While it’s still too early to tell exactly how control of Congress will shake out after Tuesday’s election, it is not too early to say that things did not go well for Republicans, even if they manage to squeak out both chambers. Which should make one thing fairly obvious: The GOP would probably be much better off without the political albatross of Donald Trump.
This already seemed evident from preelection polling, in which the former president’s hand-picked cast of obsequious oddball candidates seemed to be underperforming more traditional and staid Republicans in states like Georgia, New Hampshire, and Ohio. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell politely bemoaned his party’s “candidate quality” deficit. This issue was obvious enough ahead of time that Democrats spent a bit of their own money boosting Trumpy candidates over relative moderates in some tight Republican primaries.
Nonetheless, much of Washington, not to mention the president himself, walked into this week expecting a red wave election. Trump very obviously planned to take credit for the Republican romp, which is why he made a point of personally endorsing about 300 candidates. He even set the stage to formally announce his next White House run this coming Monday, when he could presumably bask in the warm waters of the much-anticipated GOP tsunami.
But the red wave never materialized. Instead, Democrats produced a surprisingly strong performance that once again underlined what a liability Trump’s brand of politics is in a general election.
For starters, the night saw many of Trump’s most high-profile endorsees tank. In Pennsylvania, celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz—who squeaked through his state’s primary thanks mostly to Trump’s backing—lost to Lt. Gov. John Fetterman. (Trump is reportedly blaming Melania for the decision to back him.) Democrats flipped a House seat in North Carolina by beating MAGA-star-in-the-making Bo Hines. And Trump-branded candidates lost races for governor in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.
There could be more big losses to come in MAGA-land. Senate candidate Blake Masters, who was backed by Trump and tech billionaire Peter Thiel, is trailing incumbent Mark Kelly in Arizona. And Democrats are basically losing their minds in glee right now at the fact that gun-loving, hard-right congresswoman Lauren Boebert is trailing her opponent in Colorado.
In contrast, Republican Joe Lombardo is currently leading the Nevada governor’s race against a Democratic incumbent after refusing to back Trump’s election conspiracies. Asked at a debate whether he thought the 2020 results in the state were rigged, he answered, “No, I do not,” adding, “There was a modicum of fraud, but nothing to change the election.” He also said he wouldn’t describe Trump as a “great” president, calling him “sound” instead.
The biggest, most glaring issue, however, is that time after time, Trumpier candidates simply fared worse than boring, regular Republicans on the same ballot.
• In Georgia, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who earned Trump’s wrath for refusing to overturn their state’s 2020 election results, cruised to reelection. Meanwhile, former NFL star Herschel Walker is headed to a runoff against Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock.
• In Ohio, J.D. Vance—whose candidacy was another Thiel-Trump production—is about to become a senator, with a comfortable 53 percent of the vote. But he significantly underperformed Gov. Mike DeWine, a bog-standard traditional GOPer with all the personal flair of a Poland Spring bottle, who looks as if he’ll take home almost 63 percent.
There is an obvious reason why MAGA candidates underwhelmed: They were bad candidates. Trump’s number one requirement in a candidate is pure personal fealty, which means he is willing to endorse politicians with obvious, critical weaknesses in a general election, such as being a mind-bogglingly out-of-touch TV doctor who does not live in the state where he’s running for office. Because showing loyalty to Donald Trump requires the enthusiastic embrace of obvious lies and lunatic election conspiracies, MAGA candidates are often people with glaring character issues and extremist politics that scare a lot of normal voters. They’re characters like Walker, who has now decided he favors banning all abortion, after practically acting as a clinic escort for his old girlfriends (allegedly!), or Doug Mastriano, a Christian nationalist who went all in on election denial. In general, it is very, very, very hard for a candidate with Trumplike flaws to win an election on a competitive map. Donald Trump himself barely managed to pull it off in 2016—and failed to do so in 2020.
It’s possible we will see a few major exceptions to the MAGA bust. In Arizona, former local news anchor Kari Lake—who has earned national stardom after more or less campaigning as Donald Trump in better makeup—could still potentially pull out a win, though she currently trails. But this seems like the exception that proves the rule, particularly given that Lake’s opponent was considered a somewhat weak campaigner.
So if full-blown Trumpism was a bust for the GOP, what worked? The most heartening results of the night for Republicans may have come from Florida, which seemed to complete its evolution from swing state to full-blown red zone: Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis won an easy reelection, Republicans flipped the longtime Democratic bastion of Miami-Dade, and the GOP netted several new seats from a freshly gerrymandered map. DeSantis has become a national Republican star, and Trump’s most obvious 2024 challenger, by governing as a Fox News–friendly culture warrior who relishes owning the “woke.”
Critically, DeSantis lacks Trump’s personal erraticness or clear-cut managerial incompetence. As a result, many of the party’s elites have eyed him hungrily as someone who can win over the MAGA base without alienating as many swing voters. Already, last night’s results are being interpreted as further proof of that in some GOP circles. With that said, it may be that Florida has simply evolved into a particularly Trumpy state, like other parts of the Deep South, and what works there might not play in Pennsylvania or even Arizona.
What should be beyond doubt is simply that Donald Trump is a problem for the GOP. A sane party would move heaven and earth to find a solution.