In 2024, it's Trump versus the ‘Republican establishment’ again
Shelby is a Political Reporter for Semafor, joining us from the Daily Caller. Morgan is a Political and National Security Reporter for Semafor, joining us from The Hill. Sign up for the daily Principals newsletter to get our insider’s guide to American power.
Former President Trump is expected to begin his third campaign for president on Tuesday in much the same way as he did his first — locked in a battle with members of his own party.
Trump has ramped up attacks on Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell, trying to shift blame in the days following Republicans’ lackluster midterms performance, which many in the party attribute to flawed Trump-allied candidates. He’s gone after other possible GOP contenders, as well as those who have publicly called for an alternative in 2024.
Two sources told Semafor that the former president will make attacking traditional GOP figures a key feature of his burgeoning campaign, which is expected to launch on Tuesday evening. In doing so, he will again try to cast himself as an outsider who can draw on voter angst towards both parties.
“The Republican establishment is as helpful of a whipping post for President Trump as the Democrats at times,” said one source familiar with Trump’s thinking, adding that if Republicans underperform “on their promises … he’ll be there to hold both parties accountable.”
A second source close to Trump pointed out that the former president “is much better as the outside candidate attacking both parties’ establishment,” and that it could be good politics to go after lawmakers like McConnell in what may be a crowded GOP primary.
Trump had been planning to lean into attacks on the GOP establishment before the midterm results, even as he maintained a dominant position as the party’s de facto leader and primary kingmaker. But the ensuing criticism of his role in last week’s midterm losses may make his approach a necessity as he faces the possibility of a concerted effort by donors, conservative media, and national leaders to usher him off the stage.
In recent days, Rupert Murdoch’s news conglomerate has abandoned the former president for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Trump’s biggest foe. In response, Trump has lashed out against the media, McConnell, “RINO” criticism, and Republican candidates whom he either declined to back (Joe O’Dea in Colorado) or who disavowed his election fraud claims while trailing in the polls (Don Bolduc in New Hampshire).
The conservative group Club for Growth, which opposed Trump in the 2016 GOP race, then became a top ally, and has now grown critical again, released a group of polls showing DeSantis beating Trump in hypothetical primaries in Iowa, New Hampshire, Florida and Georgia.
Shelby and Morgan's View
Voters, tired of traditional lawmakers and intrigued by the idea of a businessman, pushed Trump to a win in 2016 against all odds. He essentially ran as a third party candidate within the GOP, attracting virtually no institutional support until late in the race and attacking everyone from top donors to former presidents along the way. In that context, getting back to basics makes sense.
Trump was seen as heretical by conservative elites in 2016 on a number of issues — including immigration, trade, health care, entitlement spending, national security, and possibly taxes — as well as in his rhetorical style. Since then, the policy gap with the party has closed and rivals like DeSantis borrow heavily from his bombastic approach. The divide between “establishment” and “MAGA” has largely expressed itself over whether to back Trump’s personal quest to overturn the 2020 election and clear the field for his 2024 campaign, though some issues like Ukraine aid may split Republicans. It’s not clear that will animate voters the same way.
Trump campaigning as an outsider also has a different feel after he was in the White House for four years. For all the criticism he’s gotten recently, Trump is still the standard bearer of the GOP until a 2024 primary tells a different story. It’s hard to claim the underdog role when you have an army of MAGA allies who are well-practiced in defending your every move and crushing any rivals who get in the way.
Room for Disagreement
Alex Conant, who helped execute presidential announcements for Republicans Tim Pawlenty and Marco Rubio during the 2012 and 2016 cycles, respectively, argued that Trump’s decision to open his campaign with broadsides against other Republicans is a flawed one.
“Trump using his launch to settle intra-party scores and tear down fellow Republicans is very dumb. Republican voters desperately want to win the White House in 2024 – every candidate announcing needs to convince primary voters that they’re the best choice to win,” Conant told Semafor.
And while the Mitt Romneys of the world are eager to push Trump aside, there are signs the rebellion runs deeper into red territory this time. "I think the question is who is the current leader of the Republican Party,” Sen. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo. told NBC News on Monday when asked about Trump. “Oh, I know who it is: Ron DeSantis."