By David Hastings Dunn
Donald Trump was not on the ballot for the 2022 US midterms. But the former president’s shadow still falls heavily across American politics and he has done all he can to keep it that way. His attempt to both set the political agenda for 2022 and to endorse his style of candidates appears to have had a profound impact on this year’s ballots and has implications for the next presidential election in 2024.
The former president is reported to be weighing up whether to launch his bid for the 2024 election. He previously said he would announce his decision on Tuesday November 15. But after the poor showing of the slate of candidates he had enthusiastically endorsed ahead of the midterms, many political analysts are speculating that he might now put his ambitions on hold.
Trump is taking a big share of the blame for the failure of the Republican Party to capitalise on the highest inflation figures in 40 years, America’s rising murder rate, and what Republicans’ perceive as Joe Biden’s underperformance as president.
Many commentators are asking whether the failure of the expected GOP “red wave” might also mark a passing of the high watermark for the political fortunes of the 45th president. Or, to put it another way, has America passed “peak Trump”?
Midterm elections are traditionally used to show disapproval of the incumbent president. Given that the Democrats held the House by just five votes and the Senate was evenly split, the Republicans were confident of a crushing victory.
Instead, what transpired was one of the best midterm election results for a sitting Democratic president in decades, with the Democrats holding on to control of the Senate and losing fewer seats in the House of Representatives than expected. This will inevitably give Republicans pause to think. The answer will not be difficult to deduce.
While Trump inspires a cult-like adulation from around 15% of the population, his brand of “America first” nationalism has never commanded majority support. Indeed in the 2016 presidential election, the 2018 midterms and again in the 2020 election, the Democrats consistently won the popular vote – even though that popularity did not always translate into power.
But in the 2022 midterms, Trump’s negative impact on the result was clear. In the run-up to the vote on November 9, Trump endorsed a slate of candidates. These were chosen not on their political experience, but on their loyalty to him and his unfounded claim that the 2020 election was stolen. These candidates underperformed on a national basis, robbing the Republicans of potentially winnable seats in a number of swing states.
This happened in Pennsylvania where out-of-state TV doctor Mehmet Oz lost to the Democrats by 8%, and in Georgia where Hershel Walker also underperformed. The latter case is particularly illuminating. Walker, a former football star, managed just 48% of the vote against longtime incumbent Raphael Warnock and faces a runoff election in December. Meanwhile, the non-Trumpian mainstream Republican governor, Brian Kemp, was reelected by a margin of more than seven points.
What this suggests is a willingness among many voters to reject Trumpian extremism without necessarily abandoning the whole Republican ticket. This pattern was repeated nationally, as Trump-endorsed candidates underperformed compared to mainstream Republicans.
The most extreme election deniers did worst of all. Doug Mastriano – who reportedly spent thousands of dollars chartering buses to ferry people to Washington DC on January 6 2020 when the Capitol riot occurred – was beaten by 14 points in his bid for Pennsylvania governor. Daniel Cox – who promised he would audit the 2020 election if he were elected – was beaten by 24 points in the Maryland gubernatorial race.
Where Trump-endorsed candidates did win – such as JD Vance in Ohio – they did so by distancing themselves from their patron’s more extreme positions. It appears that many swing voters and moderate Republicans actually heeded Joe Biden’s call to reject candidates who posed a threat to the proper working of US democracy.
The DeSantis factor
Another key takeaway from the midterms with implications for the Trump’s future has been the success of his former protege, now rival, Ron DeSantis. His reelection as governor by nearly 20 points in what is now Trump’s home state of Florida was a result that defied the national trend.
Significantly, DeSantis rejected Trump’s election denialism and abortion extremism, running instead on the economy, immigration and crime. He now has a clear power base from which to launch a bid for the Republican nomination for the presidency in 2024 if he so chooses.
While his brand of white Christian nationalism embraces much of the cultural conservativism of the America first movement, DeSantis is careful to avoid its more extreme positions. Importantly, he also lacks his former mentor’s personal baggage and casual bigotry. Of his generation of republicans, DeSantis is the most dynamic and appears well placed to step up to the national level and present his version of populist conservatism in a less alienating and antagonising form than Trump.
Where now for the GOP?
The lessons of the midterms for the GOP are fairly clear to see, even if they are difficult to act upon. Although Trump remains extravagantly popular with his base, the 2022 result shows that even many Republicans would rather vote for alternative candidates than Trump and his soundalikes. And, with the emergence of DeSantis, the GOP has the chance to embrace a candidate with a proven electoral record.
The verdict of the American electorate from these elections is that the moment of “peak Trump” has indeed passed. It only remains for the Republican party to go through the painful process of removing Trump from his grip of the Grand Old Party.
David Hastings Dunn is Professor of International Politics in the Department of Political Science and International Studies, University of Birmingham.
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