The knives are out, but can the Republican Party really ditch Trump?

A terrible midterm performance has given rise to the most serious attacks on Trump in years, but can the GOP really unseat their nominal party leader? Richard Hall reports

Friday 11 November 2022 15:38 GMT
There is no longer any affection between Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis
There is no longer any affection between Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis (Getty Images)

In the wake of one of the worst midterm performances for an opposition party in decades, the Republican Party and its supporters are looking for someone to blame. One unexpected name appears to have risen to the top of the list: Donald Trump.

Mr Trump’s role as nominal party leader over three disastrous election cycles and his insistence on handpicking candidates loyal to him for every level of office has prompted a reckoning among previously stalwart supporters.

At least 14 of Mr Trump’s handpicked candidates lost their election bids, including entirely winnable races in swing states that were vital for the party’s prospects of winning control of Congress. Among the losers were Dr Mehmet Oz, whom Mr Trump backed for Senate in Pennsylvania, and likely soon-to-be declared losers Kari Lake and Blake Masters, running for governor and Senate in Arizona respectively.

Mr Trump endorsed just five Republicans out of 36 House races that were deemed tossups by Cook Political Report — all of them lost.

Former Trump ally and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie was first to stick the knife in.

“Almost every one of these Trump-endorsed candidates that you see in competitive states has lost,” he said on ABC’s Good Morning America. “It’s a huge loss for Trump. And, again, it shows that his political instincts are not about the party, they’re not about the country — they’re about him.”

Mr Trump’s sway in the party until now has been so strong that it has become almost career suicide for Republican lawmakers to criticise him publicly, as many learned during primary season when his endorsements played a deciding role.

But there are already stirrings across the party. Even newly elected members, such as Mike Lawler, who beat the Democratic Party Chairman to win a seat in New York, said he would like to see "the party move forward from" Trump.

“I think anytime you are focused on the future, you can’t so much go to the past," he told CNN.

Former House speaker Paul Ryan also joined the wave of criticism. “I think Donald Trump gives us problems politically ... I think we just have some Trump hangover. I think he’s a drag on our offices and our races,” he said as results came in.

But moving beyond Trump may be easier said than done. In 2016, the entire Republican establishment lined up against the then-candidate in an effort to put forward a more moderate face. When it became clear that he had fully captured the Republican Party’s base, however, they all lined up behind him, where they have remained — by and large — ever since.

There is one difference between then and now, however. The Republican Pary establishment now believes it has a credible alternative to Mr Trump in Florida governor Ron DeSantis.

Mr DeSantis, once a devoted Trump acolyte, has been spoken of as a potential rival to Mr Trump in the 2024 Republican primaries. A low-level political Cold War has been brewing for some time between the two, which spilled out into the open a few days before the midterm elections when Mr Trump gave Mr DeSantis a new nickname: “Ron DeSanctimonious.”

The night before the midterms, Mr Trump signalled that he would not look favourably on a challenge to his place at the top of the party.

“I think he would be making a mistake,” Mr. Trump told the Wall Street Journal. “I think the base would not like it.”

Mr Trump added: “If he did run, I will tell you things about him that won’t be very flattering. I know more about him than anybody other than perhaps his wife, who is really running his campaign.”

Craziest moments from US midterm election night

But the midterms came and went, and Mr DeSantis emerged with renewed strength, winning his re-election bid in a rout and turning the one-time swing state of Florida ruby red in the process. The contrast between Mr Trump’s midterm performance and Mr DeSantis’ did not go unnoticed. In an ominous sign for Mr Trump, the crowd at Mr DeSantis’victory rally chanted “two more years” as he gave his speech, an indication that they expect him to run for the White House in 2024.

Not only that, but Mr Trump’s attack on the rising GOP star enraged some conservatives. Michael Brendan Dougherty, a senior writer at National Review, wrote on Twitter: "All the chatter on my conservative and GOP channels is rage at Trump like I’ve never seen. The one guy he attacked before Election Day was DeSantis — the clear winner, meanwhile, all his guys are s---ing the bed.”

Perhaps the most significant former Trump supporter to signal they are ready to move on is Rupert Murdoch, whose media empire helped him to victory in 2016 and has been fiercely loyal to ever since.

Two front pages of Mr Murdoch’s New York Post, which also happens to be Mr Trump’s hometown newspaper, gave a clear indication the media baron’s thinking. On the first day after the midterms a giant image of Mr DeSantis over the words “DeFuture.” On the next day, a mock-up image of Mr Trump as a Humpty Dumpty with the headline: “Don (who couldn’t build a wall) had a great fall — can all the G.O.P.’s men put the party back together again?” The Wall Street Journal, also owned by Mr Murdoch, also joined in the criticism declaring in an editorial headline: Trump is the Republican Party’s biggest loser,” adding that he had “flopped in 2018, 2020, 2021 and 2022.”

But even with his opponents lining up against him, a poor midterm showing, and the loss of a major media backer, can the Republican Party really ditch Mr Trump?

Morning Joe celebrates the end of Trump: ‘This is Ron DeSantis’s party’

So far, there has been no sign that Mr Trump has lost his grip on the Republican Party’s base — that is the people who vote in primaries to choose the party candidate. In a USA Today/Ipsos poll released in August, roughly 59 per cent of Republican voters said Mr Trump should be the Republican nominee in 2024. His place at the top of the list of possible contenders has been remarkably strong, even through impeachment scandals and legal troubles following the 2020 election.

And Mr Trump has shown no sign that he is willing to step aside for Mr DeSantis. He has been teasing an announcement for a 2024 run for months now, and has told supporters to expect a “big announcement” next week.

He has also hit back at suggestions that he was responsible for the Republican Party’s poor showing in the midterms.

“For those many people that are being fed the fake narrative from the corrupt media that I am Angry about the Midterms, don’t believe it. I am not at all angry, did a great job (I wasn’t the one running!), and am very busy looking into the future. Remember, I am a ‘Stable Genius,’” he wrote on Truth Social.

Smirking Biden says he’s enjoying DeSantis-Trump rivalry

And should he go decide to announce that he’s running for president in 2024, it is hard to see how Mr DeSantis will be able to mount a successful challenge.

David Urban, a longtime Trump adviser, summed up the party’s predicament in an interview with the New York Times.

“Republicans have followed Donald Trump off the side of a cliff,” he said.

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