Republicans are on the verge of a spectacular upside-down achievement

It's been almost 130 years since a presidential candidate captured the office back from the other party, brought both houses of Congress with him, and then frittered it all away in four short years

An elephant.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

President Trump and congressional Republicans could be headed to a stinging, possibly historic defeat on November 3. With the president down nearly 10 points in national polling averages and looking up at Democratic nominee Joe Biden in every critical battleground state, five incumbent Republican senators trailing their Democratic challengers, another handful tied or barely ahead, and Republicans likely to lose at least a few seats in the House, too, it looks as though the verdict voters hand down about the last four years of our history will be sharp and, by the standards of our polarized, partisan era, incontrovertible.

The president, due largely to his bottomless repertoire of repulsive antics and divisive hyper-partisanship, was on track to lose the election even before the COVID-19 nightmare upended the lives of everyone on Earth. His sociopathic indifference to our suffering caused his political standing to crater even further, whereas a simple determination to try to do the right thing — even had he failed — probably could have saved both him and his party. And his commitment since the summer to making it all so much worse by gallivanting around the country holding superspreader rallies full of unmasked, heedless acolytes bent on throwing their recklessness in the faces of everyone who has sacrificed so much for the past eight miserable months has almost certainly sealed his political fate and that of his party.

If it happens, a Republican wipeout will also be close to a unique achievement in American history. It's been almost 130 years since a presidential candidate captured the office back from the other party, brought both houses of Congress with him, and then frittered it all away in four short years. The last person to notch this dubious achievement was Grover Cleveland, still the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms in office. In his second, disastrous spin through the White House, he brought a Democratic House and Senate with him after defeating the incumbent Republican President Benjamin Harrison. The panic of 1893 set in almost immediately after his inauguration (as did oral cancer, which he kept secret), and the ensuing economic depression dragged down his popularity.

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The Democrats were also — like the GOP today — swimming against a heavy partisan current. Cleveland was the only Democrat elected president between 1860 and 1912, and Republicans controlled Congress for the majority of those 52 years too. While Cleveland declined to run for a third term, the party's nominee in 1896, William Jennings Bryan, lost the election to Republican William McKinley after Republicans had seized both houses of Congress in the 1894 midterms. Due in part to Cleveland's mess of a presidency, it would be another 16 years before a Democrat would again win a presidential election. In hindsight, Cleveland's tenure looks like a blip in a long period of GOP dominance.

The Republicans might be staring at a similar prognosis in the near future. Jimmy Carter might even live long enough to see an incumbent president lose by a larger popular vote margin than he did (9.7 points) to Ronald Reagan. What makes the political disaster of Trumpism a more monumental upside-down accomplishment than, say, Herbert Hoover losing the presidency and both chambers of Congress to FDR and the Democrats in 1932 is that like Cleveland, Trump and the Republicans were given a fresh mandate by voters in 2016, while Hoover's four years came on the heels of two-term Republican president Calvin Coolidge. No party has won a third consecutive presidential term since George H. W. Bush and the Republicans in 1988, but it is nevertheless rare for the public to turn this quickly and decisively against a party that so recently won total control of the government. To be sure, Trump lost the popular vote, and Republicans received fewer votes in the Senate, and won the House vote by just a point, but they still swept victoriously into Washington in January 2017, believing their stay in power would be lengthy.

It doesn't look good for them anymore.

Is a total Democratic takeover on Tuesday a slam dunk? Certainly not. While Trump himself looks like an almost certain loser based on today's polling, and while Republicans have almost no chance of retaking the House of Representatives, it is the Senate where the Democrats' dreams of unified government might still die.

Thanks to a dreadful Senate map in 2018 that saw Democrats defending seats in red states like North Dakota, Missouri, and Indiana, the GOP actually increased its slim majority to 53 despite an extremely difficult national environment in which Democrats won the popular vote for the House by more than 8 points. The defeat of incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson in Florida was particularly consequential, because he led Republican Rick Scott throughout the campaign, and his loss made this year's math much tougher.

This year's map might not be as hostile as 2018's, but Democrats still have their work cut out for them. Republicans are defending just two seats in states that Hillary Clinton won — Cory Gardner's in Colorado and Susan Collins' in Maine. Therefore the path to a Democratic Senate would have to run through at least two states won by Trump in 2016. And Collins, who was re-elected by 37 points in 2014, is not a complete goner like Gardner and should not be underestimated.

Thanks to the ongoing leftward shift in Arizona and incumbent Sen. Martha McSally's self-inflicted unpopularity, Democrats have what looks to be a high-likelihood pickup there with former astronaut Mark Kelly (and the husband of sympathetic shooting victim and former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords) as their nominee. McSally would be the first person in American history to lose both of her state's Senate seats to the other party in the span of two years. She would make three flips, but Democrats have yet another red state senator facing nearly insurmountable headwinds in Doug Jones (Ala.), who is down double digits in most polls to his challenger, former college football coach Tommy Tuberville.

That means that even if Gardner, Collins, and McSally go down, Democrats will almost certainly need one more pickup to get to 50 seats — where Kamala Harris would break the tie as vice president, should Biden win. Democratic candidates lead polling averages in two more races: in North Carolina, where incumbent Sen. Thom Tillis has not led a single poll against challenger Cal Cunningham since June, and in Iowa, where Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield holds the narrowest of leads against incumbent and onetime rising GOP star Sen. Joni Ernst.

If the polls are 100 percent accurate — and they won't be, especially not in Senate races — that is 51 seats for Democrats. To expand their majority from there, Democrats would have to win some races where they are tied, as in the two Georgia races, or trail ever-so-slightly, as in South Carolina, Montana, Alaska, and Kansas.

If surveys are biased against the GOP by a few points, as they were in 2014, 2016, and in several red state Senate races in 2018, Democrats are not guaranteed to win the Senate at all. But there is some tantalizing evidence that this might be a year, like 2012, where the polls underestimate Democrats across the board. The extraordinary early voting turnout combined with the unprecedented number of heavily-Democratic leaning 18- to 29-year-olds saying they will definitely turn out to vote could be a perfect storm leading to a Biden win of 12 points or more and even longer coattails down-ballot than he already has. And if that's the case, Republicans could lose anywhere from 5 to 10 seats in the Senate.

They certainly have it coming. On Monday night they confirmed hard-right Justice Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court a mere eight days before November 3 after inventing a new principle to deny Barack Obama's nominee to the court, Merrick Garland, the courtesy of a hearing eight months before the 2016 election, Republicans will now have to face the consequences of their cynical, alienating, hardball political maneuvering. While anything is still statistically possible, it looks increasingly likely that voters have had enough — of McConnell, of Trump, and of minority rule whose only guiding principle is giving the middle finger to people who disagree.

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