There's no gloss that can make Republicans' performance in Tuesday's elections look good.
They were wiped out in Virginia. Democrats won statewide by five to eight points in all three of the top races. They gained more than a dozen seats in the state's House of Delegates, and might even gain control of that chamber pending a few outstanding tallies.
Around the country, Democrats knocked off Republican incumbents, with mayoral victories in Maryland, legislative pickups in Georgia, and a gubernatorial blowout in New Jersey.
A closer look suggests massive Democratic enthusiasm, starting what could be a tidal wave in the 2018 midterms and Democratic control of both chambers of Congress. It also seems likely that the Democrats will pick up governorships and state legislatures where Republicans now dominate.
Virginia’s Governor-elect Ralph Northam received the largest number of votes for any office in a non-presidential year in Virginia history. In Northern Virginia, his vote totals exceeded those of top-of-ticket Democrats in 2013 and 2014 by 40 percent or more. The Democratic vote was up by almost half in Charlottesville.
What’s going on? All signs suggest a Democratic groundswell against President Trump and, to mix metaphors, it has to be recognized that there is no smart way to defeat a tsunami or a hurricane.
After Trump’s astounding win in 2016, many Republicans have tried to emulate “the Trump model.” Ed Gillespie, an establishment K Street Republican lobbyist, campaigned on such issues as Salvadoran gangs and the Confederacy far more than he did in his Senate race three years ago.
But the “Trump model” is probably a winner only for Trump. He was a reality television star, and his most important trait, apart from universal name recognition, was his foreignness to politics and complete disregard for political norms and political correctness.
The “Trump model” is not a winner nationally, either, for anyone but him. He defeated the most unpopular Democratic nominee in a generation. Northam showed that a generic Democrat, rather than a uniquely unattractive one, can win big. And, of course, Trump actually lost the popular vote. His crucial wins in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio, Iowa, and Michigan were not blowouts. He underperformed the winning Republican Senate candidates in four of those states.
A “Never Trump” conservative GOP won’t work, either, as Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake’s horrific approval numbers testified before he announced his retirement. Much of Trump’s non-conservative policy is popular, including big-government economic populism.
So, Republicans need to understand that they cannot win by imitating Trump, and they cannot win by running away from him either. So how do they win?
It's tough, however you look at it. With the exception of the post-9/11 election, the party in the White House has lost House seats in the first midterm election of a presidency every time since the Great Depression. In recent decades, these have generally been blowouts: See the 1994 and 2010 Republican revolutions, or the Democratic landslide in 2006.
But, even if history and time is not on their side, Republicans can vastly improve their position. They must get on with governing. They must pass the tax reform bill that is now at the top of their agenda, and allow the tonic of lower rates and untangled incentives to work the economic magic that it always does. Rising prosperity, freedom of commerce, the promise and then the fact of higher incomes, and better jobs, have a way of making incumbent parties look good to voters.
Republicans ought to make the most of the time they have in power. Pass the best conservative legislation they can. Apart from reforming taxes, they should act to protect religious liberty, scrap burdensome regulations, and get rid of Obamacare.