All the signs Trump’s hold on the GOP is waning

Former President Donald Trump announced Tuesday he was ready to lead Republicans to victory in 2024 after an underwhelming performance for his party in a midterm election cycle that they were otherwise expected to dominate.

However, all signs seem to indicate Trump’s grip over the Republican Party and its voters appears to be waning—even as he remains a popular figure within the party.

In the days following a disappointing midterm cycle for Republicans, top figures in the GOP and even close allies of the former president began sowing doubt about his viability as the party’s leader following three consecutive elections of underwhelming returns for conservatives. The main issue: that Trump’s take-no-prisoners approach that upended the political establishment six years ago is no longer compatible with today’s political landscape.

Numerous candidates he’d supported who bought wholesale into his bombastic style of politics and lies about a stolen election in 2020—New Hampshire Senate candidate Don Bolduc, Michigan gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon, Arizona Senate candidate Blake Masters—lost races that some believed to be winnable, with party activists directly blaming their candidates and Trump himself for their poor performances with independent voters.

Former President Donald Trump speaks to the media during an election night event at Mar-a-Lago on November 8, in Palm Beach, Florida. Trump’s grip on the GOP appears to be waning.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

States with Republican governors, like Massachusetts and Maryland, turned over to Democratic control this fall after Republican candidates in Trump’s mold failed to match the moderate stylings of their Republican predecessors. In competitive districts, Republican Congressman Dan Newhouse—one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump after the January 6 Capitol attack—won re-election to his seat in Washington’s 4th Congressional district last week while David Valadao, another Republican impeachment voter, was on track to hold onto his seat in California.

Meanwhile, more moderate candidates in New York and Oregon delivered on the promises of a “red wave” that dominated media coverage throughout the spring and fall, feeding claims Trump’s combative style did not necessarily amount to victory.

“One of the big lessons that the Republican Party nationally needs to take away from it is that voters want collaborative elected officials, they don’t want extremes,” Massachusetts’ outgoing Republican Governor, Charlie Baker, told CNN‘s Jake Tapper Monday afternoon.

Republican leaders in other states—at least behind closed doors—were more direct in prescribing blame to the former president, citing his influence as turning off the key supporters Republicans need to compete with Democrats: namely, people with money and unmade minds on who to vote for.

“Over the course of this cycle, the Michigan Republican Party operated within the political reality that President Trump was popular amongst our grassroots and a motivating factor for his supporters, but provided challenges on a statewide ballot, especially with women and independents in a midterm election,” Michigan Republican Party Chief of Staff Paul Cordes wrote in an internal memo to party members Dixon shared in a social media post after election day.

“As a party, we found ourselves consistently navigating the power struggle between Trump and anti-Trump factions of the party, mostly within the donor class,” he added. “That power struggle ended with too many people on the sidelines and hurt Republicans in many key races.”

Newsweek has contacted Trump’s office for comment.

This is the perfect example of what is wrong with the
Michigan Republican Party. It’s an issue of leadership – Ron Weiser, Meshawn Maddock, and Paul Cordes all refuse to take ownership for their own…

Trump is still popular among Republicans however, leaving an open question whether the party is ready to move on from the “MAGA” movement he inspired.

Texas Congressman Ronny Jackson quickly endorsed Trump after election day, saying he “saved America” and stands poised to “do it again.” New York Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, the Trump-endorsed figure who replaced Trump rival Liz Cheney as GOP conference chairwoman in the wake of the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, pre-empted most of the chatter shortly after Election Day by endorsing Trump, calling him “the leader of the Republican Party.”

Others focused on the role of the current Republican leadership of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (who currently faces an open challenge for speaker of the House next Congress) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who attracted the ire of some conservatives for his alleged lack of support for Trump-aligned candidates whom he publicly described as weak in statements made throughout the summer and early fall.

When asked who was to blame for last week’s underperformance on his podcast Monday, Texas Congressman Ted Cruz mentioned Trump’s name zero times, instead calling for McConnell and other members of Republican leadership to be replaced following the result of the Georgia runoff election between Republican Herschel Walker and Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock.

“I think we underestimate Trump at our peril,” David Greenberg, a presidential historian at Rutgers University, told Newsweek. “He retains a strong grassroots following, and most Republican leaders are still afraid to cross him, despite his candidates’ performance on Tuesday. Right now, Trump should probably be seen as the front-runner for the Republican nomination in 2024. He’s a man of strong will who usually ignores advice that he do anything that might betray some humility or concern for his party or the country or anyone besides himself. And in following his own lights, he has often been proven correct—so as a result, he usually trusts his own judgment over those that he hears in the news media or from his advisers.”

Others pointed out Trump’s success as a mobilizer who has elevated downballot candidates in previous elections.

“Donald Trump remains a very popular figure in the Republican Party in each corner of the country,” Indiana Congressman Jim Banks told Fox News anchor Shannon Bream Sunday. “And I remember when he was on the ballot and 2016 and 2020, we won a lot more seats than when he wasn’t on the ballot in 2018.”

Boding worse for Trump is that Republicans now have options.

Prior to Republicans’ underwhelming performance in the 2022 midterms, several polls showed Trump losing ground to Ron DeSantis—now one of the party’s most prominent figures—in a hypothetical 2024 primary, laying the groundwork for the Florida governor to mount a direct challenge to Trump in the coming months.

Others, like former Vice President Mike Pence and onetime UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, have already begun laying the groundwork for a presumptive run, while former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has suggested he could be considering a bid of his own.

On Monday, the Texas Republican Party released polling showing DeSantis with a double-digit lead on Trump in one of Republicans’ strongest states. An additional poll later in the day by the Club For Growth showed DeSantis making significant gains in a number of battleground states from earlier this summer while Trump saw sizable declines in support in states like Georgia, New Hampshire and Iowa, where Trump defeated Democratic President Joe Biden by eight points just two years ago.

“I don’t think that’s the right question,” Wyoming Sen. Cynthia Lummis told CNN’s Manu Raju when asked if she would endorse Trump. “I think the question is who is the current leader of the Republican Party. Oh, I know who it is: Ron DeSantis”

National Republicans, meanwhile, are hedging their bets.

Late Monday afternoon, The Washington Post‘s Joshua Dawsey reported Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel would not attending Trump’s campaign launch at Mar-a-Lago, and has claimed she would be “neutral” in any primary effort against him. She also reportedly stated the party would not pay any of Trump’s legal expenses as he faces numerous lawsuits tied to his involvement in the January 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol and allegations of tax avoidance tied to his real estate business.

Others’ focus has begun to shift toward figures like DeSantis and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, one of the U.S. Senate’s strongest fundraisers who has regularly been in discussions as a potential running mate to either man in 2024.

“One thing about living in a democracy is there’s always another election, a chance to learn and correct and grow and refine,” former South Carolina Congressman Trey Gowdy said on Fox News earlier this week. “Based on the victory speeches from Governor DeSantis and Senator Tim Scott perhaps the next election cycle has already begun.

“On the edge of even this dark night, there is light,” he added. “I think it’s calling. You may even want to start walking toward it.”

Whether party leaders can influence their base remains to be seen. While a clear majority of Republican voters in a Tuesday poll from Politico/Morning Consult said they did not want Trump to run again, a plurality also said they would back him in a primary against DeSantis, even as party leaders fear he could upset Republican chances in 2024.

Though some efforts by party leaders to kneecap a potential nominee have been successful (Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton in 2008 was a top example Greenberg cited in an email exchange with Newsweek), Trump has defied those efforts in the past.

And he stands poised to do so again.

“Today, the party is the voters,” Greenberg told Newsweek. “That’s true on both the Democratic and Republican sides. What voters do is a thousand times more important than what the media say or what donors do. The rise of small donors has neutralized the power of wealthy donors, so that lots of candidates who lack a well-heeled patron are nonetheless viable.

“The entire Republican establishment was against him, including major donors, Fox News, and all the leading intellectual figures,” he added. “National Review ran an anti-Trump issue with pieces from every faction of the conservative coalition— neoconservatives, libertarians, evangelical Christians, mainstream conservatives, supply-siders and more. They failed, because what matters are the voters.”

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