In the late hours of Election Day, Republicans were deeply conflicted.
They had easily maintained the Senate, warding off the kind of shock upsets that many were dreading as recently as the preceding weekend. But their mounting House losses suggested problems for the party’s brand nationally, as both sides now regroup with an eye on the 2020 presidential campaign.
Donald Trump proved his strength with conservative voters and deepened the urban-rural divide, but it came at the cost of the centrist suburban voters who have long been a crucial part of the GOP coalition—and on Tuesday, they demonstrated a willingness to abandon their party.
Here are four takeaways as Washington braces, again, for divided government:
Republicans got smoked in the suburbs, losing a crucial segment of their traditional coalition.
One Republican stronghold after another fell on Tuesday night in House districts from Virginia to Kansas, illustrating the extent of the GOP challenge in moderate, well-educated enclaves, and especially with college-educated women, in the Trump era.
“Tonight’s results should be a wake-up call to Republican candidates in 2020 that voters—especially suburban women—who share our positions on pocketbook, kitchen table issues also expect their candidates to share their values,” said Alex Schriver, a GOP strategist with the firm Targeted Victory.
Republicans didn’t lose in every suburb—and there were some California districts, as of press time, that looked more promising for them than previously expected.
But generally, from suburban Houston to suburban Kansas City, there was evidence Tuesday that Trump’s hard-edged rhetoric and the divisive nature of his presidency alienated moderate suburbanites who had previously made distinctions between Trump and their GOP members of Congress.
On Tuesday, they saw them as one and the same, and—for the moment—Republicans lost a foundational element of their coalition.
Republicans had a good story to tell on the economy. If only Trump had talked about it.
Donald Trump spent the final weeks of the midterm campaign railing against birthright citizenship and a caravan of migrants moving north through Mexico. It electrified his base and played well in the many red states that hosted Senate races.
But for the sake of the suburbs, perhaps he should have kept the focus on the economy.
“That may have been a positive impact for getting the base out, but it may have turned off some of these independents, women, college-educated voters in suburban areas in particular,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a Texas-based GOP strategist. “It may have been a double-edged sword.”
Plenty of Republican incumbents tried to make their message about jobs and what they saw as an effective tax law. But, as is often the case in the Trump era, the president dominated the national narrative and made it harder for individual House members to offer a different message.
Austin Barbour, a GOP strategist based in Mississippi, stressed the historical challenges that the president’s party often confronts in the first midterm campaign of an administration.
But, he went on, when it comes to the House, “we must not have moved enough independent voters who maybe are more focused on the economy than they are on other issues like immigration and foreign policy.”
Trump has a lock on the base.
Republicans easily held the Senate on Tuesday and looked poised to triumph in several key governors’ races as many of those contests played out across states Trump won in 2016, a reminder of Trump’s enormous strength with conservative voters across red America.
“Tremendous success tonight,” he tweeted Tuesday night even as the House slipped away from Republicans. “Thank you to all!”
In the last weeks of the race, Trump was ubiquitous on the Senate trail, stumping for these candidates across the country. And in those red states, he successfully juiced turnout, a dynamic that also played out in conservative House districts where Trump showed up to campaign, from Kentucky to North Carolina.
The Senate results cement Trump’s icon status with conservative base voters, underscoring just how challenging—and at this point, likely futile—it would be for a Republican to mount a 2020 primary challenge to him.
But he’s keeping the GOP from expanding its tent.
If the GOP base is more committed to Trump than ever before, the party’s ability to broaden beyond that core group of voters has gotten harder, as Tuesday night’s results showed.
“We need to really approach things with some self-awareness,” Steinhauser said. “We need to look at our message, look at our candidates. We need to think about building the Republican Party of the 21st Century.”
After the 2012 presidential campaign in which Mitt Romney lost to Barack Obama, the Republican National Committee authored an “autopsy” report, calling for a more inclusive approach to Latinos and young people.
Trump, with his uncompromising stand on immigration, rebuked that report when he ignored it all, and won anyway. Many of the successful Republican candidates on Tuesday, running in red territory, embraced his tone on immigration.
But some Republicans worry that’s not sustainable.
“We need to do much better among women, Latinos, young people,” Steinhauser said. “We can’t continue down the path that we’ve been on.”