Nov 11, 2022

Will Republicans really move on from Trump?

Will Republicans really move on from Trump?
Photo by History in HD / Unsplash

The mood has shifted on Trump. But will it matter to voters?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 8 minutes.

Every election has consequences, but the 2022 midterms could reverberate for years.

While the immediate impact of this cycle will be control of Congress, the outcome of ballot initiatives, and the sweeping changes to state legislatures across the country, there is one other, longer-term question bubbling up in political circles: What does this mean for Donald Trump's political future?

Heading into Tuesday, Trump was the face of the party and its unquestioned leader. The former president is a fundraising goliath and a kingmaker in primaries. Despite currently being out of office and being banned from Twitter and Facebook, he still has the loudest megaphone of any Republican on the planet. But on Tuesday night, he took a bunch of major losses.

Trump, for his part, boasted of a "great night" of 174 wins and nine losses. But those numbers, along with not including several races, are heavily skewed by Trump endorsing candidates who were sure things. When you look at the competitive races, many Republicans were far less impressed, and with good reason. Perhaps most importantly, Trump-endorsed Dr. Mehmet Oz lost in Pennsylvania to Democrat John Fetterman, while Trump-endorsed Blake Masters lost in Arizona to Democrat Sen. Mark Kelly.

Both of those candidates won their primaries after Trump pushed out Republicans that the establishment thought had better odds of winning in a general election. As Trump-endorsed candidates began to fall in competitive races across the country, and even some Trumpian favorites like Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) faced unexpected challenges, the commentary on the right around his role took a noticeably negative turn. Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal called Trump "The Republican Party's Biggest Loser," arguing that he "has now flopped in 2018, 2020, 2021 and 2022."

"Looking at the Senate map, the message could not be clearer," the board said. "In New Hampshire, the Trump-endorsed Republican Don Bolduc lost to Sen. Maggie Hassan, 53% to 45%, as of the latest data. At the same time voters re-elected Republican Gov. Chris Sununu by 16 points... In Georgia, the Trump-endorsed Republican Herschel Walker trails Sen. Raphael Warnock, 49.4% to 48.5%... Mr. Walker’s flaws as a candidate were obvious, but Mr. Trump helped clear the primary field and other candidates opted out... Tim Michels in Wisconsin and Tudor Dixon in Michigan fumbled winnable gubernatorial races. Also in Michigan, Mr. Trump helped John Gibbs beat GOP Rep. Peter Meijer in the primary in the Grand Rapids seat because Mr. Meijer voted to impeach him. Mr. Gibbs lost by 13 points. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler also voted to impeach Mr. Trump, who helped Joe Kent beat her in a primary. Mr. Kent is trailing in that Washington state district."

Even in races where Trump's candidates won, they didn't outperform the non-Trump candidates. JD Vance won his Senate seat in Ohio by six points, a comfortable margin. But Republican Gov. Mike DeWine won by 26 points. Similarly, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) won re-election by eight points, while Trump-endorsed Herschel Walker is trailing in the Senate race and will have to go to a runoff to have a shot at winning.

On Fox News, the typically unabashed pro-Trump line-up seemed to wonder aloud what was going on. Jesse Watters asked what Trump was doing with the "war chest" of party funds he had raised. Laura Ingraham, one of the channel’s most popular primetime hosts and longtime Trump backer, made some not-so-subtle comments: “The populist movement is about ideas,” she said. “It is not about any one person. If the voters conclude that you’re putting your own ego or your own grudges ahead of what’s good for the country, they’re going to look elsewhere, period.”

The New York Post depicted him as Humpty Dumpty. Kaleigh McEnany, Trump's former spokesperson, urged him to think about uniting the party rather than bickering with Republican rivals. His former chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said he could lose a 2024 primary.

Ryan Girdusky, who pens the National Populist Newsletter and has been one of the most pro-Trump commentators I've followed since 2016, wrote this on Thursday:

Trump raised millions over $100 million that he either spent hoarding for his upcoming presidential run or paying his army of consultants and influencers that do nothing besides offer bad advice and poor excuses. While he cracked open his wallet at the end, it was too little and too late... While Trump is going out of this election with more wins than losses, the individual losses are big enough to outweigh all the wins. It’s like being an amazing baseball player who is the home run champ at every game until he goes to the playoffs. Fighting over a participation trophy is a rather stupid way to spend your time…

Last note on Trump, as someone who supported him from the day he first came down the escalator in 2016, his message and tone have changed in a way I don’t think he’s going to be able to come back from. He spoke about winning so much you’d get tired of winning, securing the border, and calling out obvious truths that were plaguing America including a corrupt and ineffective leadership class. What does Trump talk about today? He was screwed out of the presidency, he was a victim of people in the White House that he hired, and he doesn’t like Mitch McConnell and Mitt Romney — two men he endorsed.

To paraphrase a line from one of my favorite books Cold Mountain, they call this election a cloud over the land. But Trump made the weather and then he stands in the rain and says 'Shit, it's raining!' I know hundreds of Republicans and I can count on both hands how many of them want to see Trump be the party’s nominee in 2024.

There was plenty more. Virginia Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears, the right-hand of Gov. Glenn Youngkin, said, "A true leader understands when they have become a liability. A true leader understands that it’s time to step off the stage, and the voters have given us that very clear message... I could not support him.”

Mike Lawler, the newly minted New York representative who just flipped a Democratic seat red, used his first national television appearance after winning to insist the party needs to dump Trump.

The day after the election, Mike Pence, Trump’s former vice president, published an excerpt from his forthcoming memoir that paints Trump in one of the worst lights possible. He quotes Trump’s efforts to pressure him into throwing the democratic process into chaos, then portrays him as sad and regretful when he realized he’d lost, even when he wouldn’t say so publicly.

In a matter of hours, the knives were out for the former president.

Obviously, the big follow-up question is, "if not Trump, then who?"

The only way he doesn't survive as de facto leader of the party is if someone replaces him. Mitch McConnell is the leader of Republicans in Congress, and we're about to witness an epic fight over who gets the gavel in the House. Other 2024 presidential names have been floating for months: Nikki Haley, Ted Cruz, Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, and even Tim Scott. But if Trump isn't going to be the face of the party, the biggest winner from Tuesday who may fill his shoes is undoubtedly Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

He won the state by 19 points and flipped Miami-Dade County, a former Democratic stronghold, red. He's got powerful support among suburban women and Hispanic voters, and he's managed to pair the nationalist, culture war style that makes Trump appealing to so many voters with tangible legislative victories for conservatives in his state.

"Ron DeSantis is the new Republican party leader," Liz Peek said in Fox News. "In Miami-Dade County, a region which President Joe Biden won by 16 percentage points in 2020, the popular governor won easily. Not only was the margin of victory astounding in itself, it also reinforced an emerging reality: Hispanic voters may be shifting their long-term alliance to Republicans. DeSantis won because he embraced Trumpian policies, stood firm against the woke mob, led his state through the pandemic with brilliance and, more recently, managed the horrific damage done by Hurricane Ian with great competence. Florida residents rewarded the popular governor by re-electing him with roughly a 19-point margin over his opponent, Democrat Charlie Crist."

Trump’s biggest problem, right now, are the tangible results. Which are also tied to his messaging. Republicans were routed in 2018, Trump himself lost in 2020, Democrats had a few big special election victories in 2021 (and a couple notable losses), and now they’re pulling off a shockingly good performance in 2022.

As a result, as Girdusky noted, Trump simply isn’t spending a lot of time talking about the things that animated the entire Republican base six years ago: Immigration, the corrupt establishment, and the hollowed out middle class. Instead, he rants about stolen elections and all the horrible ways he was treated — even bashing the very people he once endorsed (or hired), which doesn’t reflect well on his judgment.

That messaging matters because, at the core of it, Trump’s success is built in part on his personality. For the voters who have felt unheard, disrespected and screwed over for so many decades, “owning the libs” and being more powerful than establishment Republicans is key to Trump’s appeal. But what happens when the libs are owning him? What happens when Republican establishment candidates outperform the ones he hand picks? The right may turn to someone else, like DeSantis, who is actually winning.

On the other hand, while there is no doubt DeSantis's position for 2024 just improved significantly, I'd also offer a few words of caution.