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When Donald Trump last ran for president, his grip on the Republican Party was so strong, and his nomination so preordained, that Republicans didn’t even bother with their quadrennial custom of releasing a governing platform at their 2020 national convention. “That Republicans would skip the process entirely,” my colleagues reported at the time, “illustrates the degree to which their identity is shaped more by Mr. Trump, and his critics, than by any set of policy proposals.”
Two years later, Trump’s announcement of his third presidential campaign has been met with a much chillier reception. “I think we’ll have better choices,” said Mike Pence, who is considering his own run. “Florida Man Makes Announcement” read the bottom of the front page of Wednesday’s New York Post, one of Rupert Murdoch’s many conservative media properties that have soured on the former president. Trump has almost no one staffing key parts of his campaign, and many of the party’s top donors are reported to be backing other candidates.
Are these the first signs that the Republican Party has finally turned on Trump? And if so, what would the party look like without him? Here’s what people are saying.
A post-Trump party
Some Republicans had come to see Trump as an unacceptably risky 2024 candidate even before the midterms. As The Times’s Peter Baker reports, Trump faces a fresh spate of legal troubles, including two investigations by the Justice Department, which is reportedly considering appointing a special counsel.
But the primary reason for the surge of Republican defections is the disproportionately poor performance of Trump-aligned candidates in the midterms, which has compromised his image as a political kingmaker.
Looking at the Senate map, The Wall Street Journal editorial board points out that Trump-endorsed candidates lost by over four points in Pennsylvania and Arizona and by over eight points in New Hampshire, even as voters re-elected New Hampshire’s Trump-critical Republican governor by nearly 16 points. (The editorial’s headline: “Trump Is the Republican Party’s Biggest Loser.”)
In the House, The Times’s Nate Cohn estimates that Trump’s preferred primary candidates underperformed other G.O.P. candidates by about five percentage points.
Trump-endorsed candidates also fared poorly in important down-ballot races, as Zach Montellaro writes in Politico.
Of course, Republicans had suffered many bitter electoral losses under Trump before: the House in 2018, the White House in 2020 and the Senate in 2021. But based on polling, President Biden’s unpopularity, high inflation and historical trends, the party widely expected a blowout win last week.
The shock of their failure is one reason the Times columnist Bret Stephens believes Trump is finished as a serious presidential contender. The second is that “Trump is finally being abandoned by many of his usually unflagging apologists and enablers in right-wing media, whose influence will be felt downstream.” And the third reason is Trump’s pre-election criticisms of Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who went on to win re-election by more than 19 points.
“A wiser Trump would have made DeSantis’s victory his own, treating the governor as his star student and designated successor,” Stephens argues. But Trump “was a loser criticizing a winner — and what Trump’s base wants most of all is a winner.”
The Times columnist Ross Douthat argues that the midterm results also lend credence to the theory that a more disciplined but still right-wing candidate, like DeSantis, could succeed where Trump failed. “The basic Trump combination — cultural pugilism and relative economic moderation — can work wonders politically,” Douthat writes. “It just has to be reproduced in a politician who conspicuously knows what he’s doing and who conspicuously isn’t Donald Trump.”
DeSantis isn’t the only Republican who could fit the bill. My colleague Ezra Klein pointed out on his podcast, for example, that Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, won against a “fresher and more capable” Democratic candidate by a large margin similar to DeSantis’s, and Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio won re-election by an even greater margin.
A stronger Republican leader, whoever that might be, could also weaken the Democratic Party just by virtue of not being Trump. As Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, argues, Trump and Democrats have often displayed a symbiotic electoral relationship: “Democrats favored and supported MAGA candidates because they believed (rightly) that they’d be easy to beat. Trump supported them because they lined up with his obsessions and assuaged his ego. In the future, the G.O.P. might think twice about nominating candidates that the Democrats desperately want as opponents.”
It wouldn’t be the first time in recent history that the G.O.P. had to find a new leader. In 1998, the last time Republicans underperformed in the midterms during a Democratic presidency, Newt Gingrich, the Republican speaker of the House, resigned from Congress, and the party found a new standard-bearer in the landslide winner of the Texas governor’s race: George W. Bush.
“The party may be in a similar position today,” Matthew Continetti writes in The Times. Unlike Gingrich, he concedes, Trump may not allow the Republican Party to part ways with him without a costly fight. But “for conservatives,” he says, “this is a fight worth having.”
Why the G.O.P. might stick — and be stuck — with Trump
There is certainly a case to be made that reports of Trump’s political death are being greatly exaggerated. After all, Trump has been underestimated many times before. “How many times have we read that Trump is finished?” Jack Shafer of Politico writes. “That he’s gone too far this time? That the walls are finally closing in on him?”
In Shafer’s view, the midterms are “almost worthless in predicting a presidential aspirant’s immediate future.” For one thing, the G.O.P.’s underperformance wasn’t conclusively about Trump himself. As Shafer notes, Trump attempted to beat sitting governors and members of Congress this election season, and with candidates of exceptionally poor quality. According to Nathaniel Rakich of FiveThirtyEight, it’s true that Trump’s endorsees are not winning as often as they used to, but the decline “probably has more to do with him picking tougher fights than with voters turning their backs on him.”
Right-leaning voters and independents may also have turned against Republicans because of their increasingly restrictive position on abortion rights, a position that’s by no means unique to Trump. “A strong majority of Republicans are favorable toward Trump, and this favorability has proven robust in the face of scandals, negative coverage and so on,” said Ariel Malka, a political scientist at Yeshiva University. “Abortion strikes me as potentially more relevant for explaining the break from historical midterm patterns.”
The party’s attitude toward Trump could also change depending on who he’d be running against. As Frank Bruni pointed out last week, it may not be Joe Biden: He would be just shy of 82 before 2024, and months before the midterms, polling showed that a significant majority of Democrats would prefer another presidential candidate. The problem for Democrats — and the potential boon to Republicans — is that Biden has no obvious successor.
But perhaps Trump’s greatest ally heading into 2024 is his party’s fear of alienating his die-hard base. The exact share of G.O.P. voters who remain more dedicated to Trump than to the Republican Party isn’t known, but The Times’s Michael Bender recently reported that several of the party’s pollsters have estimated that it could be between one-third and 40 percent — enough to cast doubt on Continetti’s belief that the fight to oust Trump would be worth having.
“It is one thing for Republican elites to try to break a political fandom,” the Times columnist Jamelle Bouie writes. “It is another thing entirely to try to break the influence of a man whose strongest, most devoted supporters were willing to sack the Capitol or sacrifice their lives in an attack on an F.B.I. office. Some Trump supporters will leave the fold for an alternative like DeSantis, but there will be a hard-core group who came to the Republican Party for Trump, and won’t settle for another candidate.”
To the Times columnist Maureen Dowd, this moment feels reminiscent of the aftermath of Jan. 6, when powerful Republicans like Senator Lindsey Graham spoke out against the president only to shield him days later from suffering any consequences during his second impeachment: “It’s not hard to imagine that this revolt against the revolting Trump will die down in a few days and they’ll all be back behind this person that they blame for their current convulsions.”
Blame could quickly turn into fulsome support if Trump manages to defy expectations again with a strong showing in the primary season ahead. “He is not as weak a candidate as many people might expect — or hope — him to be,” Kevin Williamson argues in The Times. “I believe he is most likely to be the 2024 Republican nominee for president, and since we have only two major political parties, he could win in the general election.”
Do you have a point of view we missed? Email us at [email protected]. Please note your name, age and location in your response, which may be included in the next newsletter.
“Even Melania Must Know Trump Blew It” [The New York Times]
“Trump’s Future Isn’t Up to Fox News” [The Atlantic]
“The 7 Big Lessons of the 2022 Midterm Elections” [New York]
“Has Donald Trump Lost His Grip on the Republican Party?” [The New York Times]
“Republicans Did Not Read the Room” [The New York Times]