By Jonathan Bernstein / Bloomberg Opinion
Republican Party dysfunction was on display in New Hampshire on Tuesday. Democratic Senator Maggie Hassan and both the state’s House Democrats were considered highly vulnerable this year. So what did Republicans do, in this state that has voted for Democrats for president five times in a row and defeated Donald Trump by 7 percentage points in 2020?
They rejected the kinds of relatively moderate Republicans who historically have been popular in the state. Instead, in all three contested seats, they chose Trump-aligned candidates.
It’s still possible that one or more of these candidates will win in the general election in November. But you can be sure that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi slept easier, while Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy are looking for walls to bang their heads against.
Cook Political Report Senate expert Jessica Taylor declared that Hassan might be “the luckiest Dem out there this cycle,” while Cook’s David Wasserman said that one of the House seats would move from the “toss-up” column to to “lean D.”
Political scientist Matt Glassman wondered how the Republican Party will interpret the results:
Will the post-mortem collective GOP understanding of a mid-term that misses expectations be more likely to blame Trump or the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision?
My gut is Trump (via bad candidates), but I really don’t know.
It’s a great question because it gets to the core of how democracy actually works. When parties lose elections, they normally try to learn useful lessons in order to do better next time. After Democrats were stunned when Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016, they concluded that they needed a more electable candidate. While there wasn’t a consensus on what that meant, Democrats wound up deciding that Joe Biden fit the bill.
Political parties are reluctant to conclude that their ideas are just plain unpopular, but it sometimes happens. After the Republican landslide in the 1994 midterms, Democrats decided that their advocacy for gun control was at fault, and until well into Barack Obama’s presidency even those who supported restrictions tended to downplay the issue.
That’s what normal parties do. They don’t necessarily diagnose the situation correctly (they were almost certainly wrong about guns in 1994), but the mechanism is a healthy one: Lose, and attempt to adjust. All other things being equal, in a two-party system there is a strong incentive for the system to attempt to keep voters happy. That’s good!
Which brings us back to the Republicans and 2022. We don’t know how things will end up, but there is a good chance that even if the GOP does win majorities in both chambers of Congress, they will still underperform compared with the margins they could have secured. There is every possibility that they’re going to fall far short of the expectations they themselves had at the start of this cycle.
My immediate response to Glassman’s tweet was that the Republicans won’t blame a disappointing showing in November on either Trump for helping nominate weak candidates or the Supreme Court’s decision on abortion. Instead, they will blame Mitch McConnell for cooperating too much with Senate Democrats. (Senate Republicans did support several bills that passed, but they still used whatever tools they had to obstruct the bulk of the Democratic agenda, sometimes successfully and sometimes failing because they just didn’t have the votes.)
But the scarier possibility is that many Republicans will learn nothing from defeat because they will simply assume that they were cheated.
Most of the focus on Trump’s continued lies about the 2020 contest have to do with his active attempts to subvert the election and overturn the results. Understandably so. The republic depends on the peaceful transition of power, which requires the losing side to accept that it really lost. We saw the consequences on Jan. 6 and in the events surrounding the riot at the Capitol, from Election Day all the way through Biden’s inauguration and beyond.
But there is a secondary effect, which is that a party that refuses to believe it lost isn’t going to reconsider its policies or make other changes; except, perhaps, to try harder to eliminate fictional fraud (which, in reality, winds up being a push to disenfranchise those who support the other party). Republicans, after all, lost the popular vote for president in 1992, in 1996, in 2000, in 2008, in 2012, in 2016 and in 2020. And yet there is little sign that they are taking steps to attract more voters.
Then there’s Trump: An electoral college winner despite losing the popular vote in 2016, he went on to be unpopular throughout his presidency, which ended with a solid defeat and with Democrats having gained both chambers of Congress. Not to mention that he is facing all sorts of legal troubles. And yet he is still influential within the party, with candidates desperate for his endorsement who constantly invoke his name in primary contests. This may work out fine for candidates seeking nominations, but for the party in general elections it seems … suboptimal.
If Republican party actors convince themselves despite all evidence that Trump is actually popular and won easily in 2020, then why should they change? And if those who are aware of the truth are afraid to say it … well, they aren’t going to help the party get over dysfunction, either.
So it’s really no surprise that House Republican candidates are moving further to extremes, both in policy preferences and, more dangerously, in radicalism and refusal to compromise. No surprise; but a great threat to a properly functioning democracy.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. A former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.