Republicans Likely To Move Hard Right If They Lose Tonight

With most forecasts assuming that Republicans will at least lose control of the House, the odds are that the GOP will react to that by moving further to the right.

The Washington Post’s Paul Waldman posits what might happen to the GOP if, as expected, they suffer big losses today:

Let’s consider what will happen to the GOP after this election is over. Democrats are definitely going to pick up seats in the House; we just don’t know yet whether the number will be 20, 30, 40 or more. What we do know is that the Republicans who lose will be the more moderate members. While there are a few exceptions here and there, as a general matter, the more conservative a district is, the safer the seat and the more intensely right-wing its member of Congress.

That means that your ordinary Freedom Caucus member is going to get reelected even in a blue wave, while the vulnerable members are the more moderate ones who represent swing districts. This will produce a somewhat ironic result in the next Congress: The bigger the blue wave, the more conservative the Republican caucus will end up being when it’s over, and the less equipped the GOP will be to run a different kind of campaign in 2020.

If all the reporting and polls are wrong, we’ll end up with a Republican Congress that looks like it does now (which, to be clear, is incredibly conservative). On the other hand, if Democrats get just enough seats to take the House, a couple dozen of the more moderate Republicans will be defeated, shifting the center of the caucus that remains to the right. And if there’s a huge blue wave, every Republican with even the slightest impulse toward moderation will be gone.

So imagine that happens, and as we approach 2020, all the GOP voices in the House (and nearly all in the Senate) are concerned about appealing to conservative districts and states where they fear only a primary challenge from the right. Not only that, President Trump is running his own reelection campaign, one that will be built on the same racist and xenophobic appeals that helped him get elected in 2016 and that he’s pressing now.

We know that’s what Trump will do, not only because it’s who he is but also because he clearly believes its the best strategy to win. If Democrats win a huge victory Tuesday, Trump isn’t going to say, “Gee, I guess I was wrong about all that anti-immigrant stuff. I need to reach out to a broader electorate to get reelected.” He’ll tell himself that the 2018 defeat only happened because he was not personally on the ballot, and it would have been much worse had he not executed such a brilliant strategy.

That story line will also be validated by the conservative media. Feeding the racial fears and resentments of older white people is to Fox News and conservative radio hosts such as Rush Limbaugh what game highlights are to ESPN. It’s the core of the business model, and has been for a couple of decades now. And the GOP base — aghast at an unprecedented number of victories by Democratic women and people of color — will become even more susceptible to the message of fear.

Waldman ends his column with the sentence “There’s a lot more ugliness to come,” and I think he pretty much hits the nail on the head. He is right, for example, that the Republicans most likely to lose their seats tonight are those who are relatively moderate compared to organizations such as the House Freedom Caucus and other hard-right groups inside the House GOP Caucus. By and large, the members of those groups represent districts that are relatively safe from being turned blue thanks to gerrymandering and other factors. The more moderate members that he speaks of, though, include many of the people who represent the 25-30 Republican districts that Hillary Clinton managed to win in the 2016 election as well as members from states that Clinton won two years ago. This will quite obviously increase the power of the hardliners inside whatever is left is the GOP after tonight.

The most immediate impact of this could be seen in just a matter of days after the election when the new GOP Caucus meets to select new leadership. If Republicans somehow manage to hold on to the House, that would mean selecting a new candidate for Speaker of the House to replace Paul Ryan, who is retiring from Congress at the end of this term. As it stands, Kevin McCarthy, the Majority Leader, is the leading candidate for that position, but things will obviously change if the GOP loses control of the House. In that case, the race will be to determine who will be House Minority Leader and who will fill the remaining leadership posts starting with Minority Whip on down. If they do end up with increased power inside the reduced membership of the GOP Caucus, you can expect the House Freedom Caucus to attempt to increase its power in the caucus, most likely by uniting behind Jim Jordan, who has represented Ohio’s 4th Congressional District since being elected in 2006. If that happens you can guarantee that the House GOP will move further to the right.

Things are also likely to move right in the Senate. While there’s likely not going to be a serious challenge to Mitch McConnell regardless of whether or not the GOP holds on to the Senate, and especially not if the GOP holds on to the Senate or gains seats, that doesn’t mean things aren’t going to change. The departure of Senators such as Bob Corker, Jeff Flake, and, of course, John McCain means that the number of “moderate” Republican Senators can effectively be counted on one hand. The one wild card that will be interesting to watch will be Mitt Romney, who will win easily tonight. Romney has been critical of the Trump Administration in the past, of course, and although he has tempered that while running for Senate there are still many who expect him to be the focus of attention to see if he begins to forge a different path for his fellow Republicans in the wake of what could be a disastrous night for the GOP.

Finally, of course, there’s President Trump himself. As I’ve already noted today, Trump has slowly but surely sending signals that he does not intend to let any Republican losses be blamed on him, so it’s likely that we’ll see him dig in even further on the rhetoric we saw during the 2016 campaign and during this campaign. If anything, we’ll like see him use a Democratic-controlled House, or Congress as a whole should Democrats manage to pull off the unlikely and win the Senate, as a whipping boy as he begins to shift toward the 2020 campaign. I suppose it’s possible that he may try to work with Democrats on something like infrastructure, but as a whole, I suspect that the relationship between President Trump and a Democratic Congress will be frosty, to say the least.

FILED UNDER: 2018 Election, Congress, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Don’t you think they’ll move even harder right if they win???
    I mean…if they can move any further right.

  2. Kathy says:

    If the democrats take the House, I worry what the lame duck session will try to pass between now and the next session. I don’t doubt McConnell will end the legislative filibuster if he wants to.

  3. Kit says:

    Romney will certainly prove a bellwether of which way the political winds blow. No matter what, he can be counted on to bravely take any stand, to kiss any ass, in the quest to become the next president.

  4. Moosebreath says:

    There’s an old saying that when Democrats lose, they move to the right, and when Republicans lose, they move to the right.

  5. DrDaveT says:


    There’s an old saying that when Democrats lose, they move to the right, and when Republicans lose, they move to the right.

    That’s an interesting point, in light of Paul Krugman’s recent editorial opining that both Democrats and Republicans overestimate how conservative the populace as a whole is.

    Moving to the right would be absurdly foolish for Democrats at the moment*. Their opponents have moved to a position no longer visible from contiguous reality, and the people who vote for Teh Crazy are not going to be persuaded to vote for a slightly more conservative** version of sane. “The center” is undefined when there is a rift in reality between you and the other guys.

    *So it’s likely that they will do exactly that. Sigh.

    **For values of ‘conservative’ that a Democrat could possibly support — e.g. reduced deficits and increased funding for defense maybe, but not any of the anti-brown, anti-LGBTQ, isolationist xenophobic, theocratic, anti-environment, anti-science, or wealth-protecting flavors so popular with the GOP at the moment.

  6. Gustopher says:

    Who are these more moderate Republicans? The ones who were ok with massive tax cuts and deficit exploding budgets when Trump is in the White House, but were very concerned about the deficits when Obama was?

    The ones who tut-tut when Trump says and does awful things, but then refuse to provide any oversight?

    The ones who make a grand show of having doubts, but then vote for the Republican position anyway, every single time?

    I think we can do without them.

    That’s not moderate, that’s opportunistic. We need actual moderate Republicans, who are interested in good government even from their own administration, and who have principles beyond Cleek’s Law.

  7. Kylopod says:


    There’s an old saying that when Democrats lose, they move to the right, and when Republicans lose, they move to the right.

    It’s more complicated than that. The pattern Waldman is describing did in fact happen to Dems in 2010: most of their incumbents who got wiped out weren’t the hardcore progressives but the Blue Dogs. The reason was simple: the Blue Dogs were the likeliest to represent reddish districts.

    This is not a matter of bothsiderism or the notion that there are any true Republican “moderates” left. It’s simply an observation that the way midterm elections work is that the most vulnerable incumbents are naturally going to be the ones representing districts or states leaning toward the other party, because their hold on those seats is always the most tenuous. Thus, the usual effect of a midterm election is to purge the more vulnerable party of its more “moderate” members (and I emphasize that that’s a relative term).

  8. Moosebreath says:


    The point of the saying is that after a loss, Democrats move to the center to try to build a winning coalition, while after a loss, Republicans show allegiance to the bithead rule that if they had run someone sufficiently conservative, they would have won.

  9. Dave Schuler says:

    Actually, I think I’m with Daryl above. I think that win or lose the Republicans will move farther right. Over at my place I’ve been saying that the only thing that Republicans can agree on among themselves these days is tax cuts. I see no reason to change that view.

  10. Blue Galangal says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl: Thank you, that’s exactly what I was thinking. I mean, what else might they do? Put kids in cages? Threaten nuclear war with the Middle East and North Korea? Overturn Roe?* ETA: My son pointed out that I forgot, “Pass another 1%-er tax cut?”

    *In process

  11. Kathy says:

    Speaking of moving right… Assuming the Democrats take the House, how long before El Cheeto fires Mueller, Rosenstein, and Sessions, not necessarily in that order?

  12. MarkedMan says:

    California is a pretty good bellwether for this situation. The Republicans used to have control of the state, and even when they lost control the super majority rule Left them with a lot of power. But the most extreme Republicans turned off the moderates in the state and gradually the moderates voted out their own Republicans (who were not that extreme). The Republicans that remain in California are the most extreme.

  13. Hal_10000 says:

    Well, he’s not wrong. Inevitably, the losing side in the election decides the problem was that they weren’t pure enough. I’ve been hearing from Democrats for the last two years that the party needs to move further left with socialized medicine and so on. And I hear it from a bullhorn with the Republicans every time they lose. “We weren’t conservative enough! See, it’s the moderates who lost!” I’ve even heard some say they’d rather have a “real conservative” minority than a RINO majority. Which is darkly hilarious, given that there are no RINOs left and the GOP has abandoned any real conservatism with Trump.

    This isn’t a political movement, anymore. It’s a Cult of Personality. And the thing about the Cult of Personality is that the personality is NEVER wrong. It’s everyone else who’s failed him. Guaranteed that if the GOP loses, we’ll get a Twitter tirade from Trump about how they lost because they weren’t loyal enough.

  14. grumpy realist says:

    @Dave Schuler: I suspect we’ll see the equivalent of Theresa May snuggling up with the DUP– which means tax cuts, more tax cuts, and whatever craziness they can come up with to keep the Republican caucus together.

  15. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl: Absolutely. They’ll move to the right no matter what happens. It’s the only direction they CAN move with conservative philosophy being what it is and has become.

    As to Romney being a wild card, I’m not so sure. The big tragedy of his 47% speech was that it showed who he really is. I doubt that he is as overtly racist as Trump and the GOP are–frankly I doubt that he cares enough about minorities and immigrants to give a s**t about what happens to them. But he HAS always been a pirate and so, will stick with the party that supports piracy even if that means supporting Trump’s excesses. He may surprise me and show some principles as a Senator, but I don’t think he has any.

    Hope I’m wrong , but…

  16. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @DrDaveT: Because “reducing the deficit”= raising taxes on people who have money to pay them with, it is no longer a “conservative value.” Sorry.

  17. Han says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    He may surprise me and show some principles as a Senator, but I don’t think he has any.

    Of course he has principles! And if you don’t like those principles, well, he has others…

  18. Slugger says:

    @One American: I agree. If the Republicans come up with a good plan to reduce homelessness and clean up the streets, I will certainly take note. There are more homeless in my hometown than in the Central American caravan, and I am disappointed that there has been no action from the President on this issue. Let’s Make America Clean Again.

  19. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Han: He crosses the red line. He shoots a blistering slap shot. Scooooooore!!!!!

  20. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Slugger: There are 500 homeless children in my town’s school district–most of whom are, apparently, in intact families. Our population is 36,000. Considering that we are, arguably, the richest nation in the history of the world, that statistic is a little troubling and I wish that Trump was making America great again for people who aren’t named Trump as well as the one’s who are.