Two years after Donald Trump surprised the world and won the United States presidential election, Trump and the Republicans lost control of Congress. Trump’s radical positions and vitriolic rhetoric turned suburbanites in highly-educated districts against the Republican Party.
The results of the election show that it is hard for Republicans to simultaneously appeal to the anti-immigrant, anti-politics base that got Trump elected while also maintaining the support of traditional upper-class economically fiscal conservatives. The electorates in places like Virginia’s 10th district in the suburbs of Washington, DC, Florida’s 27th, outside of Miami, Pennsylvania’s 18th in the outskirts of Pittsburgh, and Kansas’s 3rd, outside of Kansas City, are too sophisticated to fall for Trump’s fear-mongering.
In the final days of the election, Trump dialed up the hate and smears. He grabbed onto the news about a “caravan” of migrants marching from Honduras to the U.S.-Mexican border, seeking asylum, and lied that it was full of terrorists and criminals. He released an ad that was deemed so racist that the news networks CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News refused to air it—not even for money.
Slate’s Jim Newell pointed out that Trump’s final campaign push might have energized his base in already conservative states. If that is the case, then it could have been one factor in helping the Republicans maintain control of the Senate, where they needed to win whole states.
The Republicans had a tough fight for the Senate in Texas, for example, a traditional conservative stronghold, but incumbent Ted Cruz held on by a small margin. At the same time, Pete Sessions, who had represented a House district in Texas ever since 2002 lost. If Republicans ran up the vote margin in reliably conservative districts by appeals to culture wars, that same strategy caused them to lose in moderate districts. They polarized the country.
Barbara Comstock is an example of the kind of Republican who lost a moderate district. In 2016, she made a point of saying that she would not vote for Trump. Yet when it came time to vote on legislation and hold Trump accountable with Congressional investigations, Republicans in Congress fell in line with Trump.
Virginia’s 10th is the district with the second highest median income in the country, $123,900. While their voters might appreciate the tax cuts the Republicans voted for, which went disproportionately to higher income earners, Trump did not focus on tax cuts or the economy in the final push. Those affluent voters would be turned off by Trump’s dumbed-down culture war message. The same circumstance repeated itself across the country.
Moreover, Trump’s irresponsible, uncontrollable behavior drenched all Republicans like a downpour on people with broken umbrellas. How could they credibly distinguish themselves from the party leader without incurring Trump’s wrath?
Those Republicans who frequently spoke out against Trump, like Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, were frequently attacked by Trump, which caused them to lose support among the right-wing base. Flake and Sen Bob Corker of Tennessee thus retired, rather than risk facing a primary challenge by a pro-Trump Republican. Republicans are now facing a close fight in the Arizona Senate race, which might not be decided until a day or two after the vote.
Trump’s racist rhetoric also cost Republicans some of the districts they represented with relatively diverse electorates. Sessions’ 32nd district in Texas was one: 25 percent of its citizens are Hispanic. Carlos Curbelo, who is of Cuban descent, lost his seat in the south of Florida, which is 70 percent Hispanic.
Democrats also won statewide elections for either Senate or governor in Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania, the key states in the Midwest that determined the presidential election for Donald Trump. While most of those races were competitive, the Democratic victories show that Trump has not established a stronghold in the rust belt, either.
The suburbs are moving away from Republicans because of Trump, and the rust belt is not falling into his grasp. This combination could prove fatal to Trump when he runs for reelection in 2020.