The 2022 midterm results are coming into sharper focus, and the picture emerging is not of a Republican blowout, but of Democrats largely holding the line in a series of crucial races. Republicans look likely to gain a razor-thin House majority for the coming term, but conservative gains notwithstanding, Democrats' ahistorically strong midterm showing is both a testament to their slate of candidates, and a repudiation of those put forward by the GOP.
Many Republican candidates hand-picked by former President Donald Trump during the GOP primary season failed to win over voters. But these losses were conspicuously offset by a decisive sweep for conservative candidates in Florida, where potential 2024 presidential candidate Gov. Ron DeSantis set the stage for what appears to be a significant political realignment rightward. That Trump spent the days before polls closed attacking DeSantis only heightens a growing sense within some corners of the GOP that the former president's grip on the party has started to slacken. Will conservatives looking ahead to 2024 start backing away from Trump, or can the progenitor of the MAGA movement maintain his singular influence over the GOP ahead of a widely expected run for a second term in office?
The GOP is moving on
"Trump is a loser," right-wing pundit Eli Lake said on Twitter, joining a number of high-profile conservative commentators in publicly blasting the former president's political acumen and clout. "He's an albatross, a boat anchor on the party. For three straight elections, he has been a liability for Republicans." Commentary magazine's John Podhoretz dubbed the former president a "pathological loser narcissist who has now been humiliated by the American electorate in three separate national contests." Even some of Trump's one-time closest allies began subtly insinuating it's in the GOP's best interest to move forward without him. "Between being Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis tonight, you want to be Ron DeSantis," former Trump White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney told CBS News, adding that "Trump is not doing very well."
Trump won't feel the blame — the party will
The former president prefaced election night with the unabashedly haughty proclamation that if Republicans win, "I should get all the credit. If they lose, I should not be blamed at all." And many hard-right figures seem to agree, arguing that the GOP's midterm stumble was a byproduct of the Republican old guard, and shifting the blame away from Trump and squarely onto the Republican National Committee and the party's congressional leadership. "[Trump] has the impossible job of holding a coalition of Rs together," former Breitbart editor Raheem Kassam tweeted, arguing that the weak Republican candidates "come from GOP central, not him." Long-time Trump stalwart Terrence K. Williams offereded up a list of other fall guys, including so-called Republicans in Name Only (RINOs), mail-in balloting, and "the Machines," while far-right conspiratorial columnist Jim Hoft blamed the "fake news media" for not reporting on the "BIG DAY for Trump-endorsed candidates."
It all depends on DeSantis
Now is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' opportunity to challenge — and perhaps wrest control from — Trump as prospective 2024 GOP nominee, wrote David Frum at The Atlantic. Rank-and-file Republicans "can be convinced that Trump is out of date, out of touch, and out of shape," but DeSantis, whom Trump has mockingly nicknamed "DeSanctimonious," will have to fight fire with fire. "Refusing to engage is not an option, because [Trump] will engage whether his target likes it or not. There's no choice except to engage in turn," Frum said. So far DeSantis has not taken the bait. Instead, he used his election victory on Tuesday to stake his claim as the vanguard in the culture wars that animate the conservative movement, which seemed to go over well: Former Trump White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany proclaimed on Fox News that DeSantis' victory speech "needs to be the future message of the party." The Rupert Murdoch-owned New York Post to declared him "DeFuture," blasting Trump's recent attacks as a "shameful spectacle."
The base won't be wooed
No matter how laudatory the pundits are toward DeSantis or how critical they are of Trump, the biggest open-ended question for the future of the GOP is whether the Republican base can be moved. "I'm not naive enough to think anything could break Trump's spell over the GOP," wrote Matt Lewis at The Daily Beast. "Heck, he almost singlehandedly sabotaged Republican control over the U.S. Senate in 2020 — and that was after losing the presidency ... Why would Republicans start to care if Trump costs them seats, now?" Indeed, his grassroots relationships have remained strong through defeat after defeat, said David M. Drucker at the Washington Examiner. "Rebuking Trump for his role in the GOP's disappointing 2022 election tempts a backlash from the GOP base."