On the cusp of a massive ballot count, the future of Republican red-state power in Washington seemed on Tuesday to hang by a thread. Nervously, GOP strategists sought to defend their electoral turf, most importantly in the U.S. Senate, which in recent years drove the tax cuts, deregulation and court appointments that President Donald Trump got to sign and campaign on.
When various state party operatives try to stymie the casting and counting of ballots by registered Democrats, they are not just doing so for Trump's sake. Since 2016, he has been the draw for the base and titular head of the party. But there are many moving parts that are not about him and, as of late Tuesday, many ways the party was threatened with a loss of power unless polling proved way off.
Both the Senate and the White House were on the line. If Trump comes up a loser and the Senate's GOP majority survives, the most powerful U.S. Republican would be Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
With a former senator, Joseph Biden, as president, the body would be in a strong position to negotiate or block initiatives and appointments, as it did during the Obama administration.
In that scenario, Trump presumably would no longer call all the shots in the party, and his cult of personality would be left to find other venues of empowerment from outside the federal government. Losing would discredit the notion that Trump could continue to pull Republican strings from outside. Speculation would probably abound about his "considering" a third party in the style of the late maverick candidate Ross Perot.
Say Trump is reelected but without a GOP-led Senate. That could paralyze the rudderless president in his second term. Democrats who impeached him in the House could gain the clout to try to convict him in the Senate. Trump would govern with a figurative gun to his head. Appointments, budgets and all major legislation would be controlled in large part by Democrats.
Of course, the most destructive possibility facing the GOP as it sailed into this election was that it could lose both the White House and the Senate. On the likelihood that the House remains in Democratic control, a stunning reversal will have taken place. During 2017 and 2018, the Grand Old Party was all-powerful. By 2021, it would have lost all legislative power. Republicans could jettison Trump as their standard-bearer, with leadership to be determined and fought over.
The best prospect for the party is the one that seemed likely earlier this year — that this election would continue the status quo power scenario under Trump and McConnell. The Republican establishment would continue to call the shots on the nation's severe health and economic crisis caused by COVID-19.