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Republicans contemplate a post-Trump world

Surprising exactly nobody, former President Donald Trump this week revealed that he’ll seek to return to the White House in 2024. While anticipated, the announcement was somewhat muted given the underwhelming midterm performance of Republicans who gained no ground in the Senate and barely took the House despite high inflation and the unpopularity of Democratic President Joe Biden.

What must have been especially painful for Trump was that GOP candidates most closely aligned with him performed the worst, while many who campaigned on policies and achievements and distanced themselves from the businessman-turned-celebrity-turned-politician made significant gains. Trump’s star seems to be waning as the Republican Party starts to move on.

Chief among those charting their own course is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. From a libertarian perspective, DeSantis is a mixed bag, mixing heavy-handed culture war with support for tax cuts and resistance to public-health authoritarianism. But whatever his ambiguous appeal to advocates of freedom, the combination is proving popular among Floridians and Republicans alike. Voters in his state handed him a huge win over his Democratic rival, while the GOP faithful eye him as a new standard-bearer for their party.

“More Republicans and Republican-leaning Independents now say they’d prefer DeSantis (42 percent) as their 2024 presidential nominee over Trump than say they’d prefer Trump to DeSantis (35 percent),” YouGov America reported of polling conducted in the wake of the midterm election. “That’s a reversal from nearly a month ago, when—according to a Yahoo News/YouGov poll of U.S. adults—just 35 percent preferred DeSantis and 45 percent said they preferred Trump.”

YouGov isn’t alone. Post-midterm polling for the conservative Club for Growth by WPA Intelligence finds DeSantis leading Trump among likely Republican caucus and primary voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, Florida, and Georgia. In all cases DeSantis leads by double-digit percentages, with support growing since earlier polling in August, while Trump’s numbers decline.

Not everybody gives DeSantis the edge; a poll released this week by Politico/Morning Consult put Trump at 47 percent to 33 percent for Florida’s governor. But “while Trump’s standing has not dropped significantly since pre-election (he stood at 48 percent in the most recent Morning Consult poll), DeSantis’ star has risen,” notes Politico’s Meridith McGraw and Christopher Cadelago. “The Florida governor was at 26 percent in that last poll.”

And while DeSantis is the most-discussed alternative to Trump among Republicans, he’s not entirely alone. Pre-midterm polling by South Carolina’s Winthrop University put that state’s former governor Nikki Haley at 37 percent against Trump’s 45 percent support.

“Haley has a strong showing against the former president, who is popular within his party,” commented Winthrop Poll Director, Dr. Scott Huffmon. “Since this was conducted before the disappointing midterm results, for which many Republicans blame Trump, her star may have risen even further.”

By no means have Republicans broken up with Donald Trump, but they’re no longer exclusive with him as his attraction fades for the party faithful.

“Republicans in the United States continue to have generally positive views of Donald Trump, but the share expressing warm feelings toward the former president in Pew Research Center surveys had fallen off by the run up to this month’s midterm elections,” Pew noted this week. Sixty percent of Republicans reported feeling “warmly” towards the former president in October, down from 67 percent in July 2021 and 70 percent in April 2020.

It’s unlikely that the midterms added any luster to the former president’s image, especially with prominent Republicans fingering Trump as the culprit for the GOP’s poor performance.

“It’s basically the third election in a row that Donald Trump has cost us the race, and it’s like, three strikes, you’re out,” Maryland’s term-limited GOP Gov. Larry Hogan, who will be succeeded by a Democrat, commented.

“The voters have spoken and they have said that they want a different leader,” Virginia’s Republican Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears told Fox Business. “And a true leader understands when they have become a liability. A true leader understands that it’s time to step off the stage.”

“It would be a bad mistake for the Republicans to have Donald Trump as their nominee in 2024,” agreed retiring Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), once a strong supporter of the former president’s fantasies of a stolen 2020 election.

None of this means that Donald Trump won’t be the presidential nominee of the Republican Party in 2024. Fading support isn’t the same as no support. By any measure, the former president is still a leading contender for the party’s nod in the next election. He still has a sizeable fan base and he demonstrated in 2016 that counting him out is dangerous.

What has changed, though, is that Trump is no longer the unchallenged leader of the Republican Party. The rejection by voters of many of his endorsed candidates demonstrated his vulnerability and leaves an opening for challengers who don’t feel obligated to seek his favor or defer to his style of politics. When Trump campaigns for the nomination, he’ll have rivals with their own brands and different visions.

What those visions will be is anybody’s guess. The old GOP deference, however nominal it was, to free markets and limited government blew up when Trump was elected. He champions trade protectionism and the execution of drug dealers, along with lower taxes and reduced regulation. Current chief rival Ron DeSantis offers some elements of economic liberty along with socially conservative warfare against woke school boards and corporations. Other contenders for the nomination will offer competing programs, with a reshaped political party as the prize for the victor.

But there will be new leaders with rebooted visions for both major political parties, one way or the other, even if only because the march of time gets its own vote. Donald Trump was born in 1946 and will be 78 years old the day voters cast ballots in 2024. President Joe Biden, who hints he’ll run for re-election, is four years older. Neither is exactly the picture of good health. Assuming a (please spare us) Trump-Biden rematch, there’s a real chance the debates will need to be held via Ouija board.

So, a post-Trump GOP is coming, and Republicans have to decide what that will mean.


November 2022