‘We will have better choices’: Republican leaders think Donald Trump’s liabilities are finally sinking in
David is a Political Reporter for Semafor, joining us from the Washington Post. Sign up for Americana to get his coverage of the national political scene in your inbox twice a week.
SIMI VALLEY, Ca. – The line to see Mike Pence stretched around the entrance of the Reagan Library, past the chunk of the Berlin Wall and the 40th president's grave. After Pence finished signing books – “six HUN-dred,” he gasped – just one MAGA hat poked out of the crowd. The former Vice President had come to talk about the “Trump-Pence administration,” a package deal that could soon be sold separately.
“We accomplished things that conservatives have been talking about for generations,” Pence told a crowd at the presidential library on Thursday night. “If I learned anything in those Trump-Pence years, it’s the capacity of the American people to make things right.”
Pence was talking about a Republican restoration that didn’t include Donald Trump, an idea he’d been floating in every appearance for his new memoir. “We will have better choices than my old running mate,” he told CNN this week; on ABC, he talked about “better choices in the future.”
After a middling GOP performance in last week’s elections, talk about a post-Trump 2024 nomination has picked up among donors, pollsters, and Republicans who’d never liked the 45th president. Wealthy conservatives are wooing other candidates and releasing primary polls to show that Trump could lose. Trump’s enemies inside the party, who insisted he was dragging them down, now have compelling evidence.
“We lost almost everything in 2018, lost in 2020 to the weakest nominee ever, and then lost almost all of what we should have won in 2022,” outgoing Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan told Semafor at this week’s Republican Governors Association meeting in Orlando. Trump’s 2024 campaign, he said, was “a mistake for the party, and I think it's a mistake for Donald Trump, and I think it's wrong for the country.”
Hogan had warned about Trump’s electoral weakness for years, refusing even to vote for him in 2016 and 2020. Last week gave him more company. The RGA, held in two adjoining Hilton resorts this week, featured an elite segment of the party with plenty of fresh reasons to consider Trump a loser.
The former president endorsed like-minded candidates in Maryland, Massachusetts, and Arizona who threw their races toward Democrats; Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, who’d warned that Trump’s candidate in the race to succeed him couldn’t win, was spotted entering a room with former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who had blamed “crazy” Trump strategies for losing winnable races. Trump also campaigned against people who went on to win, like Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, who’d flown to Orlando from Atlanta after testifying before a grand jury that’s still probing the Trump effort to overturn the 2020 election.
On Tuesday night, when Trump launched his 2024 campaign at Mar-a-Lago, RGA attendees were at an outdoor reception, listening to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis explain how he won a 19-point re-election. In a conference sit-down with the New York Times, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem worried that Trump didn’t offer the “best chance” of success in 2024.
“Whatever announcements may or may not be happening tonight, nobody's gonna care,” New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu said at a panel with fellow governors before the Trump speech.
A Republican break with Trump has been prophesied before, creating content for cable news panels without ever threatening the ex-president’s influence inside the GOP.
But the midterms changed things. Trump, the first ex-president to seek his party’s nomination since the 19th century, launched with a puny list of endorsements from people who’d share the ballot. Just eight members of Congress said that they supported Trump this week, all conservatives in seats drawn to be safely Republican, like Texas Rep. Troy Nehls and Illinois Rep. Mary Miller.
Not only did Joe Biden enter the 2020 campaign with more endorsements; New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, whose campaign ended before the Iowa caucuses, launched with more Congressional support than Trump has now. And more Republicans were going on the record to warn that Trump dragged down his party.
“Trump’s endorsement comes with a cost,” outgoing Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchison told PBS host Margaret Hoover last week. “It minimizes your ability to attract independents, and to win in November.”
Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump Republican strategist, found the Trump factor hurting GOP candidates across the country. In her pre-election focus groups, she found the same dynamic that the progressive research firm Navigator Research found in its post-election voter surveys. Most voters disapproved of the job Joe Biden was doing as president. Many of them voted for Democrats anyway, because they had incredibly negative views of Trump-aligned or “MAGA” Republicans.
“The swing voters, despite all their frustrations, looked at the Republicans and worried about their positions on abortion, or the fact that they were election deniers,” Longwell told Semafor. “There were so many crazy candidates that the idea that the Republicans were crazy really penetrated at a macro level.”
On Friday, some of the same Republicans who’ve criticized Trump – Christie, Hogan, Pence, Sununu – will head to Las Vegas for the Republican Jewish Coalition’s summit. On Thursday afternoon, the RJC announced an appearance from Trump, too.
For years, the safest way to respond to any intra-Republican criticism of Donald Trump was to assume it wouldn’t matter. “Never Trumpers” had the green rooms; MAGA had the jam-packed rallies. To my surprise, the midterms broke that pattern. The way Republicans now talk about Trump, as a leader with big accomplishments who should go away, is what many Democrats and other Trump critics expected to happen after 2020.
The View From Germany
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, a center-left leader who has criticized Trump in the past, said that the “the best news” about Trump’s presidential announcement is that it was barely discussed at the G20 gathering of world leaders in Bali this month, according to Reuters. The reason: The midterm results, which showed that "one can now also hope that, like in the last elections, a decision against populism will remain possible.”
Room for Disagreement
Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley blamed “the Republican establishment,” not Trump, for the weak midterm results. “The red wave didn’t land in part because voters who cast a ballot for Barack Obama and later supported Donald Trump — voters who likely disapprove of Joe Biden and the Democrats’ agenda — chose to stay home,” he wrote for the Washington Post.