Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the forthcoming book, “Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party.” Follow him on Twitter: @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
Republicans have good reason to be unhappy with some of Tuesday’s election results. Democrats took control of the Senate and House of Delegates in Virginia. In Kentucky, a very red state, Democrat Andy Beshear has claimed victory, potentially injecting some blue into the state capital by defeating Gov. Matt Bevin, who is refusing to concede.
State elections are not always seen as relevant to national politics. It is easy to overblow the implications of an election. Experts can easily find a multiplicity of local factors, some related to the particular personality or record of a candidate or about local politics that explain the results on any given day. It is easy to read too much from these kinds of elections; often, when the presidential election takes place, they are quickly forgotten.
Republicans will spend the next few days trying to explain why, if Bevin indeed lost, this was all about Bevin’s failings rather than about Trump, and that explains why the strong support of President Donald Trump and other national Republicans couldn’t secure a victory.
But in the context of the 2020 presidential election and the intensifying impeachment investigation, national Republicans are watching with a close eye. Even if they are publicly explaining away the results as having nothing to do with Trump, privately they are likely scared about the implications.
Republicans can’t be happy with the surging success of Democrats in suburban and even some exurban areas. These are concrete manifestations of the impact of Trumpian Republicanism on the electorate.
Right now, House and Senate Republicans are very eager to figure out what kind of impact President Trump is having on their party and what kind of collateral damage they might suffer as a result of standing by their man. As Republicans keep figuring out how far they will go to stand behind Trump, these are the numbers that can move them.
After all, Republican officials’ love for President Trump was not about the man but, rather, about the party. GOP leaders are banking on the kinds of polls that Nate Cohn reported on in The New York Times, which suggested that Trump remains extremely competitive against all the major Democratic candidates in the key battleground states.
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But Tuesday’s results will be extraordinarily frightening for Republicans. Like the 2018 House midterms, which were devastating to the GOP, the results in Kentucky and Virginia offer evidence that the president’s record is putting their party in real jeopardy. They show that the president’s imprint on politics – more than almost anything else – has the capacity to drive up Democratic turnout as the party’s loyalists, including union members, show they are furious about what has taken place.
The president, who flew to Kentucky on the eve of the election in an effort to salvage the situation, understands the implications. Although he is far from sophisticated when it comes to politics, he has a strong instinctive feel for the centrality of partisan polarization to modern politics. And he knows that the intense partisanship that has been central to protecting him on Capitol Hill can start to vanish if the party sees that he can no longer deliver results.