Instead, the dominant reflex across the GOP this month has been to minimize the magnitude—and, equally important, the predictability—of the backlash against Trump that fueled Democratic gains in the House, state legislatures, and governors’ mansions. The party is steaming full speed ahead down the Trump track.
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.”