News Analysis: Trump was a looming figure in the midterms. The GOP suffered for it
The protracted uncertainty over control of Congress reverberated through both major political parties on Wednesday, as Democrats basked in the relief of the red wave that wasn’t and Republicans became increasingly clear-eyed that the lingering influence of former President Trump had hamstrung their party.
President Biden’s emphasis during the campaign season on the extremism of “MAGA Republicans” had been greeted skeptically by many. In the Democratic Party’s better-than-expected showing, though, he saw vindication of his appeals for civility and normalcy.
“This election season, American people made it clear: They don’t want every day going forward to be a constant political battle,” Biden said at a White House news conference. “The future of America is too promising to be trapped in endless political warfare.”
Amid high inflation and Biden’s lackluster approval numbers, Democrats’ hopes had hinged on voters being more put off by Trump’s imprint on the Republican Party — be it the divisive candidates he endorsed, the political violence that festered from his lies about election fraud, or the reversal of federal abortion protections made possible by justices he appointed to the Supreme Court.
“We knew going into the cycle that there was going to be an opportunity to rally a moral majority that is an anti-MAGA coalition,” said Tory Gavito, president of Way to Win, a progressive donor network. “When I say that, I include everyone from [GOP Rep.] Liz Cheney to [democratic socialist Sen.] Bernie Sanders. Think about that spectrum of the middle to the left coming together to say Republicans are just too damn extreme.”
If recent history is any guide, Trump’s not going anywhere. The once and likely future presidential candidate is unpopular, but he continues to exercise outsized sway over the Republican base, and could hobble the party for the next two years and beyond.
“While in certain ways yesterday’s election was somewhat disappointing, from my personal standpoint it was a very big victory,” Trump said on his conservative social media network, Truth Social, pointing to the record of candidates he endorsed. “219 WINS and 16 Losses in the General - Who has ever done better than that?”
The specter of the former president hampered the GOP’s ability to frame the midterm as a referendum on Biden, said Ken Spain, a GOP strategist and former spokesman for the party’s House campaign arm.
“Trump was always a looming shadow over this election, more than Republicans probably wanted to admit,” he said. “This essentially became a choice election between an unpopular president and an even more unpopular Trump.”
There were signs that patience was running thin among Republican power brokers. Notably, Trump’s much-beloved New York Post, the tabloid owned by conservative media magnate Rupert Murdoch, featured Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on its cover Wednesday with the headline “DeFuture.” DeSantis is widely considered Trump’s biggest threat for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.
Republicans still had a chance of winning both chambers of Congress as vote-counting continued Wednesday. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) projected confidence that his party would win the five additional seats necessary to take the majority there, and announced his intention to run for speaker of the House.
Whether he secures a majority may come down to his home state. California’s 11 competitive races remained unsettled as of Wednesday evening, with results trickling in slowly, as is common with the state’s methodical ballot-counting procedures.
Republicans had targeted incumbent Democratic Reps. Katie Porter and Mike Levin in Orange County, as well as an open seat in the Central Valley, as possible pick-ups. But Democrats were also watching the returns for the potential to oust vulnerable GOP Reps. David Valadao of Hanford and Ken Calvert of Corona.
Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin notched a close win over Democratic challenger Mandela Barnes, giving Republicans a 49-48 advantage in the Senate, with races in Georgia, Arizona and Nevada yet to be decided.
With neither candidate in Georgia winning more than 50% of the vote, the race will go to a Dec. 6 runoff, like the one that decided Senate control in 2020. A 50-50 split in the Senate would let Democrats maintain control with Vice President Kamala Harris’ tiebreaking vote.
Republicans made some successful pushes into blue territory; in New York, for example, they appeared likely to win four Democratic-held House seats. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, a New York Democrat who led his party’s efforts to keep the House, conceded his own race Wednesday morning to Mike Lawler, a Republican state assemblyman.
Still, the night was distinctly underwhelming for a party that contemplated a blowout win in the House and an assured majority in the Senate.
“Definitely not a Republican wave, that’s for darn sure,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Tuesday night on NBC as he predicted a narrow win for Republicans in the Senate.
Paradoxically, a small Republican majority in the House would likely give Trump more leverage there, as McCarthy would have to depend on continued support from acolytes of the former president, such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, to exercise the GOP’s majority power.
Biden, speaking at the White House on Wednesday, said he had not had much occasion to interact with McCarthy but planned to talk with him later in the day. The president promised to work with Republicans in Congress, but noted pointedly that the American people had also sent the message that they wanted the GOP to show similar cooperation.
The president was happy to point out that his party had defied expectations, noting that “while the press and the pundits [were] predicting a giant red wave, it didn’t happen.”
National exit polls gave a glimpse into why Republicans fizzled. The surveys showed inflation was a top concern among voters. But abortion ranked second. That, and the relative weakness of Trump-backed candidates, helped Democrats stay in the fight.
Many voters appeared willing to swallow their disappointment with Biden. An NBC exit poll showed Democrats narrowly winning — 49% to 45% — among voters who “somewhat disapprove” of Biden’s performance.
John Fetterman, who campaigned after suffering a stroke, defeats Trump-endorsed Mehmet Oz in a Senate race marked by attacks and trolling.
Results in Michigan underscored the extent of the Republican Party’s disappointments. Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, whom Trump had attacked relentlessly, defeated his endorsed candidate, Tudor Dixon, and Democratic incumbents held on to the state’s attorney general and secretary of state posts and gained control of the Legislature as well.
The GOP failed to oust Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a vulnerable Democrat in a Michigan swing district that barely backed Biden two years ago. Elsewhere in the state, a Trump-backed candidate — who in the primary beat Rep. Peter Meijer, a Republican who had voted to impeach the former president — lost in the general election, costing Republicans a seat in the surprisingly tight battle for control of the House.
Michigan voters also approved a ballot measure striking down a 1931 ban on abortion, and voters in Kentucky rejected an initiative that would have amended the state constitution to make clear it did not protect abortion rights.
The Republicans’ loss of a Senate seat in Pennsylvania could prove the most consequential if Democrats keep the chamber. Lt. Gov. John Fetterman defeated Mehmet Oz, a television doctor and first-time candidate backed by Trump. Fetterman, still recovering from a stroke, painted the untested Oz as an elite carpetbagger.
Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield is still favored to become the next House speaker, but his possible majority looks much smaller than expected.
Many of the gubernatorial candidates Trump backed also lost or were in danger of losing as of Wednesday afternoon. DeSantis’ double-digit win in Florida, as well as his strong coattails for Republicans in the House, served as a stark contrast. But Trump has said he will run again even if party leaders prefer DeSantis. Opinion polls, at least for now, show the former president as the prohibitive favorite to capture the party’s nomination.
Jason Miller, an advisor to Trump, told the BBC on Wednesday morning that he was urging Trump to postpone an announcement that he will run again from next week — as he has been teasing — to December, to avoid distracting from a potential Senate runoff in Georgia. But Miller said he remained 100% certain that Trump would run.
“Many of the people who are championing Ron DeSantis for president are the same people who were skeptical of President Trump ever since he came down the escalator in 2015,” Miller said, recalling Trump’s improbable announcement for the 2016 race.
Miller predicted that Trump would “have his hands full” but would ultimately win the nomination again.
Mason reported from Los Angeles and Bierman from Washington. Times staff writer Erin B. Logan contributed to this report from Washington.
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