That choice testifies to the diminished appetite among Republicans to confront Trump, even as many GOP strategists privately acknowledge that the election offers powerful new evidence about the near- and long-term costs inherent in his path. “There’s still a fair amount of denial, and wishful thinking,” says the longtime GOP strategist Bill Kristol, a leading Trump critic.
One reason for the muted response among Republicans was that their losses, especially in the House, were not fully apparent on Election Night. Much of the instant television analysis focused on the GOP’s success in expanding its Senate majority by ousting several Democratic incumbents in states that voted for Trump in 2016, or on the narrow losses by the three young Democrats who captured the party’s imagination this year: African American gubernatorial candidates Andrew Gillum in Florida and Stacey Abrams in Georgia, and Senate contender Beto O’Rourke in Texas. These results allowed an array of Republican commentators—including Trump himself in his postelection press conference—to quickly declare the results a vindication. “President Trump will win reelection,” gushed the talk-show host and columnist Hugh Hewitt. “Anyone who watched Wednesday’s presser after Trump’s big night Tuesday knows in his or her bones that it will happen.”
Only a handful of conservative-media voices, most prominently The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, raised alarms about the results. More telling is that hardly any party leaders have reconsidered their blithe initial reactions, even as vote counting since Election Day has mapped the full scope of the Democratic surge in the House.
Now, a few weeks out, the 2018 House results look like one of the most emphatic midterm repudiations of a modern president. With increasing indications on Wednesday that Democrats will win the last uncalled race, in California, the party is poised to gain 40 House seats, the most since the Watergate-era election of 1974.
The House popular vote offered an even more forceful statement: Democrats now lead the total vote count by about 9.1 million, or just over 8 percentage points, according to tabulations by David Wasserman of The Cook Political Report.
In raw votes, that’s the biggest margin ever for either party during a midterm election, according to calculations by NBC News. In percentage terms, it’s a bigger victory margin than the ones Republicans amassed in their 1994 and 2010 landslides, or that Democrats accumulated in their big 2006 win.
The composition of the Democratic gain was just as revealing as its size. The actual results almost perfectly tracked what might be expected from a lab experiment to measure how voters would sort in response to Trump’s agenda, which openly aligns the GOP with hostility to demographic and cultural change. Blue-collar, older, evangelical, and rural whites continued to provide Republicans with big margins almost everywhere, just as they did for Trump in 2016, and that support keyed the defeats of Democratic senators in North Dakota, Indiana, and Missouri.