Washington Republicans are in an uproar hours ahead of Donald Trump’s expected launch of a new presidential run, exacerbated by the party’s protracted wait for the House majority it will use to try to weaken President Joe Biden.
Trump apparently plans to open the 2024 election cycle at his Mar-a-Lago resort Tuesday evening, despite the failure of his election-denying acolytes in the midterms and unusual ambivalence among GOP lawmakers over his prospects.
His unsuccessful attempt to leverage the congressional elections to display his own power set off a mess of infighting and recriminations over the failure of the GOP to stir a red wave to claim big congressional majorities. It also raised questions over Trump’s own 2024 general election viability. The result is that the GOP in Washington is further weakened and Trump is under some of the most intense pressure he’s faced during a turbulent political career – even if there’s no sign yet that his enduring power base in the party’s adoring grassroots has eroded.
The ex-President had clearly hoped to claim credit for a banner Republican midterm performance to supercharge his bid to win back the presidency, but the party failed to recapture the Senate – and a whole week from Election Day, it is still waiting for its control of the House to be confirmed. The GOP did add several seats overnight and now stands three seats short of the 218 it needs. But its eventual margin will be far smaller than it had hoped, meaning the majority will be volatile and hard to manage.
Still, while that could cause general chaos in Washington, it could give pro-Trump factions in the party the chance to maximize their leverage on potential House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who is facing a tougher than expected struggle to nail down the votes he would need to take the top job in January. On Monday evening, GOP Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona confirmed he would challenge McCarthy in a bid to show he didn’t yet have sufficient support to speaker.
Still, the California Republican and current minority leader did get a standing ovation after calling on his conference to show unity on Monday ahead of Tuesday’s leadership elections.
Back-biting has also broken out in the Senate GOP, with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz slamming veteran Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, while Florida Sen. Rick Scott mulls a challenge despite his failed stewardship of the GOP campaign committee’s bid to win the Senate. A fight also looms over control of the Republican National Committee.
The finger-pointing is emerging over a disappointing performance for Republicans. Trump-style extremism was repudiated at the ballot box in a vote that ought to have been a referendum on an unpopular sitting president in a tough economy – rather than one on a predecessor who left the White House but won’t go away.
There is every logical reason for Republicans to move on from Trump. One lesson from last week’s election is that voters didn’t reject Republicans per se. Authentic conservatives who distanced themselves from the ex-president, like Govs. Brian Kemp of Georgia, Mike DeWine of Ohio, Ron DeSantis of Florida and Chris Sununu of New Hampshire cruised to reelection.
But multiple Trump-backed candidates for governor, secretary of state posts, and Senate and House seats flamed out. One of the most high-profile election deniers, Arizona Republican Kari Lake, will lose to Democrat Katie Hobbs, CNN projected Monday evening. Democrats in Michigan, meanwhile, won control of the state legislature, which had spent the last two years on election-denying distractions. Swearing loyalty to Trump and his election fraud hot air proved to be a disastrous campaign strategy for many candidates.
Campaign announcement to set up GOP test
The projected defeat of Lake in the Arizona governor’s race on Monday completes a near total rout of 2020 election deniers in swing states whom Trump thrust into the midterm elections.
His determination to run again is already drawing widespread opposition among many Republicans on Capitol Hill, who are reeling from their failure to whip up a red wave to capture the Senate, where Democrats held on, and the House, which remains uncalled.
A new Trump campaign would set up a test between the growing skepticism of his ambitions among the upper echelons of his party and the adoration millions of base voters still feel for the twice-impeached ex-president.
Despite once telling supporters he’d do so much winning they’d get tired of it, Trump’s record on Election Day is pretty thin – save from the transformative shock of his 2016 triumph over Democrat Hillary Clinton.
The GOP’s losses under his watch – when they lost the House in 2018 and the Senate two years later – are driving a debate over his political viability within the party he has long dominated. His foisting of poor quality, extreme, election-denying candidates on the GOP in this year’s midterms is not just dampening his possible launch party. The ex-president is being accused of sabotaging his own team.
But true to form, Trump has shown little sign of self-doubt. Instead, he’s been attacking those Republicans who have proven they can build broad majorities more recently than he has – including DeSantis, his biggest potential threat in a presidential primary, and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who campaigned for GOP candidates across the country this year after last year flipping a state Biden had won by 10 points.
But while Trump’s brand is tarnished and there are fresh doubts over whether a new campaign based on his obsessive claims of false voter fraud will fly in a general election, his past record of resilience suggests he shouldn’t be dismissed.
The 45th president has been down and damaged before – after the “Access Hollywood” tape was released in his first campaign, when Republicans lost the House in 2018, and then again following his own general election defeat in 2020. He earned the historic shame of a second impeachment after inciting an insurrection at the US Capitol in 2021.
But he’s always bounced back, leveraging a near mythical bond with the Republican base to break party rivals. Trump’s power has always been rooted in the notion that potential Republican foes cannot afford to attack him since they’d alienate his supporters and ruin their own political careers. One motivation behind an early White House announcement may be to prove that’s still true, as candidates like DeSantis, ex-Vice President Mike Pence, and other presidential wannabes assess his strength as they consider their own aspirations.
Pence, for example – who will appear in a CNN town hall on Wednesday evening – told ABC News in an interview that aired Monday that the American people will “have better choices in the future.”
A 2024 presidential race – with several strong potential GOP alternatives ready in the wings – will test whether Trump’s magnetism with primary voters will overcome growing fatigue over his incessant 2020 election fraud lies. And it would ask GOP primary voters a question: is their devotion to the ex-president more important than worries about his capacity to actually win the White House, despite growing evidence to the contrary?
‘Is it time to rebuild?’
So unless he has a major change of attitude, Trump – who still fumes with fury about the last presidential election in every campaign rally – will have to prove that that his false claims of a stolen election in 2020 are a winning message in 2024.
Evidence suggests that while those falsehoods may still be a hot currency inside the GOP grassroots, it’s a bust in a broader national electorate.
“You know, if you lose over and over to what’s really not that great of a team, you have got to reassess, is it time to rebuild?” Maryland’s Republican Gov. Larry Hogan said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. “Trump’s cost us the last three elections. And I don’t want to see it happen a fourth time.”
Outgoing Pennsylvania GOP Sen. Pat Toomey effectively accused the ex-president of losing his seat. The Democratic path to Senate control ran through Pennsylvania, where Democrat John Fetterman defeated Republican Mehmet Oz. With Trump’s backing, Oz had narrowly prevailed over businessman David McCormick, a potentially stronger general election candidate, in the primary.
“All over the country, there’s a very high correlation between MAGA candidates and big losses, or at least dramatically underperforming,” Toomey told CNN’s Erin Burnett last week.
On Monday, Idaho GOP Rep. Mike Simpson told CNN said that while he embraced Trumpism, he had tired of Trump and didn’t think he was good for the party. “I think his policies were good. I just don’t need all the drama with it,” he told CNN’s Alex Rogers.
And one of the incoming Republican House lawmakers, Mike Lawler, who picked up a Democratic seat in New York, said it was time for someone else. “I would like to see the party move forward,” he said on CNN’s “This Morning” last week.
And in an exclusive interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper on Monday, outgoing Republican Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker said that people were tired of the radicalism represented by the former president.
“One of the big lessons that the Republican Party nationally needs to take away from (the midterms) is voters want collaborative elected officials. They don’t want extremes,” Baker said.
Trump still knows his base like few other Republicans
But while there are important strategic reasons for ambitious Republicans to desert Trump, past experience suggests it would be foolish to dismiss him – even if his early launch, if it happens, could antagonize voters still exhausted by the previous election.
To begin with, many of those most loudly questioning his continued dominance of the party in recent days have already broken with him in some fashion. There are few signs that more pro-Trump politicians like Cruz are pulling away.
Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, often spoken of as a future GOP presidential candidate, did hint that he was considering his options when he described the midterms as “the funeral for the Republican Party as we know it.” The Missouri Republican, who has publicly vowed to oppose McConnell’s bid for leader, called for a conversation about what the GOP can do for working class voters before the 2024 election.
“I like a lot of what President Trump did as president … we need to have a conversation about our core convictions. … Clearly this party is going to have to be different or we are not going to be a majority party in this country,” Hawley told Capitol Hill reporters on Monday.
But at the same time, Trumpism is actually returning to power in Washington. The likely new Republican House may only enjoy a small majority, but it would still be an overwhelmingly pro-Trump force that would relish the chance to try to thwart Biden’s presidency ahead of a possible clash with his predecessor in 2024. Ambitious GOP leaders like New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, the third-ranking House Republican, have already endorsed Trump for president. If Trump is able to demonstrate he’s still strong with grassroots voters, some Republicans might, as they always have before, judge that their hopes for a future in the party mean they must swallow their antipathy to the former president yet again.
Felling Trump might require a candidate like DeSantis to risk his political future to try to take him out. And another crowded primary in the GOP’s winner-take-all presidential race could splinter opposition to Trump and help him plot a path to the nomination.
Trump has never been a cerebral, logical choice for his supporters. In 2016, he fused frustration with the globalized economy and contempt for elites to create a powerful political movement. And it goes deeper than policy. Trump offers his supporters an emotional connection. His rallies are less political speeches than raucous, politically incorrect nights out at which vast crowds relish his defiance, his embrace of their grievances and willingness to say anything, as he crushes propriety and convention. People really do want to believe what he says and not – as he famously once cautioned them against – the facts that the press reports. Attendees often look like they are having the time of their lives with a candidate who, despite serving as president for four years, has maintained the conceit that he’s just one of them and not a real politician.
If Trump can rekindle that feeling, he’d still be a formidable force in the GOP whether or not its grandees believe he’d risk losing them yet another election in 2024.