President_Trump_Travels_to_Arizona_50345550462 President Trump disembarking Air Force One. Photograph: The White House, Public Domain

The 2020 Presidential Election, fraught and contested as it was, is over. Joe Biden is the 46th President of the United States and commands majorities in both chambers of Congress. At first glance, things look bad for the Republicans - but scratch the surface and a rather different picture emerges.

For one thing, the much-vaunted Democratic majorities in the House of Representatives and Senate are precariously slim. In the former - their 2018 majority having been slashed unexpectedly last year - Biden's party holds 221 seats to the GOP's 211. In the latter, the balance of power is more delicate still, with Democrats and Republicans commanding 50 seats apiece. Here, a majority for the President's legislative agenda exists only by virtue of Vice President Kamala Harris's casting vote. At the state level, things are even worse for the Democrats. The GOP controls no fewer than 30 of 50 state legislatures, with power split in a further two (Minnesota and Alaska). When Governors are taken into consideration, Republicans fully control 23 state governments and the Democrats only 15.

This renders lazy comparisons between Trump and Hoover (the last Republican President to lose all three branches of government in a single term) moot. In 1932, Hoover lost to Roosevelt in a landslide and the Democrats swept to comfortable majorities in the House and Senate, claiming 12 new Governor's Mansions along the way. Even amid a global pandemic and the ensuing economic downturn, there was no such nationwide electoral rout in 2020 - a fact of which clear-eyed Democratic strategists are no doubt only too aware.

Democrat woes are compounded by historical precedent, which dictates that the party of an incumbent President traditionally loses seats during mid-term elections - leaving Republicans well-placed to build on their advantage at the state level and take back the House of Representatives in 2022. The Senate map looks less favourable, but the prospect of a renewed Republican majority in the upper chamber in two years' time should not be discounted. This all means that the real debate is not over whether the GOP is in good shape - because it is - but over what sort of party contests the 2022 and 2024 election cycles. Will the Republican platform represent 'America First 2.0', or will it represent a retreat into the party's pre-2016, neocon comfort zone? How will primary challenges change the face of the party? What sort of role will President Trump play?

The GOP doesn't have long to find answers. Midterm elections will be held next year and the party needs to hammer out a winning strategy early if it wants to win.

It is doubtful that the Republican base has any appetite for a return to the neoconservative, interventionist platform of old. Like the public at large, they have grown weary of endless, destabilising and ultimately futile regime changes and foreign wars - this much was obvious in 2016, long before Trump's 'Peace through Strength' foreign policy doctrine bore substantial fruit in the form of the Abraham Accords. The base is unlikely to endorse neoconservatism at the ballot box - either in primaries or general elections - and President Trump himself remains wildly popular among the party faithful. Anyone vying for the party crown will need to embody the spirit of 'America First' - or at the very least pay considerable lip service thereto - if they are to have any hope of securing the nomination.

Which brings us to the elephant in the room: Just who will be the GOP's standard bearer in 2024? The suggestion that Trump would be banned from seeking political office again was always for the birds. He never really had anything to fear from the latest move to impeach him, for conviction in the Senate would have required the public defection of 17 Republicans and few signalled any kind of desire to vote against him during the trial. In the end, only seven strayed from the party position, leaving Trump acquitted and free to seek the presidency again in 2024. He remains a political force to be reckoned with (nothing could scream 'insecurity' quite as loudly as the Democrats, perhaps realising that their narrow victory last year was made possible only by a black swan event few could have foreseen at the beginning of 2020 and fearing a resurgence in popular support for 'America First' in 2022 and beyond, spending a good portion of their post-election political capital in hopes of barring Mr Trump from ever seeking public office again) and the nomination is surely his for the taking should he seek it.

That the former President is today scheduled to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) is considered by many pundits an early indication that he intends to run in 2024. He may yet face internal competition from Nikki Haley and others, but it is difficult to envisage a scenario in which Donald Trump does not simply dominate the field and cruise to convincing victories in Republican primaries across the nation. Far from facing a stiff challenge for the nomination, it seems more likely that Trump will be recognised as the presumptive nominee long before 2024 and play an instrumental role in developing his party's strategy ahead of elections next year -  elections which may yet prove to be the first act of a new political thriller which could see him become only the second President in American history to serve two nonconsecutive terms in the White House. 

The Grand Old Party isn't done with Donald Trump just yet - nor he with it.