The Briefing, Vol. VIII, Issue 44

Nov. 9, 2020

This week: First takes on Election 2020 results

  • A Senate miracle will keep Democrats in check
  • House GOP makes big unexpected gains
  • The Trump era strengthened Republicans

Our predicted skin-of-his-teeth Trump victory does not appear to have come about, but surely the closeness of this race makes our error understandable — especially considering how much closer it was to the truth than the media predictions beforehand. 

This result is merely the other side of the 2016 coin — a sign of how closely divided and how discontented it remains with its regular political class.

What’s more, oft-stated Republican fears about Trump’s poor polling dragging down the entire GOP ticket proved completely unfounded, just as in 2016. Republicans easily avoided a down-ballot wipeout, although they do face some key questions as Georgia’s January runoff elections approach.

President 2020: After the 2016 election, liberals tried to downplay the significance of President Trump’s victory by arguing that it was the product of less than 100,000 votes that had gone the wrong way in a handful of states. It appears that something similar has happened this time. Trump’s second electoral victory was well within reach — he might have just fallen short in a handful of states that could have put him over the top. 

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Trump’s performance was his record share of the non-white vote for any Republican in the modern era. Blacks and Hispanics — especially men — went for Trump in unusually large numbers in swing states. The efforts over five years to change the definitions of “racism” and “white supremacy” in order to apply them to Trump over relatively trivial comments appears to have been unconvincing, at least among non-white voters. 

Between this result and the other results down-ballot — and even still others, such as Californians’ rejection of Affirmative Action and of the destruction of independent contracting — wokeness has not become the nation’s governing credo. In fact, voters have been horrified by what they see happening in their country. Recall how, in their primaries, Democratic partisans turned against and rejected Bernie Sanders on a dime when he was on the edge of winning. They nominated arguably the least radical of their  The Trump campaign’s understandable effort to turn Biden into a similarly radical figure simply wasn’t convincing enough, although it worked against other down-ballot Democrats quite well. 

This election also demonstrated that in spite of great adversity — in this case, in spite of the coronavirus especially — Trump was a very strong candidate. And Trumpism is a resilient and always potentially winning political idea (under the right circumstances) that will continue to determine the direction of the Republican Party, and which will not stop influencing national politics after Trump is gone.

Although the count continues and the race proved much closer than any media projection or pollster (save for the Trafalgar Group) could conceive or admit, the media have now projected that Joe Biden has won the 2020 presidential election. 

President Trump has not yet accepted this outcome as inevitable, and he certainly has a right to pursue legal challenges if he has facts and evidence to justify them. If he somehow succeeds in overturning the result, then conservatives’ future is rather straightforward. Trump will enjoy narrower Senate control and greater leverage with a narrower Democratic majority in the U.S. House. He will probably be able to appoint at least two more Supreme Court justices.

However, with Biden leading (albeit narrowly) in so many of the contested states that will determine the outcome, conservatives must at this point prepare for and assume a Biden presidency as of January.  

Even so, the Right can count its blessings. Had the pollsters’ projections come true, there was a danger that the United States was on its way toward some kind of revolutionary socialism. Biden would win, Democrats would handily take over the Senate and increase their House majority. They would then abolish the filibuster, pack the Supreme Court, add new states to the Union in order to cement their Senate majority. With new, large majorities in the states, they would also redistrict themselves into permanent power in the House and pass a raft of radical legislation that could take decades to undo.

Senate Miracle: Yet none of these horribles came to pass, and nowhere were the expectations thwarted quite as well as they were in the Senate races. Democrats’ high hopes of a clear Senate majority failed to materialize, as Sens. Steve Daines, R-Mont., Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Thom Tillis, R-N.C., held their seats — the last two (or three even) against all expectations.

Ultimately, Democrats only flipped two of the Seats they were hoping to flip — in Colorado and Arizona — and lost one in Alabama. The upshot is that Republicans now control 50 Senate seats to Democrats’ 48. Assuming Biden is the next president, Senate control remains undetermined and will be decided in two Georgia runoffs January 5. Democrats would have to win both of the races in question just to get a 50-50 Senate. 

Even if they were to achieve this and get a 50-50 Senate, in which a Vice President Kamala Harris breaks the tie, they would be extremely limited in what they could do. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., could well become the most powerful Joe in Washington, with a singular veto over any of his party’s plans. And much like the late Sen. Jim Jeffords, he would also possess the power to switch parties, upending Washington and securing his own permanent political future in the process.

So abusive Senate rule changes (such as abolition of the filibuster) are pretty much out of the question in a 50-50 Senate. The Democrats simply came up short, and this means there will be no court-packing, no dramatic economy-reshaping policies ala California, no elimination of right to work, no laws repealing all state abortion regulation or even perhaps forcing taxpayers to fund abortion.

As for the future, that is less clear. The 2022 Senate class will require Republicans to defend four or five precarious Senate seats — open seats in Pennsylvania and North Carolina, along with competitive seats in Iowa and Florida (and perhaps also Georgia if Sen. Kelly Loeffler prevails in January). 

Then again, Republicans would certainly rather defend these Senate seats in the midterm year of a Democratic administration than at any other time — their odds of success will be much stronger in that situation, and there are potential opportunities for pickups as well in Nevada, Arizona and Colorado, even though none of those states have been particularly promising for Republicans at any point since 2014. (Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., has always been the Democrats’ weak link in his state). 

House Republican gain: As of this writing, Republicans were on pace to increase their numbers in the House from 197 to as many as 211. This is exactly the opposite of what every pollster and most Republicans were predicting. Democrats were going to gain a dozen seats by all accounts.

Under a Biden presidency, it leaves the GOP just a few seats shy of what they would need to build a House majority in the 2022 midterm election. 

In case this remains an issue, a House majority will not prevent abolition of the Senate filibuster. But it can stop court-packing, because a new statute would be required to add additional justices to the current nine, and all other manner of radical legislation.

Several of the Republicans’ House pickups last week (as in New Mexico, Oklahoma, California and South Carolina) were simply rebounds from the 2018 Deomcratic House wave. Moreover, gains in South Florida mirrored President Trump’s success with Hispanic voters there. In Minnesota, Republicans at long last captured the naturally conservative and rural district of one of the last moderate Democrats, Collin Peterson. 

The future here is even more promising for Republicans than in the Senate, thanks to their holding their own in state legislative elections. The only noteworthy change was the flip of New Hampshire’s legislature from Blue to Red. 

By winning at the local level, Republicans avoided handing redistricting power over to Democrats in any states that Democrats did not already control. Republicans will have a chance to shore up their gains and add newly winnable seats in states like Florida, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Texas. Meanwhile, Democrats will be limited in what they can do with redistricting to skew results in their favor for three reasons. First, because they failed to make the gains they needed in the election (for example, they failed to retake Minnesota’s state Senate); second, because they have nearly maxed out the maps in most of the states they control (California, Illinois, Maryland, for example); and third, because Democratic populations tend to concentrate in cities, where they are easily or even inevitably grouped into massive vote-sinks. As to that last one, consider that if Democrats had any way of making their districts in New York City less Democratic, they would gladly do so in order to make Republican districts more competitive.

Upshot: Even assuming a Trump loss, his long-term influence will be immense. Three Supreme Court justices. Tax reform. A booming pre-coronavirus economy that is already roaring back. Criminal justice reform. All that, plus an impeachment that will remain a lasting embarrassment to Democrats for years — so much that they avoided mentioning it throughout this year’s election. 

We will look more at individual races and outcomes in the weeks to come. But the initial summary conclusion for Election 2020 is that cooler heads prevailed. There was no socialist revolution. Even under a Biden administration, Republicans will have every reason to believe they can maintain a toe-hold in Congress that keeps the radicals in check and locks in the best of President Trump’s legacy. 

Meanwhile, the future is more promising than it seemed. Republicans can look forward to House control later this decade. More importantly, they have potential to defy the Democrats’ conceit about demography and destiny. They can build their party, provided that they build on what Trump began — first, his improved performance with minority voters (whose priorities, it turns out, are not quite what the media wants them to be) and his improvement among lower-income workers from the classic Chamber of Commerce and warmaking Republicanism.  

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