Editor’s Note: Lincoln Mitchell teaches in the political science department at Columbia University. His most recent book is “San Francisco Year Zero: Political Upheaval, Punk Rock and a Third Place Baseball Team.” (Rutgers University Press, 2019) Follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell. The opinions expressed here are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.
As Election Day approaches, it’s looking like this could possibly be a good year for the Democrats. Joe Biden continues to have a substantial lead in almost all the national and many swing state polls; the party’s chances in the competitive fight for control of the Senate are promising and the Republicans have very little hope of winning back control of the House of Representatives.
Of course, we won’t know the true outcome until November 3 – or possibly after that. Four years ago at this time, the polls also augured success for the Democratic ticket, but Donald Trump was able to win in the electoral college.
But even if there is a clear Democratic victory this time, that wouldn’t lead to the end of Trumpism in the Republican Party. Ironically, it could be the opposite – that a big Democratic win could help the pro-Trump factions even as Trump himself loses the White House.
One reason is that when one party wins big in any congressional election, it tends to be the moderates who represent swing districts, particularly in the House, who lose their seats. House Republicans who lost their seats in 2018 or who face tough races this year tend to come from suburban swing districts, not strong Trump districts in rural areas, the South or other conservative strongholds.
Matt Gaetz, Jim Jordan, Kevin McCarthy and most of Trump’s other prominent supporters in the House are in safe seats. Even if the Republicans lose 10 House seats, those defeated likely will not be among those who are most loyal to Trump.
This dynamic is not quite as acute in the Senate, but Colorado’s Cory Gardner and Maine’s Susan Collins, who rank among the most vulnerable Republicans, are not exactly Trump’s loudest backers in that legislature. Additionally, former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville, who is in a good position to beat Alabama’s Democratic Sen. Doug Jones, is a very strong Trump supporter. One notable exception is Lindsey Graham, who may be Trump’s closest Senate ally – and who may lose his South Carolina seat to this Democratic rival.
If the Democrats win in 2020, the Republican caucus in both houses of Congress would likely be more, not less, pro-Trump, but that is not the only reason why Trumpism will not fade away even if the Republicans lose in 2020. If Biden wins, the 2024 Republican primary will begin, albeit unofficially, as soon as his victory is confirmed. Republican candidates seeking the presidential nomination will have to appeal to a party where Donald Trump, even in defeat, would likely remain strong and where his ideas around immigrants, race and populism, remain popular. Moreover, many Republicans may believe after the election that Trump’s defeat was due entirely to the coronavirus pandemic – a global event that upended the thriving economy on which Trump was planning to base his campaign.
In that environment, it would be difficult for a Republican candidate seeking to move the party away from Trump to win the nomination. Candidates who want to move up in the GOP will have an incentive not to break from Trumpism, even during a potential Biden presidency. Steve Schmidt, the longtime Republican consultant who is now a strong Biden supporter and a leader of the Lincoln Project, recently said of, moderate Republican governors, Maryland’s Larry Hogan and Massachusetts’ Charlie Baker, “as much as I would like to see one of them be the Republican nominee (in 2024) I think neither of them has a chance.”
Although the 2024 election seems far off now, several whose names are already being mentioned as possible candidates have strong ties to Trump. These include two of the President’s children, Donald Trump Jr. and Ivanka Trump. The conservative television personality Tucker Carlson, who is not related to Donald Trump, but shares Trump’s populist and nationalist views, is also being mentioned as a possible 2024 candidate. Among the several senators who are most likely to run is Tom Cotton (R-Ar) one of Trump’s strongest Senate supporters.
None of these candidates would run away from Trump’s record. It is far more likely that they would compete with each other to show that they are the true heir to Trump’s legacy.
One of the best measures of how much the Republican Party is now simply the party of Trump would be to look at their own platform. They don’t really have one. Their platform for 2020 states “that the Republican Party has and will continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda.” This is not the platform of a party that is poised to move beyond its leader, even in the event of a defeat.
During the course of the Trump administration, the Republican Party has spent much of its time and political capital defending and supporting the President on everything from his view of the Mueller Report and the Russia investigation, to his handling of the economy and his response to the coronavirus pandemic. In doing so, the party has pivoted to supporting – or at least tolerating –Trump’s personal conduct and vision for America and away from the cohesive conservative battery of policies that defined the GOP for the several decades before 2016. Even if the party becomes able to move beyond Trump and his vision, it is not all clear where it would, or even could, go.
Democrats can hope that Trump leads his party to a big defeat this November, but it would be a mistake to think that the movement Trump has created, and that has taken over the Republican Party, would fade away after that. Trump’s impact on America and the GOP will survive long after he leaves office, even if he is only a single-term President.