Why Did Republicans Rack Up Wins Despite Trump's Loss? : The NPR Politics Podcast Republicans gained seats in the House of Representatives and could very well hold onto the Senate. That's despite Joe Biden's broad presidential win. We talk about a comparatively diverse GOP freshman class and other factors that could be behind their wins.

The episode: correspondent Scott Detrow, congressional correspondent Susan Davis, national political correspondent Mara Liasson, and reporter Danielle Kurtzleben.

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Why Did Republicans Rack Up Wins Despite Trump's Loss?

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Why Did Republicans Rack Up Wins Despite Trump's Loss?

Why Did Republicans Rack Up Wins Despite Trump's Loss?

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SAVANNAH: Hey there. This is Savannah (ph) at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, where I just handed in my race, ethnicity and politics exam. And I'm about to take my 25th self-administered COVID-19 test of the semester. This podcast was recorded at...


It is 2:05 Eastern on Thursday, November 12.

SAVANNAH: Things may have changed by the time you hear this. But hopefully, I'll still be on campus for the strangest senior year ever. All right. Here's the show.


SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: That is an impressive amount of COVID tests.

DETROW: You know, I took a lot traveling with Joe Biden, and even I didn't take that many. So hats off, noses off. Hopefully they're all negative. And congrats on turning in that paper.

DAVIS: She sounds like an A student.

DETROW: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Scott Detrow. I'm covering Joe Biden.

DAVIS: I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

DETROW: So I'm glad you two are here because I want to sort out something that I've been confused by and I've been wanting to know more about. And that's the fact that, even though President Trump lost the election, Republicans gained seats in the House of Representatives, and they may very well hold on to control of the U.S. Senate. So, Sue, let's just start there. Why do we think that is - specifically, the House?

DAVIS: Yeah. I mean, it's kind of a wild election when you look at it. I mean, Joe Biden essentially had a zero-coattail effect down the ballot. And I've spent the past few days talking to a lot of Republican candidates who won and party strategists, and they all seem to agree on a couple of big themes. I think the first is they believe that they just had a better recruitment class of candidates, and I think we'll talk about more of that later in the pod.

The other is messaging. You know, Republicans say that Democrats used an old playbook. They revived the 2018 playbook, and they ran on this message of protecting preexisting conditions and that Donald Trump was a bad president. And they said it just didn't land, that that message had already saturated with all the voters it could, and it didn't persuade the ones that still needed to be persuaded. They think that they had a better message focusing on the economy, that Joe Biden would raise your taxes, sort of a traditional Republican message. And also, a lot of them frankly said that they thought that defund the police became a huge liability for Democrats in a lot of swing races, especially in the suburbs.


DAVIS: And the last thing that I think is unique to 2020 is COVID and the ground game. You know, Scott, so many Republican candidates still ran pretty traditional campaigns. They had events. They went to rallies. They didn't wear masks. They did door-knocking. And a lot of Democrat candidates didn't because they didn't want to do those things because of the pandemic. And ultimately, a lot of Republicans think it just made a difference, and it benefited them.

LIASSON: And, you know, on that list of things, when I talk to Democrats, there's agreement on a couple of those things.

DETROW: Like what?

LIASSON: Well, that maybe not door-knocking did hurt Democrats. Also, the defund the police message was hung around Democrats' neck like an albatross, so that definitely hurt Democrats. Democrats will say that. And the other two things that Democrats add for why they lost House seats is that Trump is a unique motivator for Republican voters, and he was on the ballot this time where he wasn't on the ballot in 2018. And the big difference between now and 2018, when Democrats picked up huge numbers of seats in a real blue wave, was that last time, if you didn't like Donald Trump, the only way you could express your disfavor was to vote for a Democrat for Congress. This time, you could vote for Joe Biden and vote for a Republican for Congress.


LIASSON: So there definitely was some ticket-splitting.

DETROW: It's so interesting, you know, and it is worth pointing out that at that point in time where Democrats had a choice between Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders seemed to be picking up the momentum, one of the top reasons and top worries from Democrats that led to the consolidation was they thought that Bernie Sanders would be toxic down-ballot and Joe Biden would help Democrats down-ballot. So it's so interesting that Biden didn't really have those coattails. And at the same time, Mara, it's worth pointing out again, Donald Trump decisively lost. He lost the blue wall. He lost Arizona. And yet, lots of voters ticket-split, which we thought was an extinct thing.

LIASSON: Well, I think they ticket-split for the House. I don't know how much for the Senate. But don't forget, Bernie Sanders might have lost seats down-ballot.


LIASSON: We don't know that. One thing - you know, to me, like, the headlines are for Democrats - gee, does winning always feel this depressing?


LIASSON: And for Republicans, it's like, wow, is losing always this great, you know (laughter)? But you're right. Look. Donald Trump lost. He really didn't do much better than he did the first time. He got 46% of the vote in 2016. He got about 47% this time. Yes, it was definitely a rebuke of the man. It wasn't a rebuke of Trumpism. But we don't know how much of what happened was unique to Trump. He barnstormed around the country. It wasn't just Republican congressional candidates knocking on doors. It was Donald Trump holding these huge rallies, sometimes in rural areas, and getting numbers that really astounded Democrats.


LIASSON: So Donald Trump helped his party, but he couldn't help himself.

DAVIS: I think there's a case to be made that if not for the pandemic - and that's a big if - that Donald Trump would've been in a much better place to win reelection and that the fact that the Republican Party did as well as they did down the ballot sends a message to a lot of Republicans that it really was not about their policies. In fact, they think that their policies are quite popular. It was really just a referendum on the president and, specifically, his personality. I heard this a lot talking to strategists, especially ones that were focused on swing voters and suburban voters. They were just exhausted by the president, but they weren't rejecting the ideas of the Republican Party. And I think that that is really just going to embolden sort of the party that is still, I think, the party of Trump to stick with him on the policies and the way he's reshaped the party but maybe have the benefit of not having to constantly respond and defend to his tweets seven days a week.

LIASSON: I don't know if they're completely right about that or not because Democrats have an argument to make that their policies are popular. As Florida was electing Donald Trump, it passed a $15 minimum wage by 62%.


LIASSON: So a lot of progressive economic policies are popular. It's the cultural left - the defund the police - that stuff that's unpopular. I think it's really hard for either party to draw very clear, simple lessons from this election. I think the voters were sending a confusing message.

DETROW: But I want to ask about things that both of you said here because I'm just trying to make sense of what is going on in Congress right now and what is going on in statehouses around the country right now. We saw in the House, we saw, for the most part, in the Senate, we definitely saw in statehouses across the country - Republicans outperform Donald Trump. He lost. They gained seats in a lot of places.

And yet, we are still about a week into this. He is refusing to concede. His Twitter explanations for his loss get more and more detached from reality. And yet, by and large, most Republicans continue to stick with him on this or, at minimum, continue to not say that he's wrong. So what's going on here if they did better than him and they could soon be rid of him but keep the policies?

LIASSON: They didn't do better than him to the point where they could've done just as well without him. And he has a stranglehold on the Republican base. I think it's really hard to separate the Republican Party from Trump. In some places, they did better than him. Some Senate candidates did worse than him.

DAVIS: Yeah. I mean, I think the president has made it so clear that he's not going to go quietly, right? He wants to remain a factor in politics in some way, shape or form. And the Republican Party needs that Trump voter in their coalition to be a winning coalition. Trump did bring a lot of people into the Republican Party fold. They may not be a more diverse-looking group of people, but he certainly brought more voters out, especially in rural America. They've brought more working-class voters into the party.

And if they alienate, if they start to distance themselves with Trump - you know, these are new voters into the fold. They want to keep them; they want to maintain them; and they want to grow that support. And there's just politically no way to do that by your first action after this election - calling on the president to concede or chastising him. There's just no political benefit to it, especially when I don't think there's any real palpable concern among Republicans that he's actually just going to leave office, you know, in the way that all presidents do at the end of the day.

DETROW: All right. There is a lot more to talk about on all of this, which we will, of course, continue to do. But for now, Mara, we're going to let you go. Thank you so much.

LIASSON: Thank you very much.

DETROW: Sue, stick around. When we get back, Danielle Kurtzleben will join us to talk about the makeup of the incoming class in Congress.

And we're back. Danielle Kurtzleben, hello.


DETROW: Sue talked in the first half of the podcast about the success that Republicans had with candidate recruitment. So tell me about the Republicans who are coming to Congress for the first time. I guess orientation is happening today, so they've arrived in Washington.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. Yeah. And the key thing that I've been reporting on this week is that, yeah, Republicans are going to have a record number of women in Congress. They are going to have 34 - at least, that is of the races called so far. Of course, all of those races are not called yet - but, yeah, 34 women, up from the 22 they had on Election Day, so a more than 50% increase. And they will - among those women, there'll be three women of color - again, as of now - up from one.

DETROW: So that's a big increase, but how does it compare to what's already going on on the Democratic side of the aisle?

KURTZLEBEN: Right. Well, and the answer is that Democrats always have far more women than Republicans do. So while Republicans have set this record with 34 women - again, so far - Democrats will - are set to have at least 104 women in Congress - so, you know, three times that many. And that's not quite a record for Democrats. The record would be 106, set in 2019. And, yeah, that group of women is also far more diverse. There are 45 women of color so far in the Democratic caucus - so a big gap. But yeah, it's still totally significant that Republicans have succeeded in recruiting this year.

DETROW: So Sue, 15 beats ago when I covered Congress with you, I think...

DAVIS: Yeah.

DETROW: ...One of the most striking things for me was the first time that I was up in the House gallery, just looking down and seeing the vast, vast demographic disparity between the two parties. The fact that this is moving in a more diverse direction on the Republican side, even though there's still a big gap - it feels like that's a positive thing, right?

DAVIS: It is. And I mean, you know, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy was thumping his chest about this today at his weekly press conference. I mean, Republicans are really proud of this. And it's credit to a lot of the work of the women that were already in the House. You know, I know Danielle's talked to her, but Elise Stefanik, who's a Republican from New York, who's one of the younger women - I mean, she really made this a priority. I think she saw the problem that the party was facing and was like, if we don't do something about this, it's going to be even worse.

I do think the class is also - it's beyond women, right? The one thing that we hear a lot - then Kevin McCarthy talked about this today - that in all of the new candidates coming in or in the Democratic-held seats they flipped, they did it by running either a woman, a minority, a veteran or some combination of the three. So they really did try to focus a bit more away from, you know, frankly, the traditional white guy that you associate with the Republican Party. I think they do recognize that people didn't see a party that reflected the country. And so I think that this kind of election is one more thing that has Republicans walking away from it, like, feeling pretty good about things, even though they still technically didn't win.

DETROW: So we have talked about a much more narrow gap in the House between Democrats and Republicans. We have talked about the incoming Republican class being much more diverse, especially on the gender side. Do we have any guesses how these two factors lead to any changes in governing or tone over the next two years?

KURTZLEBEN: You know, that's really interesting. I mean, I'm inclined to say not a lot. There's research that shows that even though women politicians sometimes do run on this idea that women are more bipartisan, that we get stuff done, that we reach across the aisle, there's not a lot of evidence for that. And when there is, it's in very particular cases.

DAVIS: Another thing that I think is interesting about this is I've talked to people who've studied this who said a lot of Republican women were motivated to run because of the successes that Democratic women had in 2018. And one of the things that I think we're going to see is there is also a group of them that sort of marketed themselves as the conservative squad, the sort of counter to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar and Ayanna Pressley. And I think that we're going to see that sort of tension between the sort of far-left Democratic women and the far-right Republican women and who gets to speak for who. And it's going to be, I think, probably a dynamic in the next Congress that is going to get a lot of attention.

DETROW: All right - a lot to watch for once these new members show up and are sworn in. That's it for today. You can subscribe to a roundup of our best online analysis by heading to npr.org/politicsnewsletter.

I'm Scott Detrow. I cover Joe Biden.

DAVIS: I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

KURTZLEBEN: I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover politics.

DETROW: Thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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