Donald Trump had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day on Tuesday, and thus, so did most of his fellow Republicans.
The former president saw several candidates whom he personally intervened in Republican primaries to endorse fall short — a number that may be the difference in Senate control — while potential 2024 primary rival Ron DeSantis easily won victory for a second term as Florida’s governor.
Trump had taken steps in the days before the election to tease a presidential campaign launch next week at Mar-a-Lago, the private club he owns in Palm Beach, Florida. Instead of launching his campaign on the heels of a red wave washing across American politics, though, it will be in the wake of a far more lukewarm electoral performance.
Following the Tuesday results, Fox News and the New York Post were hyping DeSantis while prominent MAGA Republicans were expressing dismay at Trump’s efforts to belittle DeSantis on his social media network. Longtime Trump adviser Jason Miller went so far as to go on right-wing tv network Newsmax and argue that Trump should delay his planned campaign announcement, a move that would presumably limit any further finger-pointing at Trump.
Operatives within the party publicly, and especially privately, griped at how Trump intervened willy-nilly in primaries, raising up weak candidates, and saw a rare moment of political vulnerability for the former president.
In particular, Republicans pointed to Trump’s intervention in Pennsylvania’s Senate race, where Trump had endorsed celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz over hedge fund CEO David McCormick in the primary. The race will likely be the lone Senate pickup for Democrats in 2022, after Republicans thought that Democrat John Fetterman was politically vulnerable after suffering a stroke before the primary. In Georgia, Trump’s handpicked Senate candidate Herschel Walker faces a runoff for the Senate against Sen. Raphael Warnock, while other statewide Republicans, many of whom Trump tried to defeat in a primary, won decisively.
The question now is whether Trump will finally pay a high price for political malfeasance, after his partisans have spent years letting him get away with personal malfeasance, culminating in his effort to try to overturn a presidential election in 2020 and the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.
Since the moment that Trump descended the now-infamous golden escalator in 2015 to announce his presidential candidacy, many establishment Republicans across the party have quietly loathed him and have been desperate for an opportunity to get rid of him, but their voters have always intervened to frighten them into acquiescence. Trump ultimately paid zero political cost for his personal attacks on former Arizona Sen. John McCain. Months after announcing his run, he picked a fight with Megyn Kelly, who was then among Fox News’s biggest personalities. He won that primary and she now has a podcast. He weathered the Access Hollywood tape, scandal after presidential scandal, and multiple impeachments. Still, Republicans’ fealty was steadfast and their rebukes were fleeting.
Trump has even managed to weather being a drag on Republicans’ chances in a general election. After Republicans suffered major losses in the Virginia governor’s race in 2017 and lost the House in the 2018 midterms, Trump persevered. This continued through the 2020 presidential election, where Trump ran behind most other Republicans on the ballot.
Will this be the moment that changes? Trump faced criticism in the past for all those failures and foibles, until the party determined he was still crucial to their success. This is the first time since the 2016 primary, where Trump went head-to-head with Sen. Ted Cruz, that there is a viable alternative leader for the GOP, in DeSantis — not to mention a host of other potential 2024 candidates waiting in the wings, like Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, Sen. Tim Scott, and former Vice President Mike Pence.
In a statement issued via email on Thursday, Trump pushed back, deriding “Governor Ron DeSanctimonious, an average REPUBLICAN Governor with great Public Relations” and sneered at DeSantis’s favorable coverage from Murdoch-owned media, saying, “they will keep coming after us, MAGA, but ultimately, we will win.”
The question is whether anyone can supplant Trump as long as he maintains his stranglehold on the Republican base. For all the criticism of the weak general election performance of the candidates he promoted in primaries, they won their primaries and they did so solely on the strength of Trump’s backing. Yet Tuesday’s lackluster results do hint that Trump may have crossed one line too many. He was a loser.
One of the last times Republicans purged a toxic figure in their party, Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King, it was not just because King had embraced white nationalism. King was removed from his committee assignments in 2019 after telling a New York Times reporter, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” That came after a long history of offensive comments and flirtations with the far right. But King had then almost lost a safe Republican district in western Iowa in 2018 and was proving to be a political liability. It was clear that he was causing concrete political harm and that the cost of excising him from the party was worth the price.
Donald Trump is a former president, not a back-bench Congress member from Iowa. But it’s clear that the calculus has shifted among Republicans about what he offers the party in 2024, or at least that they are seriously weighing whether it has shifted enough.
Update, November 10, 6:25 pm ET: This story has been updated with Donald Trump’s statement on Ron DeSantis.