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Trump got his pink slip in 2022 midterm elections

The underperformance of MAGA-embracing candidates across the country casts a dark cloud over the former president's anticipated rerun and suggests that the electorate wants to move on.

(CN) — The biggest loser of Tuesday’s election wasn’t even on the ballot.

Candidates who were endorsed by former President Donald Trump or who expressed loyalty to him underperformed across the board, turning what could have been a massive red wave into a ripple and energizing opposition to him within his own party as he appears to be preparing another presidential bid.

Tuesday’s results “will have a major negative effect on Trump’s candidacy,” said Terry Madonna, a former director of the Franklin & Marshall Poll.

“The bloom is off the rose, if you can ever call Trump a rose,” said a highly placed Washington, D.C., lobbyist who requested anonymity in order to speak freely. “He’s not the invincible candidate for the nomination that he was in 2016.”

A lot of the Republican rank and file will now start moving away from Trump, predicted Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.

“They saw that he doesn’t have a winning formula,” he said. “Candidates with a Trump message don’t win. The emperor has no clothes.”

Although Trump has dominated recent polls of GOP voters, Smith said that’s only because it’s typical for name recognition alone to make a losing presidential candidate the apparent front-runner before the midterms. He noted that this was true of Al Gore after the 2000 election, John Kerry after 2004 and Mitt Romney after 2012.

David Niven, who teaches American politics at the University of Cincinnati, said that until now Trump maintained a sense of invincibility within the party including an ability to move mountains with his primary endorsements. “But a lot more Republicans are going to question if the mountains he can move are worth moving,” he said.

Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, thinks it could be “more a gradual erosion rather than a sudden wholesale rejection — there are still millions of voters who think Trump was divinely called.”

But the message may be clear to party leaders that Trump cost them seats in 2018, 2020 and 2022, and is a looming liability in 2024.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy speaks at an election event in Washington, early Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022. He is flanked by Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel, left, and Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

There's always been a not-inconsiderable segment of the Republican establishment who kept their distaste for Trump close to the vest. “But now they’ll have a lot more courage to risk alienating the base,” Smith said, adding, “nobody likes a loser.”

Bullock thinks that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who believes that Trump cost him the majority in 2020 and may have done so again this year, could lead a “coup” among party leaders.

A lot of GOP officials are asking themselves, “Are we going to let him keep us in the minority or are we going to lock arms and throw him out?” Bullock said.

“They can’t tell Trump not to run,” Madonna added, “but they can rally behind other candidates.”

What was particularly striking Tuesday was the difference between the Trumpians’ struggles and the relative success of more conventional Republican candidates, often within the same state. This suggests that an unusual number of voters split their tickets, carefully expressing unhappiness with both the Democrats and the GOP’s MAGA wing.

Nowhere was this more obvious than in New Hampshire, where anti-Trump Republican Governor Chris Sununu won by 15 points while Democrat Senator Maggie Hassan, once considered the Senate’s most endangered Democrat, won by 10 over a Trump-supporting opponent.

But the split was also clear elsewhere. In Georgia, Trump acolyte Herschel Walker appeared headed for a runoff in the Senate race while Governor Brian Kemp, who has locked horns with Trump, cruised to an easy victory over Democratic celebrity Stacey Abrams. Kemp collected 200,000 more votes than Walker.

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In Ohio, Trump-backed J.D. Vance won his Senate race but scored 370,000 fewer votes than Republican Governor Mike DeWine, whom Trump at one point tried to defeat by recruiting a primary challenger.

Notably, Vance thanked dozens of people in his victory speech but never mentioned Trump, whose endorsement was critical to his primary win. “That’s telling,” said Niven. “We may see more Republicans who are willing to bite the hand that fed them.”

Candidates who openly questioned whether Trump lost the 2020 election had an especially bad night, losing governor’s races in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin as well as the Senate race in New Hampshire — four battleground states that will be critical in 2024. In Arizona, Trump supporter Kari Lake was trailing in a tight race despite having a slight lead in preelection polls.

In Georgia, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger won reelection despite Trump’s efforts to unseat him after he pushed back on Trump’s efforts to overturn the state’s 2020 results.

The night was a big win for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, often considered the chief rival to Trump for the 2024 nomination. DeSantis won reelection in a landslide that included an 11-point victory in Miami-Dade County, which is more than two-thirds Hispanic and traditionally votes heavily Democratic.

Trump is apparently worried about the governor, whom he called “Ron DeSanctimonious” at a preelection rally. Trump told Fox News that if DeSantis runs, "I would tell you things about him that won’t be very flattering — I know more about him than anybody — other than, perhaps, his wife."

In a sign that criticizing Trump is no longer taboo among Republicans, Trump’s former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defended DeSantis after Trump mocked him at the rally.

And Fox News ran an editorial by commentator Liz Peek titled “Ron DeSantis is the new Republican Party leader.” It concluded: “Let us hope that the millions of Americans who have supported Trump in 2016 and again in 2020 begin to see that his time has passed.”

Smith predicted that Fox and conservative talk radio “will pull away from Trump pretty quickly."

"They’ve been waiting," he continued, and this is their opportunity.

“Rumpelstiltskin has been called out,” the D.C. lobbyist commented. “The munchkins can now criticize the Wicked Witch of Mar-a-Lago.”

Republicans holding an election night watch party at a hotel in Washington on Nov. 9, 2022, watch a Fox News broadcast that shows the standings of the Pennsylvania Senate race between Democrat John Fetterman and Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Particularly irksome to the Republican establishment is that Trump saddled the party with neophyte candidates and then did little to back them financially: Trump’s Super PAC spent only $2.3 million on Vance and $3.4 million on Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania. McConnell’s Super PAC stepped into the breach, spending $32 million on Vance and $56.7 million on Oz — and Oz lost anyway. That’s money that could have been used to back more conventional candidates in close races.

But getting rid of Trump won’t be easy for the party, said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire.

“Republican insiders couldn’t stop Trump in 2016, didn’t make a stand after January 6, and didn’t remove him after he was impeached,” Scala noted. “The GOP elite have not exactly been a profile in courage.

“Have they figured out how to cast him aside? I’m not persuaded," the professor continued. "What if Trump says, ‘If you deny me the nomination, I’ll run as an independent or tell my people to stay home’?”

Scala said the politically astute approach would not be to attack Trump as a loser but to thank him for all he did and to suggest that now it’s time to turn the page and build on his successes.

An irony of Tuesday’s results is that they might encourage not just DeSantis but lots of other candidates to enter the Republican presidential primary, which could help Trump to advance by winning pluralities in primary states, Bullock said. To a large extent, that’s what enabled him to win the nomination in 2016.

Another irony is that Trump might ultimately become a victim of his own success. Despite a great deal of chaos and disruption, he realigned the Republican Party by focusing on issues that its establishment had ignored but that its rank and file cared deeply about, such as immigration, bringing back manufacturing jobs and the threat posed by China.

In so doing, “Trump became a hero to ordinary people despite his Neanderthal personality,” said Robert Kaufman, a professor of public policy at Pepperdine University who is writing a book on Trump’s foreign policy. 

But now that the party has become realigned, the door may be open to candidates who support Trump’s policies but don’t have his baggage.

In the end, “Trump’s legacy will be his agenda,” said the D.C. lobbyist, “even if he isn’t the one who carries it forward.”

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