For more than seven years, every actor in American political life has orbited around Donald Trump. Every policy debate, every electoral contest has been sucked into the event horizon of the man’s immense personality. But for most of those years, the vanguard of the pre-Trump GOP preserved its behind-the-scenes influence over how Trump governed as president and helped guide the party’s populist evolution. No longer. In 2022, the GOP has presided over a fully Trumpified spectacle of political incompetence, and prospective midterm election voters are not impressed.
As the Republican Party’s initial shock and outrage at the the January 6 riots was replaced with a resolve to shout down anyone who even suggested that Trump was at all to blame, the wing of the GOP that concerns itself with candidate quality found itself on the outs. Exceptions to the rule notwithstanding, the pathway to success in Republican primary politics demands adopting Trump’s irascible affectation and parroting his preferred untruths. A number of the GOP’s top-tier recruits for high office declined to so debase themselves.
Vermont’s Phil Scott, once America’s most popular governor, resisted the party’s efforts to recruit him to run for U.S. Senate. Likewise, Arizona’s Gov. Doug Ducey, Maryland’s Larry Hogan, and New Hampshire’s Chris Sununu each declined the chance to run again in a statewide race. Not because they were sure to lose the general election, but because getting to the general would be a crippling experience. By and large, the political neophytes who won Trump’s approval have turned in unimpressive performances on the trail and struggled to attract the support of a majority of their state’s voters.
Making the sale to general-election voters demands that capable candidates abandon the passions that fueled their primary victories and assume a less polarizing demeanor—a move that many of Trump’s preferred candidates have either botched or rejected outright. But executing that pivot adroitly costs money, and the GOP is not awash in cash. Republican candidates, committees, and political organizations have languished in the fundraising department. By contrast, the former president is rolling in donor dough.
“Save America, Trump’s PAC, issues dozens of email appeals daily and raked in $103.7 million this cycle,” the Washington Examiner reported. The former president appears inclined to sit on this windfall ahead of another presidential run, but the cannibalization of the GOP’s online donor base has some Republican political professionals gnashing their teeth in frustration (off the record, of course).
While Donald Trump has always loomed large over Republican politics, he did not hog the national spotlight for much of the Biden administration. As Democratic political prospects dimmed in 2021, the party’s embattled figures did their level best to exhume Trump from the political tomb to which 2020’s voters had consigned him. Their efforts failed to mitigate the party’s losses, in part, because the menace represented by the former president was an abstraction. Pocketbook issues, on the other hand, were real and urgent. The Justice Department’s search of the president’s Mar-a-Lago residence has provided voters with a substantive demonstration that the Republican Party isn’t just a generic vehicle of opposition to Democratic governance. It remains wholly dedicated to Trump’s personality cult.
In March, a poll commissioned by the Wall Street Journal found that Joe Biden and Donald Trump each had the support of an equal 45 percent of voters in a hypothetical rematch in 2024. That figure remained essentially unchanged from the Journal’s November 2021 survey. Today, however, Biden leads in the Journal poll with 50 percent of the vote to Trump’s 44 percent. Trump’s favorability ratings have declined in the same period, as have respondents’ retroactive assessments of how he performed in office. What explains this reassessment besides the former president’s sudden ubiquity on the national stage?
Left-wing partisans and political professionals deserve little credit for deftly navigating dire political straits. They would like to credit Democratic legislative initiatives, Biden’s reckless giveaways, or even the Supreme Court’s decision in the Dobbs case (and their candidates’ opposition to it) for their good fortune. These are all unsatisfying explanations for the Democrats’ rebound.
The Democratic Party’s climate-change legislation is likely to be as relevant to voters in November as the first federal gun-control bill to become law in the last 30 years—which is to say, not at all. The president’s legally dubious debt-cancelation fiat polls well for now. But so, too, did his extension of the CDC’s eviction moratorium and his edict that imposed a vaccination mandate on private businesses. Neither survived the scrutiny of the courts, and Republicans did not suffer political consequences for endorsing constitutional propriety. More than a month after the Supreme Court overturned the precedents in Roe and Casey, a Washington Post-Schar School poll found that those who support preserving access to abortion procedures were still less certain to vote in the fall. The generic ballot test and the enthusiasm gap still favored Republicans.
As the GOP presented itself as the generic opposition to Democratic governance, Republicans passively benefited from Democratic overreach and maladministration. Republican candidates aren’t “generic” anymore, sure, but the party hasn’t spoken with one voice in support of a set of policy preferences. To the extent that GOP lawmakers and office seekers are speaking with one voice on anything over the last several weeks, it has been to express their unequivocal endorsement of Donald Trump on a near daily basis. It is no coincidence that those same several weeks have seen the GOP’s support in the polls decline and Democrats outperform expectations at the ballot box.
Even if the Republican Party’s establishmentarians were still willing to rescue the party from its voters, they lack the institutional authority to do so. Trumpism is unshackled, and voters seem inclined to render the very same verdict on this philosophy they rendered in 2018 and 2020. If Republicans blow the prospect of historic victories in November, they’ll have no one to blame but themselves.