, and on cue Wednesday he called the midterm election results a “tremendous success.” Perhaps he even believes it, but he shouldn’t. The results weren’t the “blue wave” of media and Democratic desire, but they were overall a GOP defeat with warnings for 2020.
Democrats won the House for the first time in eight years, meaning that the possibilities for conservative policy reform are dead for the next two years. The siege of investigations will begin, and anti-growth mistakes are all too possible (see below).
The Senate gains are consolation, especially because they show Democrats paid a considerable price for their mugging of Brett Kavanaugh. This will make it easier to confirm judicial and political nominees and will give the GOP some leverage in spending fights. But except for Florida and still undecided Arizona, the Senate gains came in Trump-friendly states. GOP Senate candidates were wiped out across the upper Midwest, Northeast and Nevada.
Democrats also made substantial gains in the states, notably those that were crucial to Donald Trump’s 2016 victory. They picked up seven governorships, including Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Kansas and Nevada. A decade of GOP reform on taxes, school choice and public unions is in jeopardy. GOP victories in Florida, Ohio and perhaps Georgia are compensations, but Democrats in those states also nominated candidates too far to the left.
Republicans held their own for the most part in rural districts and Trump states from 2016, while Democrats romped in the cities. Most ominously for their future, Republicans lost the House because they lost significant ground in the suburbs, especially relatively affluent areas with college-educated voters.
The GOP lost House seats in the suburbs of Denver, Dallas, Houston, Des Moines, Minneapolis (two seats), Kansas City, Chicago, Richmond, Phoenix, and even Oklahoma City. They also lost in the longtime GOP stronghold of Staten Island.
At his media melee on Wednesday, Mr. Trump read the names of some of these House Members with vindictive delight because he said “they didn’t want the embrace.” He meant his. This was petty and not smart. Erik Paulsen in the Twin Cities, Peter Roskam west of Chicago and Barbara Comstock in northern Virginia understood that Mr. Trump is unpopular in their districts. They were trying to save seats that the GOP will now have to win back if they want another majority in 2020.
The House defeat is also a message from moderate Republicans and independents, especially women put off by Mr. Trump’s rancorous style. A question in the October Wall Street Journal-NBC poll puts this problem in sharp relief. While 44% of voters approve of Mr. Trump’s policies, some 20% like his policies but dislike him personally. That 20% is five times the percentage who disliked George W. Bush but liked his policies when he lost the House in 2006, and 10 times the share that disliked Barack Obama in 2013.
Worse for Mr. Trump, the share of voters who dislike him personally but like his policies increased in the past two years. This is extraordinary for a new President and reveals his missed opportunity. Some two-thirds of voters on Tuesday expressed satisfaction with the economy, and these are people he’d win if he didn’t alienate them with his narcissism and petulance.
Unlike Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan, Mr. Trump has made no effort to build a larger coalition than the minority who helped win the Presidency narrowly over Hillary Clinton. Instead he has played constantly to his base who are already loyal. If he wants to be re-elected, he will have to win over more suburban Republicans and independents.
Mr. Trump’s closing argument on immigration also looks to have been a bust that cost Republicans in swing House districts. White House aide Stephen Miller bears much of the responsibility for this misjudgment.
He advised Mr. Trump to walk away from a potential deal trading legalization for the so-called Dreamers in return for money for border security and “the wall.” Then he urged the border crackdown that became the fiasco of family separation that further turned off suburban voters. These Republicans want border security, but they also want a humane and generous immigration policy.
The other liability for Republicans was their failure to repeal and replace ObamaCare. Democrats played on voter fears of repeal but the GOP could never point to the benefits of a replacement they didn’t pass. Then too many Republicans simply ran away from the subject, giving Democrats an open field. The late Senator John McCain delivered the final blow against reform, but the general GOP incoherence on the subject was also to blame. Price controls on drugs—a Trump temptation—won’t be enough in 2020.
Two years ago, before the 2016 election, we wrote that the Republican gamble with Donald Trump was that he’d govern in such a chaotic way that he’d lose the House in 2018 and set Democrats up to create a new progressive government in 2020. If he doesn’t expand his coalition, that is what Mr. Trump will deliver.