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Is This the Beginning of the End for Trump?
The former president was the biggest loser of this week’s midterm elections, which could drastically alter his 2024 presidential prospects
The dust is still settling from this week’s midterm elections, but the next presidential campaign is already well underway. Indeed, given the pronouncements of President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump over the past few months, one could argue that the 2024 campaign began well before last Tuesday’s vote.
And while yet another Trump run for the presidency still looks extremely likely, last Tuesday’s results may have changed the calculus for Republicans, if not for the former president. Perhaps for the first time in a long time, Trump’s entrenched position as the head of the Republican Party may be on shaky ground. So where does the GOP go from here?
The Red Wave That Wasn’t
In the weeks leading up to the 2022 midterms, political prognosticators discussed the likelihood of a “red wave”—that Republicans would achieve sweeping wins in congressional, gubernatorial and down-ballot races across the country. But Election Day proved disappointing for the GOP: While it was certainly not a disastrous outing, the much-discussed red wave never materialized.
At the time of publication, party control of both the U.S. House and the Senate remains up in the air—after many political analysts predicted that Republicans would easily control both houses come 2023. Independent voters broke for Democrats by 4 percentage points on average, and by wider margins in battleground states; in Arizona, for example, independents favored Democrats by a whopping 30 points. Many seemingly close races up and down the ballot—from the Pennsylvania Senate race to the New York gubernatorial contest—turned into solid Democratic wins.
Where did things go wrong for Republicans?
As others have already noted, many Trump-backed candidates underperformed in their races. Seats that might have been winnable flipped to Dems because of weak candidates that turned off all but the most die-hard MAGA voters. Purple Pennsylvania elected Democratic State Attorney General Josh Shapiro as its next governor over election-denying Doug Mastriano by a wide margin. Republican Rep. Peter Meijer got primaried in Michigan, only for his seat in the state’s 3rd congressional district to go blue. Had less strident, more pragmatic candidates been put forth, Republicans would likely be in a much stronger position today.
And rather than being an asset, a Trump endorsement turned out to be a liability in the closest races. As The New York Times’ Michael C. Bender and Maggie Haberman observed, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report rated 35 House races in 2022 as toss-ups, with Trump endorsing candidates in five of them—and all five lost their contests. Frankly, this result is hard for Trump and his supporters to spin. Some haven’t even tried.
Meanwhile, one of the few bright spots for the GOP on Tuesday was the Sunshine State. After a razor-thin win in 2018, Governor Ron DeSantis cruised to reelection with a 19% margin of victory. What’s more, the governor’s coattails likely helped produce a red wave in Florida, carrying Sen. Marco Rubio to a 16-point victory over his opponent, flipping three Democratic House seats into the GOP column and giving the Republicans supermajorities in both houses of the state legislature. DeSantis is extremely popular in his home state, and last Tuesday’s results set him up as a natural heir apparent for Republicans’ presidential hopes in 2024.
Tired of Trump?
One of Trump’s greatest strengths as a presidential candidate in 2016 was that he recognized the realignment happening in the Republican Party when no one else did. In the six years since his election, the GOP has clearly evolved into America’s populist party, a party increasingly of the working class. As an outsider running against the consummate insider, Hillary Clinton, Trump in 2016 was able to effectively portray himself as a candidate of the people. Although unorthodox, his bombastic style showed that his presidency would not be politics as usual, and so he was able to attract just enough support in just enough states to put him over the top.
In the year or so following his surprising victory, Trump made the Republican Party his own. And given his penchant for making everything personal, with loyalty tests and enemies’ lists, the GOP increasingly became a personality cult. This meant that those who had spoken out against him—like Sens. Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio—had to bend a knee to stay in the club. Most of those who refused—from early heretics such as then-Sen. Jeff Flake to more recent blasphemers such as Rep. Liz Cheney and Sen. Pat Toomey—either retired or were primaried out of office.
For the most part, however, Republican politicians fell in line, sticking with Trump through two impeachments and generally paying at least lip service to the former president. But things began to change when Trump lost the 2020 election. He not only sought ways to overturn various state vote tallies—both legally and illegally (remember “find me 11,000 votes”?)—and then fomented the violent Jan. 6 Capitol riot in a fit of adolescent pique, but he turned his loss and his belief that the election was stolen right out from under him into the greatest loyalty test yet. While some have been able to keep their distance from the sun and not get burned—Glenn Youngkin won an upset victory in the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial contest in part because he was able to avoid getting too entangled with Trump and election denial—others haven’t been so lucky and have been bullied into toeing the line (see: McCarthy, Kevin).
But while his strongest supporters may still love the fact that he’s committed to “owning the libs,” many in the American electorate—even those who had backed Trump in the past—have soured on the former president. In recent months, the percentage of Republicans who say they would support Trump if the 2024 Republican presidential primary were today has ebbed, according to a recent Morning Consult survey. Since August, that support has slipped by 9 percentage points, from 57% of the Republican electorate to 48% in November. A September Marist poll found that more than six in 10 Americans don’t want Trump to run for president—including more than a quarter of Republicans. It's hard not to see these numbers getting worse for the former president in the wake of the GOP's disappointing midterm results.
And there are signs that Trump is feeling his grip on the Republican Party loosen. Within mere days of the midterm elections, Trump took aim at DeSantis in a speech at a rally, going so far as to dub him “DeSanctimonious.” And following the election, he doubled down on the nickname—and the vitriol—in a press release: “The Fake News asks [DeSantis] if he’s going to run if President Trump runs, and he says, ‘I’m only focused on the Governor’s race, I’m not looking into the future.’ Well, in terms of loyalty and class, that’s really not the right answer.” DeSantis should be cheered by these developments: With Trump, insults are the sincerest form of flattery, because they’re a sign that he’s worried.
And he should be worried. Trump has now presided over three GOP electoral disappointments: the Democrats’ drubbing of the Republicans in the 2018 midterms, the red trickle (if it even turns out to be a trickle) in 2022 and his own defeat in 2020. Someone like DeSantis needs only to remind voters of his own resounding victory on Tuesday to highlight the former president’s poor electoral record. Furthermore, governors like DeSantis and Youngkin can offer Republican voters much of what they still might like about Trump—especially a willingness to fight on cultural and other issues—without the constant Sturm und Drang that follows Trump like bad weather and clearly turns off many independents and increasingly even some Republicans.
Biden’s Stronger Position—and What That Means for the GOP
On Election Day in 2024, Joe Biden will be 81 years old. At 78, Donald Trump won’t be too far behind. Though retirement is in the rear-view mirror for most Americans their age, neither is going gently into that good night. Both Biden and Trump have been telegraphing that they’re seriously considering or even planning to run for president again. For Biden, however, his age, combined with consistently low approval ratings, had made the prospect of another presidential campaign increasingly unlikely. Polls showing most Democrats wanted Biden to retire at the end of his first term added insult to injury and meant that the smart money was on the president eventually stepping aside in 2024.
But the Democrats’ stronger-than-expected showing in last Tuesday’s vote is nothing short of a political faith healing for the president. As the leader of his party, Biden can claim the biggest share of the credit for the Democrats’ stunning success. A year and a half is a long time in politics, but for now and for the first time in months, Biden seems to have a much clearer path to secure his party’s nomination and run for president again—assuming he wants to do so.
Faced with the prospect of Biden as the Democratic nominee, Republicans will likely want to avoid a repeat of the match-up that defeated them in 2020. If Biden is indeed the Democrats’ nominee, the path to a Republican nomination will be easier for a DeSantis or a Youngkin. And given Biden’s persistent underwater approval numbers, the path to a Republican presidency will likely be easier, too—easier than it would be if the Republican nominee faced a younger candidate who would drive Democratic turnout (like, say, a Gavin Newsom).
‘Why Would Anything Change?’
In the days leading up to the election, Donald Trump teased a “very big announcement” for the week after the election. And while some in his inner circle have reportedly urged him to delay what is presumed to be an announcement of a 2024 presidential run, Trump appears to be continuing with his plans. “Why would anything change?,” he told Fox News.
So it seems that, like it or not, we’re about to be in the thick of yet another presidential campaign season. But contrary to Trump’s rhetoric, something big has changed: Unlike Biden, the former president was—at least until last Tuesday—the odds-on favorite to win the GOP presidential nomination in 2024. That still may be the case, but for the first time, there is reason to believe that Trump may be more vulnerable, possibly much more vulnerable, to challenge by other Republicans. And perhaps the president’s grip on the Republican Party might finally be loosening.