Column: No matter what happens in the midterms, Republicans won’t correct their troubling trajectory

Man speaking into a microphone
Unflagging GOP support for Georgia Senate candidate Herschel Walker, despite abortion allegations against him, indicates how calcified Republican politics have become.
(Akili-Casundria Ramsess / Associated Press)

Brace yourself: Voting is underway and we’re just one month away from what will likely be the most consequential midterm elections in years. Certainly the most consequential of the 10 cycles I’ve covered over four decades, perhaps second only to the 1994 elections that gave Republicans control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years.

Whatever the outcome — whether Republicans win majorities in the House and Senate, one chamber or neither — one thing is all but certain: Win or lose, the result won’t be good for the party’s long-term health or for the country’s.

That’s because a loss won’t be the shellacking the Republicans need to reform and turn from their antidemocratic path. And if they win, well, they’ll just triple down.

Opinion Columnist

Jackie Calmes

Jackie Calmes brings a critical eye to the national political scene. She has decades of experience covering the White House and Congress.

Only voters’ total repudiation might force Republicans to reckon with Trumpism. When a party is humiliated, its partisans look inward and correct course, as Democrats did after the Reagan era. A comeuppance didn’t work to change Republicans after 2020, when President Trump lost, because the party made gains in other contests. (So much for Democrats’ supposed rigging of the election.)

By most accounts, Republicans won’t be repudiated this year either. They only need net gains of five seats in House races and one in Senate contests to take over Congress. They’ve been favored from the start to capture the House, though it’s no longer a sure thing. This despite their sorry record during this two-year Congress, which began with nearly two-thirds of Republicans voting against certifying President Biden’s election, even amid the blood and breakage left by Trump’s insurrectionists that day.

The Senate is up for grabs. Polls suggest Republicans in swing states have either closed their summer gap against their Democratic rivals (Pennsylvania, Georgia, Colorado) or pulled slightly ahead (Wisconsin, Nevada). The tightening was expected in marquee races with Democratic front-runners — notably John Fetterman’s run in Pennsylvania against Mehmet Oz and Sen. Raphael Warnock’s bid for reelection in Georgia against Herschel Walker. (That was before this week’s reports alleging that the purportedly antiabortion Walker paid a longtime girlfriend, one of four women to have a child with him, to abort a pregnancy.)


Overall, Republican voters are falling in line as Nov. 8 approaches. Money is flowing to candidates in tight races, notably from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s fundraising committee. And nasty ads are airing on Republicans’ behalf, many blaming Democrats for crime. A new one in North Carolina unabashedly throws down the race card against Democrat Cheri Beasley, an African American former chief justice of the state Supreme Court who is running against Trumpist Rep. Ted Budd to take a Republican-held seat.

Historical trends are at play against Democrats, too, of course. Midterm elections have favored the party out of power for over a century. Several factors potentially make this cycle unique, however, and give Democrats hope: There’s the backlash against the Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling overturning Roe vs. Wade and red states’ rush to ban most or all abortions, and then there’s the looming presence of Trump.

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Republicans are saddled with a defeated president so narcissistic that he can’t stand to have an election that’s not about him. His sore-loser prominence on rally platforms and in the media, together with the record unpopularity of a right-wing Supreme Court he shaped, has Republicans in swing states on the defensive in a way that’s unusual for the party out of power.

This week the New York Times’ election data-cruncher, Nate Cohn, wrote that while the likeliest outcome remains a Republican House majority, “the idea that Democrats can hold the House is not as ridiculous, implausible or far-fetched as it seemed before the Dobbs ruling.” The Cook Political Report’s update on Wednesday agreed a Republican House majority was “the likeliest outcome,” yet its more restrained forecast had Republicans picking up barely what they need.

As for the Senate, the analysts at posted a piece Thursday with the headline “Democrats are slightly favored to win the Senate.”

Even the worst-case scenarios for Republicans, however, don’t suggest an outcome that would spur them to break from far-right extremism. Their intransigence reflects more than just polarization. What’s at work is a “calcification” of politics rooted in voters’ racial, national, ethnic and religious outlooks, three political scientists wrote last month in the Washington Post about tribalism in both

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“Voters are increasingly tied to their political loyalties and values. They have become less likely to change their basic political evaluations or vote for the other party’s candidate,” according to John Sides of Vanderbilt and Chris Tausanovitch and Lynn Vavreck of UCLA.


Take Walker — he should be a dead man walking, what with the abortion allegation piled on all the other evidence he’s unfit for the Senate. Yet his party support hasn’t eroded, perhaps because Trump has so discredited accurate media reporting among Republicans that Georgia’s conservative voters simply cannot accept the allegation as anything but fake news.

Here’s another belief that has calcified among Republicans: the “Big Lie.” On Thursday the Washington Post reported that a majority of Republican nominees for the House, Senate and key statewide offices — 299 in all, in every region and nearly every state — deny or question Biden’s election. Most are likely to win — they are running for safe Republican seats — giving them some role in certifying future elections, whether as governors, election administrators or members of Congress.

That doesn’t bode well for our democracy. Americans have seen this movie. We may see it again.