This election has seen some surprises and some things that were absolutely predictable. Few of us would have imagined that Republicans could think they'd be able to get away with suddenly proclaiming themselves the true champions of protections for people with pre-existing conditions, for instance. But centering their campaign on racist appeals to fear and hatred? I think we all saw that coming.
It doesn't look like it's going to work, though we won't know for sure until Tuesday night. But it does raise a question that will help determine the shape of our politics for the next few years: What happens afterward? Especially if they lose the House as pretty much everyone assumes they will, will Republicans conclude that the campaign they ran was a mistake, and try to change?
I don't mean that they'll conclude it was a moral mistake, because they've proven time and again that as a group they really have no moral principles they aren't willing to transgress if it means winning the next battle. You'd think that when the former grand wizard of the KKK is applauding the president for his racist campaign ads and white supremacist web sites are lighting up with joy over his rhetoric, it might lead to some reflection on the right. But we know it won't.
So if nothing else, if they're not successful in holding the House, Republicans could decide that it was a tactical mistake to embrace race-baiting as a campaign strategy. And I'm sure some will. The problem is that the party as a whole may be trapped into repeating the same strategy for the next couple of elections.
That might seem counter-intuitive. After all, if they lose, wouldn't they want to change? That's the view The Washington Post's Matt Viser describes here:
"By running so overtly on racially tinged messages, the GOP is putting that explosive form of politics on the ballot. If Republicans maintain control of the House, the notion of running a campaign built on blunt, race-based attacks on immigrants and minorities will have been validated. A loss, on the other hand, might prompt a number of Republicans to call for a rethinking of the party's direction - but that would collide with a sitting president who, if anything, relishes over-the-edge rhetoric."
That seems to make perfect sense, and there are many Republicans running right now, particularly in suburban districts, who wish the president would dial down the racism so they could just appeal to traditional party loyalties and assure voters they're reasonable and responsible. But this is Trump's party, and if you have an "R" next to your name, you're going to own whatever he does. There will be some Republicans saying the party made a mistake, but their arguments will fall on deaf ears.
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 average Freedom Caucus member is going to get re-elected 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, Donald Trump is running his own re-election 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 because he clearly believes its the best strategy to win. If Democrats win a huge victory tomorrow, 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 re-elected." 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 like 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.
You can extend it out even further. What happens in 2022? If Trump wins in 2020, it will validate the race-baiting, and if he loses it means there will be a Democratic president and a right-wing backlash a la the Tea Party. The earliest we could see the GOP truly try to reach out to a broader swath of voters is 2024.
And this year, they're going to come to the same set of conclusions whether they win or lose. Was the racist fear-mongering a mistake? Nope, midterm losses just happen to the president's party. Was it wrong to try to suppress the votes of racial minorities in places like Georgia and North Dakota? Nope, we just didn't do a thorough enough job of it. Should we try something different? We might like to, but as long as Donald Trump is president, this is the strategy we're going to follow.
There’s a lot more ugliness to come.
Paul Waldman is an opinion writer for the Plum Line blog. @paulwaldman1