“If we nominate Trump, we will get destroyed … and we will deserve it,” Senator Lindsey Graham tweeted on May 16, 2016.
The South Carolinian’s prediction didn’t age well at first. Come January 2017, the Republican Party was in the catbird seat. With Trump’s upset win over the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, it controlled the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives. Trump would immediately be able to appoint a Supreme Court justice, too, giving GOP appointees an edge on the high court. Trump seemed to have cleared out the last vestiges of the Democrats’ New Deal coalition and built a new party that might withstand demographic changes expected to favor liberals. Graham, meanwhile, had a change of heart and became one of Trump’s noisiest cheerleaders and closest allies.
Since then, the Republicans have lost nearly everything. Backlash to Trump cost the party control of the House in 2018, sending Nancy Pelosi back to the speakership and Paul Ryan, once seen as the future of the GOP, off to retirement and corporate-board service. Two years later, Trump lost the presidency—becoming the first one-term president in 30 years and only the third in a century. And now Republicans seem to have lost control of the Senate after going 0–2 in runoffs in Georgia, which was a reliably red state before Trump. Its Republican senators, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, tried to embrace Trump-style populism, but failed to replicate the president’s results.
The state of affairs this morning—as Republican members of Congress mount one more, almost certainly doomed, attempt to overturn the election—is a big turnaround not only from four years ago but even from two months ago. In the days after November 3, the election seemed like an underwhelming win for Democrats. No major outlets had yet called the presidency for Joe Biden, though he seemed on track to win. Democrats had lost ground in the House and failed to win several Senate races that would have given them control of the chamber.
Since then, it has become clear that Biden won, and did so with a commanding lead in both the Electoral College (when Trump won by the same margin, he called it, unconvincingly, a landslide) and the popular vote, where he won 7 million more votes than Trump. With Raphael Warnock beating Loeffler, and Jon Ossoff looking likely to beat Perdue, the Democrats also appear to have salvaged control of the Senate. The balance in the chamber will be 50–50, meaning Vice President Kamala Harris can break tied votes. Biden’s legislative agenda will have a narrow path through the Senate, but it will have one. So will his appointees to the executive branch and the federal bench.
Nothing in politics happens for a single reason, but you don’t have to stretch to connect all of these GOP setbacks to Donald Trump. The president said that the 2018 midterms were “a referendum about me,” and while his supporters don’t seem to have taken that to heart, his detractors certainly have. A huge wave of voters carried the Democrats to victory as the party made new inroads with suburban voters, especially college-educated white women. The 2020 election was explicitly a referendum on Trump, and although the tallies were close in some states, the overall result was not. For evidence of how toxic Trump’s brand is, consider how many Republicans down ballot, in both congressional and state-legislative races, ran ahead of him.
Nonetheless, Trump insisted on making the Georgia Senate runoffs about him too. The effect was disastrous. Democrats, especially Black voters, turned out in astonishing numbers; suburban voters continued to reject Trump; and Republican turnout fell short, perhaps in part because the president had spent weeks telling his supporters that the state’s elections were rigged.
The results in the November and January elections underscore the peril that Trump leaves behind for the Republican Party. In both 2016 and 2020, Trump’s magic was his ability to turn out voters who either don’t always vote or have historically voted Democratic, especially white, non-college-educated voters. That was enough to put him over the top in 2016, and enough to create a scare for Biden (and pollsters) in 2020.
There are three problems with this approach. First, it wasn’t enough to give Trump a win in 2020. Second, these voters don’t appear to come out in the same numbers when Trump isn’t on the ballot. Third, Trump creates a backlash effect. Even without him on the ballot Tuesday night, Black voters turned out in droves and white suburban voters didn’t come home to the Republican Party. In short, Trump has broken the old Republican coalition, perhaps irrevocably, and created a new one that apparently exists when he’s up for election.
The conservative edge on the Supreme Court and other federal courts will continue for years or decades, which is a rich consolation prize for the Republicans. Trump has managed to advance many GOP causes during his four years in office—though he’s done much less than he might have if he had governed more competently. But in four years, Trump has led the Republican Party from unified control of Washington to the wilderness. Lindsey Graham was right after all. He was just premature.