Even before Donald Trump announced that he was seeking the presidency again, last week’s election results showed Republicans how difficult it will be to escape the former president’s gravitational pull.
Widespread voter resistance to a Republican Party refashioned in Trump’s image offset disenchantment with the economy and President Joe Biden’s performance and allowed Democrats to post one of the best first-midterm showings for the sitting president’s party in more than a century. In almost all the key battleground states, the same powerful coalition of voters who opposed Trump in the 2018 and 2020 elections delivered stunning rebukes to GOP candidates running with the former president’s endorsement or in his polarizing style, or both.
The results were much better for Republicans running in red states and districts. But for party strategists operating anywhere outside the most reliably conservative terrain, the election’s message was unequivocal. In those contested areas, “there is no road back to relevance if Donald Trump continues to be the dominant figure in the Republican Party and especially if he is our nominee in 2024,” Dick Wadhams, the former GOP chair in Colorado, told me.
Trump’s unusually early presidential announcement, though, made clear that he will not surrender his grip on the GOP without a fight. Last night’s announcement speech itself was instantly forgettable, a rambling greatest-hits collection of familiar priorities (building a border wall), bombastic descriptions of American carnage (“the blood-soaked streets of our once-great cities”), and well-worn grievances (“I’m a victim”) delivered with surprisingly little emotion or energy. He pointedly denied responsibility for the GOP’s disappointing showing last week, instead blaming “the citizens of our country [who] have not yet realized the full extent and gravity of the pain our nation is going through.”
Yet Trump’s greatest obstacle to a comeback may be the widespread belief among party leaders, donors, and key figures within conservative media that continued hostility toward him is the principal reason Democrats last week succeeded at holding the Senate and gaining control of more governorships and state legislatures—and minimized their losses in the House of Representatives, even though Republicans are poised to capture a slim majority in the chamber.
Such a strong performance is exceedingly rare for the party in the White House during the president’s first midterm. Over at least the past century, it is unprecedented for that party to do so well when the president faces as much discontent as Biden does now. Since 1900, the only other examples of the incumbent party running at least as well as Democrats did this year came for presidents who were soaring in popularity, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934 (during the early New Deal), John F. Kennedy in 1962 (after he defused the Cuban missile crisis), Bill Clinton in 1998 (amid the backlash to the Republican Congress’s moves to impeach him), and George W. Bush in 2002 (after 9/11).
This year, though, just 44 percent of voters nationwide said they approved of Biden’s job performance, while a 55 percent majority disapproved, according to the exit polls conducted by Edison Research for a consortium of media organizations. Biden, the exit polls found, did not receive majority support in any of the states with the most closely watched gubernatorial and Senate races, and in some of those states (including Nevada, Georgia, and Arizona), his approval rating peaked barely above 40 percent.
In the 21st century, as I’ve written, there are very few examples of Senate (and even gubernatorial) candidates from the president’s party winning elections in states where his approval rating had fallen that low. Yet Democrats rolled to unexpected victories in many of the key swing-state races, including Senate contests in Arizona, New Hampshire, Nevada, and Pennsylvania, and governor’s races in Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. (The Democratic incumbent also led in the Georgia Senate race, now heading for a December runoff, between Senator Raphael Warnock and the Republican challenger, Herschel Walker.) In more reliably blue states, such as Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Minnesota, and New York, Republicans were uniformly frustrated in their hopes for breakthroughs in Senate and governor’s races (though the GOP did flip several New York House districts).
GOP governors did score decisive reelection victories in Republican-leaning states such as Florida, Georgia, and Texas. GOP Senate candidates also won in states with large populations of non-college-educated white voters (particularly Wisconsin, Ohio, and North Carolina). Exit polls showed GOP candidates continuing to benefit from the electoral advantages Trump has bequeathed them: dominant majorities among white voters without a college education, nonurban, and white evangelical voters, as well as a higher floor of support among Latino voters, particularly men.
But the overall ledger showed more bright spots for Democrats. And given Americans’ broadly negative views on Biden and the economy, the only plausible explanation for that success is many voters’ unwavering resistance to the Trump-era GOP. Democrats successfully painted many Republican nominees (including most of the high-profile contenders Trump endorsed) as extremists, citing their opposition to legal abortion and refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of Biden’s 2020 victory. Outside the conservative heartland, Democrats in most key statewide races maintained a winning edge among the groups that most resisted Trump: younger voters, college-educated white voters, people of color, and secular adults; the tilt was more pronounced among women than among men in each group.
Most striking, the exit polls found that Democrats carried a plurality of independent voters nationally and won them by bigger margins in most of the marquee contests. “I think, at the end of the day, our crazy was more repelling than their crazy,” Jason Cabel Roe, a Michigan-based GOP consultant, told me.
Nationally, nearly six in 10 voters said they had an unfavorable opinion of Trump, and they voted almost four to one for Democrats. Among independent voters, Trump’s national unfavorable ratings rose to two-thirds overall, reaching nearly three-fourths among women. Among women especially, that was a far more negative rating than independents gave to Biden.
Election results showed that the white-collar suburban areas across blue and swing states that rejected Trump remained locked down against GOP candidates this year, even amid the pervasive discontent over the economy. In Pennsylvania, the Democratic candidate, John Fetterman, matched Biden’s elevated advantage over Trump in the big four suburban counties outside Philadelphia; Warnock did the same in the populous Cobb and Gwinnett Counties, outside Atlanta. In 2020, Biden became the first Democratic candidate since Harry Truman in 1948 to carry Maricopa County (centered on Phoenix and its suburbs) when he won it by about 45,000 votes; as of this morning, Senator Mark Kelly led there by nearly 100,000 votes. In Colorado, Senator Michael Bennet almost exactly matched Biden’s massive 2020 margins in Denver and its big surrounding suburban counties.
Especially striking was that these suburban areas broke as badly against GOP candidates who tried to define themselves as centrists, including the Senate nominees in Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Washington State.
In Colorado, the GOP nominated Joe O’Dea, a moderate, energetic candidate who explicitly distanced himself from Trump. Yet he too was swamped. To Wadhams, that pattern is a clear signal that in Democratic-leaning and swing states, virtually no individual Republican can wash off Trump’s stain on the GOP image.
Heading into the election, Wadhams told me, the key uncertainty in Colorado was whether “those vast numbers of unaffiliated voters who had voted so strongly Democratic and anti-Trump in 2018 and 2020 would … give strong Republican candidates a serious look in 2022,” now that Trump is no longer in the White House. On Election Day, he added, “I got my answer, and the answer was no.” The lesson, he said, “is that even among the unaffiliated voters who I thought we had a shot at, they ultimately said, ‘Those Republicans are still crazy; they are still in the hip pocket of Donald Trump.’”
House elections produced the same pattern. Republican House gains were concentrated in the least urban districts, where Trump has always been strongest, including sparsely settled distant suburbs and pure rural areas, according to an analysis by The Washington Post’s Philip Bump. But the GOP’s overall House success was constrained because the party still faced a virtual brick wall of resistance in the central cities and inner suburbs of the large metro areas that repeatedly rejected Trump: With about 10 races still to be called, Democrats have won 129 of the 140 seats in the three most urban districts, according to figures Bump provided to me.
Such disappointing results have led more GOP leaders than at any point in Trump’s political career to publicly declare that the party must now move beyond him. Trump will likely also face much more serious resistance from party elites and leading conservative media outlets. His announcement speech had a musty feel, which may preview the difficulty he could face convincing GOP voters that his day has not passed. And in Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis, Trump could face a challenger more formidable than any he swept aside in 2016.
But, still, displacing Trump may not be so easy. Compared with the Democrats, the GOP favors winner-take-all systems in its presidential primaries that benefit the candidate with the largest block of support, even if that’s less than a majority, Benjamin Ginsberg, the former chief counsel for the Republican National Committee, told me. That could benefit Trump because even if the disappointment over last week’s results shrinks his potential ceiling of support, he retains a dedicated floor among non-college-educated, nonurban, and evangelical white Republicans. In 2016, as I wrote at the time, Trump pulled away from the field to become the presumptive nominee at a point when he had not won 50 percent of the vote in any state and had captured only about 40 percent of all ballots cast.
A second challenge is whether anyone, including DeSantis, can consolidate the college-educated Republican voters most resistant to the former president. Some early 2024 polls already show Trump attracting only about one-third of Republicans holding at least a four-year degree. But that’s about as much support from them as he captured during the competitive stage of the GOP race in 2016; he won because he amassed a dominant advantage among non-college-educated Republicans (many of whom are also evangelical Christians), while those with degrees splintered among many alternatives, such as John Kasich, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz.
That could easily happen again, particularly if candidates who position themselves as more centrist on social issues, such as Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin and former Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, run. Both men are probably too moderate (or at least perceived that way) to win a GOP presidential nomination, but they could siphon away too many of the voters that a more viable alternative like DeSantis would need to overtake Trump.
Then there is the grueling practical reality of running against Trump, who has shown himself willing to say and do almost anything. In 2016, he bludgeoned Cruz and Rubio so relentlessly that they still seem broken—a turn of events reminiscent of Game of Thrones. DeSantis might fare better, but until someone actually runs against Trump, it’s impossible to guarantee that they can handle the jackhammer pressure. Nor is it clear that the donors and strategists who now insist that the party must move on from Trump will remain steadfast if he threatens to trash the nominee or run as an independent should he lose.
Another wild card is a possible indictment of the former president, from investigations by either the Justice Department or the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office into his efforts to overturn the 2020 election results in Georgia. An indictment could cause more Republican voters to reflexively rally around him. But it could also make some back away, either because his behavior offends them or, more likely, because they conclude that his legal troubles would further degrade his capacity to win a general election.
Last week’s results signaled plenty of vulnerabilities also for Biden, including the national-exit-poll finding that two-thirds of voters do not want him to run again. But if the 2022 election demonstrated anything, it is that many Americans who are disappointed in Biden will stand with him and his party nonetheless if the alternative is to entrust power to a Trump-era GOP that they view as a threat to their rights, their values, and democracy itself. That’s the ominous prospect for GOP officials in swing states nervously watching Trump storm into the party’s next presidential nominating contest.