Republicans have high hopes for Tuesday’s midterms. If things go well for the GOP, they’ll walk away with at least partial control of Congress and the power to inflict painful legislative gridlock and investigations upon the Biden presidency. These are high stakes, and most followers of American politics will be paying attention to see which party comes out controlling the Senate and House and what that will mean for the Democratic Party’s agenda going into next year.
But this week’s elections will have repercussions beyond who controls the 118th Congress—and among the most important to watch will be how the results affect Donald Trump’s political future.
Elections force political parties to self-reflect, and such an assessment inevitably influences the course that parties ultimately decide to chart in terms of policy, messaging and future candidate selection. For Democrats, the impact this year will be muted because they have Biden to act as a party unifier and undisputed leader. That’s not to say that there won’t be important intraparty debates and competitions for power, but Biden’s hold on the party’s top spot and agenda will limit the extent of Democratic power jockeying.
Republicans do not have such a figure, and not even Donald Trump will be able to exert the same kind of control from Mar-a-Lago that Biden will be able to from the White House. Throughout the election season, different leaders and blocs within the GOP have been supporting different candidates and pushing different messaging strategies. Inevitably, some of these party influencers will come out looking ascendant and effective while others will look weak and foolish, a dynamic that will set the stage for the looming GOP family feuds. While these fights will include wrangling over important congressional committee assignments and leadership positions, these are all undercards when compared to the main event: the 2024 presidential nomination.
When it comes to the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, Trump is the current clear favorite. While the former president has not yet announced that he is running, almost everyone in the political world believes that he will. This expectation is based not only on speculation: Trump’s political camp, and even Trump himself, have said that he plans to run and have begun to lay the groundwork for him to do so.
If he does run, it’s unclear just how easy Trump’s path to the nomination would be. Some polling indicates that he would have no problem locking up the nomination for the third time in a row. For instance, according to a recent USA Today/Ipsos poll, 59% of Republicans say that “Trump should be the Republican nominee for president in 2024 and deserves re-election.” Similarly, when asked who they would vote for in a Republican primary, 62% of Republicans chose Trump. On the other hand, 41% of Republican voters say that “it’s time for a change within the Republican Party, and President Trump should not run for re-election in 2024.” Perhaps most concerning of all for the former president is that only 33% of Republicans view themselves as more loyal to Trump than the Republican Party, while 58% say the opposite.
In short, the 2024 presidential nomination at this point is far from settled. Other potential candidates, including Mike Pence, Ron DeSantis, Glenn Youngkin and Tim Scott, have taken note, and have been laying the foundations for potential bids of their own. All of this should be ringing alarm bells for Trump, who up to this point has acted as if Republican voters and the nomination are his for the taking.
And so what happens in this year’s midterms could be a pivotal time for the former president. Because Trump has exerted his influence in shaping the GOP’s electoral slate, how his chosen candidates perform has the potential to make him look like either a canny party leader or an egotistical millstone around the party’s neck.
Trump can claim at least some responsibility for the nomination of many of the GOP’s candidates in the nation’s most competitive Senate and gubernatorial elections. These candidates include Blake Masters and Kari Lake in Arizona, Herschel Walker in Georgia, J.D. Vance in Ohio, Mehmet Oz and Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania and Tudor Dixon in Michigan. While the extent to which Trump championed these candidates varies, he did play a significant role in each of their nominations. As such, as a shorthand they can reasonably be deemed the “Trump Slate.”
Though the course of politics is impossible to forecast with certainty, it’s worth considering and gaming out how different outcomes for this Trump Slate would play out for Trump and the future of the GOP.
Scenario 1: The Trump Slate Performs Well
There has been significant worry by GOP party leaders that Trump’s selected candidates would be too extreme for the general electorate to swallow. If this is proven incorrect, Trump will reasonably be able to claim that his brand of politics is an electoral strength. The media and Republican voters will likely agree, and the midterms will be read as a vindication for Trumpism. This will give the former president a significant boost in terms of his stature and the presumed power he holds over the party.
Another result of a Trump Slate victory would be that Trump would now have a number of loyalists in key elected positions. In any future contest in which he decides to compete, Trump could expect to have their endorsements and political support. And in a party primary, which is fought state-by-state rather than in a single national popular vote, the support from statewide elected officials can be particularly influential.
Together, a validation for Trumpism at the polls and the election of Trump loyalists would, in my mind, make the presidential nomination his to lose. It would be difficult for any competitor to try and wrestle the title of party leader away from Trump. With the momentum on his side, the voters validating MAGA politics and a new crop of loyalists in office, an overwhelming victory by the Trump Slate would clear the road for a Trump return in 2024.
Scenario 2: The Trump Slate Performs Poorly
If the opposite happens and the Trump Slate suffers devastating losses, Trump himself would take a hit, too. The takeaways would be the opposite of Scenario 1: By meddling in the primaries and elevating the most extreme and unelectable MAGA candidates, Trump put his pride over the well-being of the party.
There are three avenues by which this could cause significant harm to Trump. First, some Republican voters would be discerning enough to see that Trump is more of a liability than an asset to Republican party prospects. Perhaps this seems unlikely given how long GOP voters have remained loyal to the former president. But the overriding reason that Democrats nominated Joe Biden in 2020 was because of his electability, and it’s not hard to imagine strategic Republican voters rejecting Trump in favor of someone seen as more electable.
The second avenue by which this might hurt Trump is the right-wing media reaction. If the right-wing media—most importantly Fox News, but also less mainstream sources like Breitbart, One American News Network and Newsmax—sees that Trump is costing them electorally, they’re likely to begin defecting from the former president. (The process may in fact have already begun: Fox News has been giving Trump less positive attention and fewer invites onto the network’s programs recently.) The more conspiratorial media outlets and figures will claim that the Trump Slate only lost because of voter fraud and stolen elections, but such claims won’t produce any legislative or political victories for the right. If right-wing media figures want those kinds of substantial achievements, they will begin to take electoral incentives into account. A wipeout of the Trump Slate would indicate a non-Trump future may be more fruitful. I don’t imagine this would take the form of a wholesale rebuke of the former president. Rather, it would look like a growing acceptance that the 2024 nomination is an open competition accompanied by chatter about potential contenders like DeSantis or Youngkin.
The third way a Trump Slate drubbing could hurt the former president would be through party elites. The mechanism here would be similar to that of right-wing media: Republican elected officials and political leaders would see the loss as a rejection of Trumpism and proof that his brand of politics just isn’t popular among the general voting public. Mitch McConnell made a similar claim earlier in the year when he complained that the GOP’s “candidate quality” problem could cost them the Senate. McConnell and like-minded leaders who are driven more by winning than fealty to the president would see that their incentives lie with a non-Trump nominee in 2024. They would then be able to work behind the scenes to recruit, fund and build support for alternative candidates.
In sum, a wholesale defeat of the Trump Slate would be terrible for Trump. It would show voters, media figures and Republican elites that the party may be better served by a non-Trump nominee in 2024. That’s not to say that Trump would be out of the running by any means. He still will command significant support and might still be the candidate to beat in 2024. But a loss by the Trump Slate would open the door for such a beating come primary season.
Scenario 3: The Trump Slate Does Just OK
If the results are mixed for the Trump Slate, much will depend on which candidates prevail and which do not. Take, for instance, Pennsylvania—in which the more moderate Oz and the more extreme Mastriano will be on the ballot together. Were Oz to win and Mastriano to lose, it would likely kick off a blame-fest within the GOP. The party’s more moderate bloc might argue that they need to nominate fewer Mastrianos and more Ozs. Meanwhile, the more extreme elements of the party might try to explain away the results by claiming that Mastriano’s competitor was a stronger candidate than Oz’s. Whichever argument convinces right-wing power brokers and Republican primary voters would help decide the mood of the party heading into 2024.
And yet, for my money, I’d bet that there won’t be a clear narrative like this coming out of election night. I think that some on the Trump Slate will win, others will lose and none of this will fit neatly into a clean political analysis. In such an ambiguous environment, the status quo for 2024 would prevail: Trump won’t get a major boost, but neither will he face serious questions from voters and the party elite about his viability. Heading into a Republican primary, Trump would remain the odds-on favorite, but he’d still have some vulnerabilities that other candidates—most notably DeSantis—could potentially exploit.
Ultimately, we’ll have to wait for Tuesday to begin making a more informed assessment of where the GOP is headed. While it’s useful to think through how different election results will impact the future of the party, trying to drill down too deeply into specifics is like playing a “choose-your-own-adventure” game with an infinite number of plotlines. Even small quirks, like whether election results are immediately known or not, will determine exactly how much impact midterm results have on the news cycle and political atmosphere.
On election night and the weeks following, I’ll be keeping an eye on what right-wing media figures (Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity among them) and party leaders (like Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz and Mike Pence) have to say. If they begin to criticize the Trump Slate for being poor quality candidates, and especially if they hit Trump himself for supporting them, then we should expect a real competition for the nomination.
Even more interesting and indicative, of course, will be whatever signals Trump’s potential competitors, as well as Trump himself, put out. Most of these candidates will initially be cagey about their intentions for 2024. (For reference, most of the Democratic candidates competing in 2020 didn’t announce until early 2019.) But potential candidates will be making public statements, sending off Tweets, conducting interviews, appearing on the Sunday shows—all opportunities for them to lay the groundwork for their future plans. Among the things to keep an eye on are if these candidates begin distancing themselves from Trump or otherwise acting as a political candidate might—starting a political action committee, campaigning in early primary states, releasing books, building intraparty alliances and the like.
Some of this analysis may seem tantamount to reading tea leaves. But even so, the coming days are going to be full of indications of what’s to come for the future of the GOP. And with stakes so high, it’s worthwhile doing whatever we can to try and understand where our politics may be headed as we turn to 2024.