Op-Ed: After a bad showing in the midterms, what story are Republicans telling themselves now?
The 2022 midterm election results, and the narratives that went along with them, were different from what many people had expected. Now it’s Republicans, rather than the Democrats, fighting over what went wrong, who’s to blame, and what’s the best path forward.
With the “red wave” failing to materialize, the Senate still in Democratic hands and the House still too close to call, many Republicans outside Washington want a path away from Trump’s outsized influence, while those in office, fearful of his wrath, want to deflect blame away from him.
The party didn’t do much soul-searching after the 2020 election; very few Republicans called for a new course for their party. This time, Republicans are looking for someone to blame for the midterm underperformance.
The Republican Party’s vaunted red wave turned into a ‘red wedding.’ And it’s their own fault.
To conservative activists and media pundits, the culprit seems pretty obvious: Donald Trump, who pushed for extreme MAGA candidates across the board. Their criticism of the former president has been swift and sharp, some of it from long-standing fans. Ann Coulter said that Trump has squandered chances to lead the party and told him to shut up forever. A report by the Republican Party of Michigan — where Democrats just won control of the state government — blamed the disaster, in part, on Trump’s influence, which it saw as costing the GOP moderate voters in the general election.
While midterm elections are often considered referendums on the president, they’re rarely referendums on a former president. But Trump seemed to be more in the news in the last few weeks than President Biden, running rallies and campaigning for candidates and being investigated for various possible crimes. He did what he could to make this election about him.
Republicans in office, however, are formulating another narrative. They’re betting that Trump will still hold a great deal of power over future GOP primaries and that repudiating him could cost them their careers. After all, Republican candidates who were backed by Trump did 15 to 20 points better in the 2022 primaries than those who weren’t.
The question for them is where else to deflect the blame. Some GOP senators have zeroed in on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. To the extent there was a party faction working against Trump’s preferred nominees this year, it was McConnell’s, trying to push for more electable candidates to win a Senate majority.
McConnell, who largely failed to get his preferred candidates through the primaries, generously backed Trump’s nominees anyway. But Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming are criticizing him nonetheless. Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri cryptically claimed that the “old party” is dead and that it was time to bury it and “build something new.” However, his ire wasn’t directed at Trump but, rather, at McConnell as he called for a delay in leadership votes and an alternative leader figure. Trump has joined in the pile-on, endorsing Florida Sen. Rick Scott as the next Senate party leader.
Over in the House, some Republicans have vented their anger at Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, saying that he over-promised Republican victories and that his potential bid for speaker is now in doubt. McCarthy was overtly critical of Trump in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack but has struggled to win back Trump’s favor ever since. In this sense, he seems a natural scapegoat for House Republicans seeking to deflect blame from Trump.
Democrats need to get out of the doom loop and stop cowering. Not every election will be a repeat of shellackings past, and not every electoral trend is immutable.
One thing complicating all these narratives is that while Republicans underperformed last week, they did not do so in all states. In several states, Republican Senate candidates this year performed substantially better than Trump did in 2020. These include not only Florida, where Rubio pulled some 58% of the vote, but also New York, where Republican candidates did better than had been expected.
At least for now, Republican voices blaming Trump are loud and prominent. But, of course, we’ve seen this before. Leading Republicans announced they were done with Trump after Jan. 6 and then found their way back to him a few weeks later. Same thing after he lost in November 2020, and after Charlottesville, and after the “Access Hollywood” tape, and after he attacked John McCain for having been a prisoner of war, and so on.
This time might be different. Trump is out of office, and some Republican voters could be seeing in Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis some of the things they like in Trump, the difference being that DeSantis has shown an ability to win the popular vote and not cost his party elections. But most GOP voters have proved to be highly resistant to officeholders’ critiques of Trump, and officeholders are largely silent because he controls that base.
What stands out about this postelection fight is that it offers very distinct paths forward for the party: Continue to follow Trump’s leadership in nominations, messaging and more, or overthrow him in the hopes of winning more elections.
The intra-party factions are equally distinct, with those outside government telling a story different from those in office. Republican voters are hearing divergent narratives, and what they come to believe about Trump — whether he’s helping their party or hurting it — will be pivotal to determining what the party does in 2024. If Trump announces a presidential run in the very near future, we could learn pretty quickly which path the party has chosen.
Seth Masket is a professor of political science and director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver.
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