For nearly four years, congressional Republicans have been on the defensive over their refusal to denounce President Donald Trump’s outrageous tweets and statements. Yet even with the rising likelihood of a Trump loss to Joe Biden, there’s every reason to think Republicans on Capitol Hill will continue adhering to the populist-nationalist, sometimes crude and conspiratorial nature of Trumpism. After all, it’s what their voters want.
Tuesday’s numbers tell the story in a race the Democratic presidential nominee set up as a moral referendum on Trump’s failure to deal with the coronavirus pandemic and, more broadly, Trump’s unpresidential bearing and approach to the job. Republicans had a considerably better election night across the board than many mainstream pundits predicted.
As of Thursday morning, neither Trump nor Biden had secured the 270 Electoral College votes necessary to claim the presidency. But either way, Trump will likely end up with about 48 percent of the popular vote, higher than his 46 percent approval rating on election eve and considerably above the 41 percent average approval rating from the start of his presidency. Up Pennsylvania Avenue, the Senate is likely to stay in Republican hands. And in the House, Republicans, while still in the minority, are expected to gain seats.
That gives Republican lawmakers a good reason to stay the Trump course, whether he remains in the White House after Jan. 20 or is replaced by Biden, who was vice president under Barack Obama. There was no sweeping rejection of Trump and Trumpism, so the legislators who rode his coattails to Washington are most likely to hold fast to his brand of politics.
Trump’s coalition has from the beginning overlapped considerably with the constituents of elected Republicans, and it is those constituents to whom they will continue to listen. From the 2016 election on, the Trump coalition has consisted, broadly speaking, of whites who live in rural areas, lack college degrees or identify as evangelical Christians. In Florida, which the president won Tuesday despite a concerted Biden campaign effort, Trump expanded this base, particularly with heightened support from conservative-leaning Latinos.
Cuban American and Venezuelan American voters in South Florida’s Miami-Dade and Broward counties helped Trump limit his losses in otherwise staunchly Democratic territory. Trump courted Cuban Americans assiduously, along with other Florida Hispanics, calling Biden a “socialist” and criticizing the policies of the Obama administration in opening relations with the communist island nation (a move Biden praised this spring). That strategy helped Trump boost his votes in Miami-Dade from about 334,000 in 2016 against Hillary Clinton to more than 457,000 this year.
Beyond Trump’s significant support among large swaths of the country, the House as a whole has strengthened its Republican representation. NBC News estimates that in the next Congress, Democrats would hold 227 seats and Republicans 208, though that projection could change. Those anticipated pickups will narrow the Democratic majority, which currently stands at 232, in the 435-member chamber. So, instead of the big Democratic pickups predicted by party leaders, Republicans are on track to make gains.
That Republican freshman class of House lawmakers set to take office in January includes a pair of women who expressed agreement or implied support — though one later distanced herself — from the emerging internet-based conspiracy theory known as QAnon. Adherents falsely claim Satan-worshipping Democratic politicians are working in tandem with governments around the globe to engage in child sex trafficking. Further, followers believe there is a "deep state" effort to thwart Trump, who will save the world from this Democratic cabal.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy on Wednesday steered clear of QAnon controversies but made clear Republicans’ relatively strong showing in the elections stemmed from their closeness to Trump. “President Trump’s momentum has helped us expand our House Republican coalition,” declared McCarthy, a California Republican.
Trump atop the Republican ticket also helped cost Democrats several House seats. Most prominent is the loss of Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, who held his seat for 30 years. The House Agriculture Committee chairman was scandal-free, and as a pro-gun, anti-abortion lawmaker represented his conservative-leaning eastern Minnesota district well. No matter, Peterson lost to a Republican challenger whose main calling card was being a Trump supporter by a 31-point margin.
Of course, House Democrats’ poor performance on Tuesday isn’t due just to down-ballot Republican backers of Trump capitalizing on his popularity. Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, for one, blamed her party’s leaders for not doing enough outreach to the Latino community.
As election results are finalized, the broader outcomes of Election 2020 are already clear: It’s Trump’s Republican Party now, and GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill are likely to continue falling in line. Whether or not he continues on as president.