Republicans came surprisingly close to taking over the U.S. House

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) (Photo via The Reagan Foundation)

The Briefing, Vol. VIII, Issue 45

This Week: Election Review, Part II

  • Why did Trump underperform in Arizona? It wasn’t Hispanics
  • Impeachment regrets for Dems as Republicans nearly retake the House
  • Recurring theme of Democrats losing despite massively outspending GOP opponents

President Trump’s team is soldiering on with its legal challenges to the 2020 results in various states. Unless these challenges succeed, Joe Biden now appears to have done roughly what Trump managed to do in 2016, but by an even narrower margin. 

As the result currently stands, just 44,000 votes in three states — Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin — appear to have deprived Trump of an Electoral College tie that would have resulted in his winning a second term in a vote of the 50 state delegations in the U.S. House. 

Meanwhile, as we noted previously and will now explore in greater detail, Republicans performed surprisingly well in the Senate, given expectations that Democrats would build a majority. They also came surprisingly close to taking over the U.S. House, against all expectations that they were going to lose seats. They may in fact end up with as many as 214 seats. This is a powerful repudiation of House Democrats’ decision, at the end of 2019, to impeach Trump on rather dubious grounds after their fever-dreams of Russian collusion had fallen apart. 

Another factor was surely the increasingly open Democratic radicalism, combined with Democrats’ openly broadcasting plans to abuse the power they expected to gain by removing obstacles in Senate procedure and then packing the Supreme Court with multiple left-wing justices. 

This week, we will begin our tour of the important states, looking at how the parties fared in this year’s election. In each case, we will examine key results, study the data and trends, and discuss what the political future there looks like based on the 2020 results. 

In coming weeks, after we have finished the rounds of the important states, we will look at historical House exit polling to discern long-term demographic trends in American party politics.

Alaska: Democratic donors seem to have pretty low standards when it comes to choosing races for money-bombs. Somehow, this race, in which Sen. Dan Sullivan, R, faced a nominal challenge, became the focus of their efforts, thanks to a late poll suggesting that Democrat Al Gross had better than a snowball’s chance. The money was wasted — Sullivan won by 13 points and Republicans retook the state House to re-establish a state government trifecta.

Alabama: It was never much in doubt, although Democrats tried to make it seem that way. Despite some late party polling showing a close race, Sen. Doug Jones, D, never really had a chance of re-election. He won a fluke special election against a candidate facing lurid allegations. The voters had no intention of keeping him around once someone without such baggage presented himself as an alternative. 

To be sure, Alabama was electing Democrats to the U.S. Senate as late as the 1990s, but no longer. Former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville won with 60%, just slightly behind President Trump’s overwhelming margin. 

Arizona: There are many states where the Trump era has been a boon for the GOP brand. This, along with Georgia and Texas, is not one of them. This is one of those states in the other group, where Trump’s brand of Republicanism has fared worse than the old brand. 

Arizona used to elect Democrats routinely. It remains to be seen now whether the state has lost its recent Republican lean entirely. Aside from Trump’s apparent razor-thin loss, Democrats have picked up both of its Senate seats in the space of two years. 

Prior to Trump, Arizona had been a vital part of any Republican’s path to the White House. He created an unconventional and more difficult path that could have rendered it unnecessary, but his lag in performance here is certainly cause for Republican concern. George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, and native son John McCain all won it by wide margins in their time, but Trump always underperformed in Arizona, even in victory. In 2016, he won it by only four points. No Democrat had actually carried it since Bill Clinton’s re-election in 1996, but now Biden appears to have taken it this time by just 10,000 votes.

Trump’s extremely narrow loss here, along with the wider (and less unexpected) loss of Sen. Martha McSally, presents Republicans with difficult questions for the future. Trump’s problem was not what you might expect, however. Exit polling suggests that Trump actually did reasonably well with the state’s Hispanic voters compared to prior Republicans — he took 36% of their votes, compared to Mitt Romney’s 25% in 2012. 

Rather, it was the senior citizen vote that abandoned Trump. He won only 50% among the state’s sizeable over-65 population, which cast nearly one-third of this year’s vote. Compare that to the 71% that Romney had taken while carrying the state in 2012. In a race this close, a change of that magnitude is going to be more than enough to make the difference. If the Republican Party is really in trouble with the “snowbirds,” then its future in the state is definitely in great peril.

In the Senate race, McSally was outspent, $78 million to $48 million by her Democratic challenger, Mark Kelly. One can only guess what she might have been able to do with an extra $30 million.

Colorado: President Trump’s performance in Colorado in 2016 was actually not so bad — he put a lot of resources into the state and lost it by less than five points or 136,000 votes. 

This time, he didn’t try very hard, and it showed in his 14-point margin of loss. 

The perception is that the Centennial State is well and truly slipping away from Republicans, much like Virginia has done over the last 10 years. And to some degree, that is true. Sen. Cory Gardner, R, despite his personal appeal and inoffensive tenure, was pummelled by his popular opponent, losing by nine points to former Gov. John Hickenlooper, D. This loss had been widely expected — Democrats scored a real coup in getting Hickenlooper to drop his ridiculous presidential bid and get into this race instead. But it was not a cheap victory. Again, Hickenlooper outspent Gardner by an eight-figure sum — $35 million to $22 million.

Democrats also retained state legislative control, but they failed in their quest to take the state’s western third congressional district, which they had targeted for a takeover. 

There is another related silver lining here for the state GOP. Because of the new nominally non-partisan redistricting process approved by the voters in 2018, legislative Democrats will not have a blank check to redistrict Republicans out of power or to cement themselves in. It is noteworthy that in 2016, Republicans won more votes for state legislature yet remained out of power due to Democrat-friendly maps created by a politically apponited commission.

This time, the process will be different. That doesn’t mean it will be fair, but with Colorado likely gaining at least one House seat, the chances that it will be drawn as a competitive seat, and the other seats largely kept in place, seem better under these circumstances than under the alternative.

Florida: Trump’s team promised to deliver here, and it came through very big. Florida was and remains not only a quintessential Trump state, but also a long-term Republican state — the competitive state with one of the strongest Republican parties (and probably the worst state Democratic Party) in America.

Trump won the Sunshine State by 370,000 votes, despite a raft of polls showing Biden ahead. He did it with a very strong performance among Hispanic voters. In the meantime, Republicans toppled two incumbents to retake their South Florida congressional seats, which had been traditionally held by Cuban Republicans. These seats seemed to be safely in Democrats’ hands after 2018, but it was not so. Continued control of the state legislature guarantees Republicans control over how Florida’s anticipated new additional congressional seats will be drawn after the Census results are in.

Georgia: Democrats made so much noise about flipping Texas, but it was Georgia where they always had the more realistic chances. Prior to 2002, Democrats enjoyed a great deal of success in the Peach State, holding both of its Senate seats and the governorship, in addition to all the other levers of state power. The Republican revolution there, the result of Evangelical voting strength, has been a relatively recent phenomenon. But Democrats have long been plotting their recovery. In 2018, they came much closer to winning back governorship than Republicans would have liked. This time, they appear to have won the big prize — all the electoral votes. 

Trump had underperformed even as he won Georgia in 2016, taking only 50.4% of the vote compared to stronger performances by prior Republican nominees (53.3% for Romney and nearly 58% for George W. Bush in 2004). Biden appears to have bested him by only the slimmest of margins to become the first Democrat to win the state wince 1992. 

Just as consequentially, Sen. David Perdue did not manage to avoid a runoff against Democrat Jon Ossoff, who outspent him two-to-one. As a result, both of the Senate races in Georgia — that regular race plus the special election for the seat of Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R — go to runoff January 5. If Republicans can hold either seat, they will maintain their Senate majority. 

Loeffler is the weaker Republican, but she also faces the weaker Democratic opponent in the Rev. Raphael Warnock, D, whose radical theological background and defense of Jeremiah Wright in 2008 is beginning to get some airplay. In a twenty-plus candidate free-for-all, there was simply no point in airing the opposition research on Warnock. Now, in a one-on-one, Loeffler can let loose. However, it is worth noting that the two main Republicans in the first round failed to reach 50%. Republicans hope their base will be more motivated by the need to check a Biden administration, whereas Democratic voters, perceiving Trump’s defeat, may be complacent about turning out in round two.

Meanwhile, in spite of the strong Democratic performance overall, Republicans maintained control of the state legislature and will have control over how the current and additional U.S. House seats Georgia gets next year will be allocated. This is vital for rebuilding a House majority, as it portends potential gains for the GOP to compensate for two lost House seats in recent years.

Iowa: In contrast to Georgia and Arizona, this is a state that has become a beacon for Trumpism. And it was already shifting in a Republican direction before Trump. 

In the last eight years, the Hawkeye State has been transformed from a left-leaning Democratic state with a strong Republican Party into a full-fledged Republican state. The first hints of this shift showed themselves in 2014, when Sen. Joni Ernst, R, was first elected, by a surprisingly wide margin, over a then-promising Democratic House member, Bruce Braley. Ernst replaced one of the Senate’s longest-serving liberals, Sen. Tom Harkin, and around the same time the total number of Republican-registered voters (both active and inactive) surpassed the number of Democrats.

Republicans wrested away Democrats’ last hold on power — the state Senate — in the 2016 election. In fact, 2017 marked the first year this century when Republicans held a trifecta in the state, fully controlling both elected branches of the state government. And although it was close, Gov. Terry Branstad’s running mate and successor, Kim Reynolds, was successfully elected governor in her own right in the Democratic year of 2018. This year, the GOP made further gains in both the state House and state Senate.

This year, many polls suggested that Trump’s triumph was a doubtful proposition in Iowa and that Ernst was in grave danger of losing her seat. But this did not turn out to be so on election day. As in 2014, Ernst won by a surprisingly large margin — a comfortable seven points and 110,000 votes. Trump won the state by nearly 140,000 votes. Only the Des Moines Register poll was anywhere near to capturing the true result.

Republicans retook the first congressional district and may have also won in the second congressional district (a very Trump-friendly Democratic area) for the first time in 16 years. That latter race may take a while to decide — as of this writing, the two candidates are separated by less than 100 votes, with Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks in the lead.

The seat that Republicans will not win is the one they had great hopes of retaking — the third district. Former Rep. David Young came up short in what can only be described as the least Trumpy of the four districts — the one containing Des Moines, a new destination move city for young professionals, and its decreasingly Republican suburbs in Dallas County.

The future of the GOP in Iowa, if it is to succeed, looks a lot like Trump’s vision — a working-class party with greater appeal to its ancestrally Democratic rural areas, and less appeal to the suburbs of its only major city. 

Kansas: Democrats’ high hopes for this open seat, based mainly on faulty polling, were dashed as Rep. Roger Marshall won for U.S. Senate by a 12-point margin. His opponent, Barbara Bollier, outspent him four-to-one, but she proved to be a bit of a lightweight on the debate stage. Marshall, learning from the mistakes of the outgoing Sen. Pat Roberts, R, in 2014, has been careful to keep strong ties to the state he represents.

Republicans failed to retake the often-competitive third district seat in the Kansas City area from Rep. Sharice Davids, D. But because Republicans kept their supermajority in both houses of the state legislature, they will have an opportunity to make the district a bit more friendly ahead of the next election if they think they can chance it and weaken some of the surrounding republican seats.

Kentucky: Come on, was there ever any doubt? As in 2014, the media tried very hard to turn this into a close race. And for all their efforts, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R, utterly destroyed prominent but losing 2018 House candidate Amy McGrath, D. As President Trump won a fully expected 26-point victory in Kentucky, McConnell was winning an almost-as-impressive 20-point victory over an opponent who outspent him almost two-to-one. 

For perspective on media efforts to create a race in Kentucky, and on Democratic donors’ gullibility, McConnell won by more than Dick Durbin in Illinois, Cory Booker in New Jersey, or Jeff Merkley in Oregon (and if you can name any of their Republican opponents, give yourself a hearty pat on the back). This comes after McGrath spent $88.1 million on the race, complete with record fundraising in the third quarter of 2020. For more perspective, Booker’s opponent spent less than $600,000 and Merkley’s spent just over $110,000.

McConnell built Kentucky’s Republican Party from the ground up, and he has presided over its transition from minority to majority party in the state.

Down-ticket, Republicans cemented their control of both Houses of the state legislature by throwing out half a dozen Democratic incumbents. All they lack now is the governorship, which they will seek to regain in 2023. 

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