The 2022 midterms were a major disappointment to Republicans, with the hoped for red wave turning into a pitiful red ripple. Before the election, Republicans had been dreaming of a clean sweep comparable to their victories in 1994 and 2010, when they used the unpopularity of newly minted Democratic presidents to gain substantial ground in Congress. As David Wallace-Wells reported in The New Yorker on November 4, just five days before voting finished, “The consensus among a number of G.O.P. pollsters and operatives I spoke to this week is that in the Senate races that are thought to be competitive, Republican candidates are heading for a clean sweep: Mehmet Oz will beat John Fetterman in Pennsylvania, and not just by a point or two; Adam Laxalt looks pretty certain to defeat the incumbent Democratic senator Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada; even less regarded candidates such as Blake Masters in Arizona will be carried into office by a predicted wave.” Wallace-Wells added that Republicans were expecting a “bloodbath.”
Instead of a bloodbath, there was only a finger prick. Fetterman defeated Oz soundly. The results in Nevada and Arizona are still pending, but there are ample reasons to believe that outstanding ballots could result in Democratic victories in those states as well and in fact allow Democrats to keep control of the Senate. In the House, the Republicans might, if they are lucky, end up with a small majority—one that would be virtually impossible for party leaders to herd into any consensus given divisions in the party and the large far-right contingent in the GOP caucus.
And if the red wave was a chimera, the red ripple could be a nightmare for the GOP. The Republicans could be left with a rancorous House majority that, like the 1994 cohort that came to power under Newt Gingrich, poisons the party’s national brand and makes it easier for a Democratic president to be reelected. A small victory in the House will only empower extremists like Marjorie Taylor Greene.
Given their disappointment, establishment Republicans were quick to look for a scapegoat. They found a plausible one in the form of former president Donald Trump, who had endorsed many of the oddball candidates who had failed to pass muster, notably Oz. As The New York Times reports, “Donald J. Trump faced unusual public attacks from across the Republican Party on Wednesday after a string of midterm losses by candidates he had handpicked and supported, a display of weakness as he prepared to announce a third presidential campaign as soon as next week.”
To be sure, these criticisms were somewhat circumscribed. They rarely came from elected Republicans; rather, they issued from anonymous sources, retired officeholders, and right-wing media outlets. This indicates that anyone who hopes for a future in Republican politics still fears crossing Trump.
But those on the right who have had the courage to go after Trump have been vicious. There’s been a surge in anti-Trump sentiment—particularly in outlets owned by Rupert Murdoch (notably Fox News, the New York Post, and The Wall Street Journal). The Post featured a front cover portraying Trump as a variation of the unlucky Humpty Dumpty: “Trumpty Dumpty.” The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page described Trump as “the Republican Party’s Biggest Loser.” It held him responsible for a string of party defeats from 2018 to 2022. The centrist media, ever hopeful for signs of Trump’s political demise, has already started seeing these attacks on Trump as evidence that the former president has little hope of being the GOP presidential nominee, and that instead, as Jonathan Chait claims in New York, the party is coalescing around Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
Before giving too much credence to these claims of Trump’s political demise, it’s worth heeding the words of J.D. Vance, who won the senatorial contest in Ohio in no small part because of Trump’s endorsement (aided by generous funding from tech plutocrat Peter Thiel). “Every year, the media writes Donald Trump’s political obituary,” Vance told The New York Times. “And every year, we’re quickly reminded that Trump remains the most popular figure in the Republican Party.” Vance believes Trump only needs to ask for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination to once again be anointed his party’s standard-bearer.
Vance has a better grasp of the GOP than those who are hoping that 2022 marks the end of Trump as a political force. For one thing, 2022 proves that Trump’s endorsement still carries weight with primary voters. Vance is only one of many marginal GOP candidates who won their party’s nomination thanks to Trump’s nod. The fact that many of these candidates didn’t win the general is immaterial. GOP candidates still need to win primaries before they win general elections. Trump remains a foe you do not want to have if you are a Republican with any political ambition.
Writing in Politico, Jack Shafer notes,
Untested by the 2022 election is Trump’s viability as a presidential candidate in 2024. Only a fraction of the party faithful who supported him in December 2020 has peeled off. His ability to raise money remains solid. And victorious Florida Governor Ron DeSantis—a likely top Trump contender for the nomination—has yet to prove an electoral appeal outside of his home state. Do you remember what a formidable presidential candidate Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was thought to be before he ran face-first into the Trump angle grinder in the 2015 primary debates? The ashes of the 2022 election have yet to turn cold. The press corps can’t afford to repeat the mistake it’s made time and again by underestimating Trump.
Trump’s great political strength inside the Republican party remains the fact that he’s a nihilist with no party loyalty. The GOP establishment has feared him since he entered the political arena in 2015—and it will continue to do so. Its fear is based on the fact that Trump, like Ross Perot in the 1990s, enjoys a political celebrity that owes nothing to party membership. If Trump wants to, he can run as a third-party candidate, something he’s threatened to do in the past. He has enough hard-core followers that even if he doesn’t win as a third-party candidate, he can make the sure the GOP loses.
This fear of Trump’s ability and willingness to hurt the GOP explains why party leaders have been so afraid to ever challenge him. Trump has a stranglehold on the GOP that survived even the midterm loss of 2018, even the presidential loss of 2020, and even his incitement of an attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021. There’s little reason to think another disappointing midterm will weaken his status as king of the GOP.