In the days leading up to former President Donald Trump’s announcement Tuesday evening that he would seek the Republican Party’s nomination again in 2024, influential voices in conservative political circles expressed their opposition to the idea of handing the party’s reins back to him.
With Trump leading the party after his election in 2016, Republicans lost control of the House of Representatives in 2018. Then in 2020, despite his false claims to the contrary, Trump lost the presidential election to Joe Biden and watched as his party also lost control of the Senate.
Last week in elections they were expected to dominate, Republicans failed to take over the Senate, and as of Tuesday, appeared poised to win the House of Representatives by only a slim margin. One reason for the underwhelming GOP performance was that a number of Trump’s hand-picked candidates underperformed other, more mainstream Republican candidates.
Tuesday morning, Ken Griffin, the billionaire founder of the Citadel hedge fund and a major donor to Republicans, voiced what many within the party have apparently been thinking.
“I’d like to think that the Republican Party is ready to move on from somebody who has been for this party a three-time loser,” Griffin said at an event sponsored by Bloomberg News in Singapore.
‘Sick and tired of losing’
Griffin is far from alone in his belief that Republicans need to distance themselves from the former president. Formerly friendly elected leaders and publications have also picked up the chorus.
Following the party’s worse-than-expected performance in the November 9 midterm elections, the conservative Wall Street Journal editorialized against Trump.
“Since his unlikely victory in 2016 against the widely disliked Hillary Clinton, Mr. Trump has a perfect record of electoral defeat.”
The editorial added, “Now Mr. Trump has botched the 2022 elections, and it could hand Democrats the Senate for two more years. Mr. Trump had policy successes as President, including tax cuts and deregulation, but he has led Republicans into one political fiasco after another. ‘We’re going to win so much,’ Mr. Trump once said, ‘that you’re going to get sick and tired of winning.’ Maybe by now Republicans are sick and tired of losing.”
Many in the party are turning away from Trump and looking for someone to take his place, with the most likely candidate being Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who shares many of Trump’s attributes when it comes to antagonizing the political left, and who won reelection in his state last week by a margin of nearly 20 percentage points.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Republican Senator Cynthia Lummis said, “The question is: Who is the current leader of the Republican Party? Oh, I know who it is: Ron DeSantis. … Ron DeSantis is the leader of the Republican Party, whether he wants to be or not.”
Some longtime observers of U.S. elections believe Trump’s decision to announce his candidacy now is aimed at clearing the field of potential competitors for the Republican nomination and blocking DeSantis, in particular.
“The conventional wisdom in politics for a long time has been that you can ward off your challengers by raising money early and moving early in the game,” Jennifer N. Victor, an associate professor of political science at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, told VOA. “And so, he’s clearly going for that kind of first-mover advantage.”
Further evidence of the former president’s concern about DeSantis is that he has recently attacked the governor in public remarks. Trump, who often bestows belittling nicknames on his rivals, has been referring to DeSantis as “Ron DeSanctimonious.”
In a lengthy statement after the midterm elections, Trump tried to minimize DeSantis’ reelection victory, noting that DeSantis won with fewer votes than Trump received in Florida in the 2020 race. The difference is likely attributable to the fact that turnout for U.S. elections in presidential years is much higher than in nonpresidential years, such as 2022.
‘Trumpism still healthy’
Some have speculated that Trump’s announcement, following so closely on the heels of the midterm elections, is meant to distract attention from the results, which are being used by some of the former president’s opponents as fodder for criticism of his decision to intervene in so many races.
However, Victor warned against reading too much into the results of last week’s voting. While Trumpian candidates may have fared poorly in some races, she said it is too soon to write off the power of the former president’s movement to shape the 2024 race.
“If Republicans had been trounced — really trounced — in this election, and Democrats had gained seats in the House, then I think the talk of Trumpism getting excised out of the party would be a lot stronger,” Victor said. “But since that didn’t happen, since it was more of a mixed result, I think there’s plenty of evidence that Trumpism is still fairly healthy and probably the largest, most robust coalition within the party.”
Looking for an alternative
Other experts, however, wondered whether a well-orchestrated challenge to Trump would have the opportunity to succeed.
Chris Stirewalt, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, agreed that the former president retains the unwavering support of a portion of the Republican Party. But he said it is not clear that Trump’s core supporters make up a large enough share of primary voters to guarantee Trump’s nomination if an opposing candidate can consolidate the remainder.
“There are a lot of Republicans who would vote for Trump in 2024 but who hope they won’t have to,” Stirewalt, the former political editor for Fox News, told VOA.
However, he said, that doesn’t guarantee that, as in the 2016 primary, Trump won’t be able to play different factions within the party against one another until he is the last man standing.
“In 2020, the Democratic candidates took the right lesson from the 2016 election and dropped out rather than allow a fringe candidate to win the nomination,” Stirewalt said.
Looking at the Republican field in 2024, Stirewalt said, the big question is whether a coalition of Republicans who would prefer not to see Trump receive the nomination again, and those who would not vote for the former president under any circumstances, can coalesce behind a single candidate early enough to allow him or her a fighting chance against the former president.