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The 2020 Election Doesn’t Really Matter to Republicans

The GOP is mostly insulated from the consequences that voters might be inclined to dole out in November.

Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell waits for the Senate subway in Washington, DC.

The new Republican coronavirus relief bill is abominable. From the earliest days of the pandemic, experts have insisted on closing America’s workplaces and offering workers and businesses financial support until the virus has been brought under control. But Republicans have been preoccupied with the idea that measures like the expansion of unemployment benefits in the CARES Act, set to expire this week, disincentivize work—never mind the fact that many workers across the country can’t go back to work even if they want to and that keeping people at home and off the job is, again, one of the goals of the relief effort.

It thus came as little surprise that the new Republican bill not only reduces unemployment benefits but also legally protects employers who call their workers back on the job. It additionally contains an increased tax deduction for business meals and entertainment, a measure some have described as “pro-virus,” as well as nearly $2 billion in funding for a new FBI building in DC and $8 billion in weapons and procurement funding for the Department of Defense. This last provision actually makes the bill more coherent: according to its text, the defense funding, which includes $250 million for amphibious warships and $686 million for new F-35 fighters, will “prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus, domestically or internationally.” Once the virus is destroyed by cruise missiles, the shutdowns and social distancing can quickly be brought to an end.

The unseriousness of the Republican response to the coronavirus has had commentators asking from the outset whether the party understands that there’s an election coming up, one now less than a hundred days away. “Given that it’s an election year,” FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver tweeted last week, “I don’t understand why Republicans wouldn’t just want to stimulate the living eff out of the economy. One of the clearer examples of where ideological dispositions outweigh electoral incentives.” But the Republican Party and its response to the pandemic can’t really be understood without thinking skeptically about the premise at work here: that most Republicans have real reason to fear what might happen in November.

It seems relevant, for instance, that while President Trump and a few Republican incumbents seem to be in genuine trouble, the vast majority of Republicans in Congress are certain to keep their jobs. In the Senate, most Republicans aren’t up for reelection, and most of those who are aren’t facing particularly competitive races. As of last week, The Cook Political Report has rated nine Republican seats as either Lean Democratic, Lean Republican, or Tossups for November—that’s only about a sixth of the Senate Republican caucus. Cook also estimates that there are 90 competitive races in the House, representing only about a fifth of that chamber’s seats. That includes races facing 32 incumbent Republicans, which account for just a sixth of the House Republican caucus. During the 2018 midterms, 91% of House members and 84% of Senators up for reelection were reelected; in 2016, those figures were 97% and 93% respectively.

All of this is the product of a wide variety of structural factors—including polarization, gerrymandering and partisan geography, low turnout, the design of the Senate, and so on—that, on balance, advantage Republican politicians today. They’ve tried to augment that advantage with voter suppression, but that’s just the icing on an already good cake. Even without those efforts, Republican politicians are answerable primarily to conservative voters in the least populous portions of the country and the conservative outlets and institutions that shape their thinking. This has allowed most to stand proudly opposite public opinion on everything from health care to climate change without fear of electoral consequence. The notion that working Americans should grit their teeth and stride serenely toward death to save the economy is just another unpopular position our electoral systems grant most Republicans the freedom to hold.

On Tuesday, The New York Times ran a piece summarizing a new paper by the political scientists Christopher Warshaw, Lynn Vavreck, and Ryan Baxter-King on the impact local coronavirus deaths might have on Republican candidates. Reviewing survey data from the Democracy Fund and the University of California, Los Angeles’s “Nationscape” project, they concluded that a doubling of local coronavirus deaths over the last 60 days “makes voters between .22-.45% less likely to support Republican House candidates and between .3-.9% less likely to support Republican Senate candidates.” They found too that a county coronavirus death rate at sixteen times the national average would imply a reduction of only about 3 percentage points in the vote margin for a Republican Senate candidate. These numbers might concern vulnerable Republicans hoping to come out on the right side of thin margins in November, but they should hardly terrify most who will vote on coronavirus legislation.

One might object that even safe Republicans presumably want the party as a whole to keep the Senate and the White House and prevent Democrats from taking power. But the notion that most Republicans care about the party’s fortunes as much or more than their own careers seems dubious—if this was the case, they probably wouldn’t be backing ideas that might cross-pressure and endanger their vulnerable colleagues to begin with. And the most Republicans can realistically hope for are at least two more years of legislative stalemate anyway—it’s extremely unlikely they’ll be able to take back the House. In a Wednesday piece chastising moderate Republicans who plan on voting against the party in November, National Review editor Rich Lowry couldn’t come up with a single policy item Republicans should look forward to enacting in another Trump term.

It’s worth thinking through what purpose Republican power in Congress actually serves. Most liberal and progressive commentators take it as a given that the Republican Party lacks a constructive legislative agenda—there’s no real interest on the right in building new programs and institutions that would productively address America’s problems. But what many still don’t realize is that the Republican Party has no real legislative agenda of any kind at all—not even a conservative one.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that Republicans controlled Congress for two years under Trump. Their record of major legislative accomplishments, even from a clear-eyed conservative perspective, was fairly unimpressive. Sure, there was a massive tax cut that also eliminated Obamacare’s individual mandate and some financial deregulation. But Republicans also failed to fully repeal Obamacare, the central policy promise they’d made for years, and they flubbed the dismantling of SNAP in the 2018 farm bill as well—both thanks partially to Senate moderates. Speculation that the party might finally go after Medicare and social security in the last few months before the midterms subsided once it became clear that Republican lawmakers were actually considering nothing more than another round of tax cuts. Those never passed, and many Republican candidates wound up staking their campaigns on panic over the migrant caravan and other culture war material.

If the conservative policy establishment was deeply disappointed by any of this, they showed few signs of it. The Heritage Foundation declared in early 2018 that the Trump administration, with the aid of the Republican Congress, had already embraced or accomplished 64 percent of their Mandate for Leadership platform. For reference, Ronald Reagan had evidently adopted only 49 percent of Heritage’s recommendations at the same point in his presidency. None of this is to say that Republicans in Congress didn’t do real damage—they did. But Democrats and the left had feared the full imposition of Paul Ryan’s agenda. That didn’t happen. Instead, Ryan himself gave up and left Congress. The Roosevelt Institute’s Mike Konzcal summed the situation up well in a March 2018 blog post. “At best, the Right’s policy voices are all ideas and no consequences,” he wrote. “More likely, they form a kind of entertainment industry that only is consequential to the extent it channels business interests or mass resentment.”

They aren’t more consequential because as much as most Republican lawmakers might support broadly unpopular legislation, they can’t actually pass anything without the support of moderate Republicans in bluer parts of the country or the kinds of moderate and conservative Democrats who happily and eagerly signed onto welfare reform a generation ago. As is often said, both are now endangered species—thanks to partisan sorting, most of those figures have either lost elections, retired, or put themselves in step with the rest of their parties. So, Republicans bent on deconstructing the welfare state have turned from real legislative battles to guerilla attacks—the White House’s hit on fair housing regulations, for instance, or the ongoing legal campaign to undermine Obamacare. These are fights that often play out in courts, which is why Senate Republicans, as little as they’ve managed to accomplish legislatively, have been so doggedly determined to confirm a constellation of conservative justices to the federal bench, in addition to the two Supreme Court seats they’ve filled. Mitch McConnell has pushed through over 200 judges since 2017; not a single circuit court vacancy remains. That work has alleviated some of the pressure Republicans might have to hold the Senate.

But much of that pressure is also obviated, again, by the design of the Senate itself. It should be well understood by now that even if Republicans lose the White House and the Senate—and of course, neither victory is assured—the Democrats’ ability to pass Joe Biden’s agenda will be limited by the Senate filibuster. Although Biden has suggested in recent weeks that he’s open to ditching it to overcome Republican obstruction, the decision is ultimately up to Democratic senators themselves, and pivotal moderates still oppose the move. The filibuster aside, the conservative structural advantage in the chamber will probably be in good shape for some time. Adding Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia as states would help Democrats somewhat if the party were actually invested in making it happen⁠—another very large “if”—but analyst David Shor has estimated that a slight bias toward Republicans would remain in the Senate even if Democrats added six states, including the Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, and Guam. If Biden attempts to circumvent Republicans through executive action as Obama did, Republicans can take solace in the fact that much of what he might try could be undone by another administration or, again, gummed up in court.

All told, if it seems like Republicans are acting as though the election doesn’t matter, one should consider the many ways it actually doesn’t for them. Moreover, it’s conceivable that many Republicans are quietly hoping for a loss at the top of the ticket. A Trump defeat might repair the GOP’s standing with key constituencies Trump has driven away and will almost certainly encourage the political media to craft a redemption narrative for the party. Pundits and Fox News favorites on the Hill will attract attention and campaign donors drumming up rage at what Biden and Democrats in Congress are up to. Ambitious post-Trump populists and Trump critics who’ve been biding their time are both spoiling for a fight over the future of the party, which is to say a fight over the future of their respective careers. None of this should console Trump and the most embattled Republican candidates. But unless Democrats get serious about disempowering it for good, the Republican Party can’t really lose.