Last week’s midterm debacle has renewed calls in certain quarters to dump former President Donald Trump, blaming him entirely for the Republican’s poor performance, and to elevate Governor Ron DeSantis after his domination in Florida. We should be wary of both. Many promoting this have vehemently opposed the former President since his candidacy while the Florida governor has yet to earn a single vote outside his state.
If the establishment can agree on one thing after the Republican’s disappointing performance last week: Donald Trump is to blame. The results weren’t even in yet in many cases, but that didn’t prevent the usual suspects from declaring the former President the big loser of the night and proclaiming him persona non grata in the Republican party moving forward. John Hinderaker took to Power Line blog to declare, “A consensus is emerging among Republicans that it is time for Donald Trump to get off the stage and stop damaging his party and his country.” In his opinion, “Trump is toast. He has a few fanatical followers, most of whom were never reliable Republicans or even consistent voters. They can go down with his ship if they want to. But the rest of us need to look ahead and begin the process of choosing a vastly better candidate in 2024. That will be a low bar.” Mr. Hinderaker cited infamous Never Trumper John Podhoretz, who was given a flashy spread in The New York Post to rail against a man he’s railed against for seven years. “Toxic Trump is the political equivalent of a can of Raid…Tuesday night’s results suggest…that Trump is perhaps the most profound vote repellent in modern American history.” Chief among his data points, “Liberal fundraisers actually put money behind Trump-endorsed candidates in GOP primaries all over the place to help them prevail so that Democrats could face them in the general election. It was transparently cynical and an abuse of our political process. But it worked like gangbusters. As Kevin Robillard of the Huffington Post noted on Wednesday afternoon, when a Michigan Democrat named Hilary Scholten was finally declared the winner of her House seat against a raving lunatic named John Gibbs: ‘With this race call, every single Republican who won their primary with help from Democratic meddling has lost in the general election.’”
Technically, this is true, but as with everything else related to a man with a long history of driving certain people completely insane, it’s almost entirely irrelevant: Mr. Podhoretz is referring to a grand total of six candidates who lost their races after Democrats provided funding following President Trump’s endorsement. According to Fox News, “Those races include a number of key House and gubernatorial races, as well as the New Hampshire Senate race.” What they do not tell you: The Senate seat was a race against a reasonably popular incumbent Democrat with a 47% personal favorability rating in a state that tilts slightly to the left. In other words, it is not remotely clear whether an alternative candidate would have prevailed, or even conceivably done worse. The same was true of the governor’s race in Illinois, where President Trump backed Darren Bailey for governor against the incumbent, J. B. Pritzker. The Land of Lincoln is even more blue than New Hampshire and whether any Republican could have won is anyone’s guess. Technically, Maryland was an open governor’s seat previously held by a nominal Republican, Larry Hogan. Trump backed Dan Cox in his loss to Wes Moore, but the Free State isn’t exactly Republican friendly territory either. In the House, President Trump backed Bob Burns, who lost to another incumbent, Annie Kuster. Defeating incumbents, of course, is not easy by any means; by some stats, almost 90% of incumbents win. Perhaps the only race where Trump can be directly credited with the loss is in Michigan, where he helped defeat a Republican House Member in the primary, Peter Meijer, who happened to be notoriously anti-Trump and voted for the former President’s impeachment. Trump endorsed John Gibbs instead, who went on to lose to Hillary Scholten. Conceivably, Representative Meijer could’ve won, but otherwise these races were always going to be challenging. Of course, we should consider how much money the Democrats spent to make this happen: More than $40 million. Perhaps if the Republicans had been so aggressive in branding their opponents early, the result would have been different.
Despite these protestations, President Trump won 219 out of 235 of his endorsed races, not exactly a terrible record. It is certainly fair to debate whether his impact was positive or negative on certain outcomes, but the idea that Trump and Trump alone is to blame because of these six losses is absurd. If the election truly were the wave that pundits predicted, we would not be obsessing over a mere handful. Sadly, this does not prevent Mr. Podhoretz from concluding that there have now been “three straight national tallies in which either he or his party or both were hammered by the national electorate.” Therefore, the aura of Trump is such that voters who “would ordinarily have flocked to the GOP…said, ‘Oh, man, what is that stink?’” This is also highly misleading. According to The Cook Political Report, the Republicans captured 51.7% of the national vote, earning some 52 million out of almost 100 million cast, suggesting that Americans did not turn away from Republicans en masse. The problem is that they failed to turn out the right vote in the right states and the right districts. President Trump’s record in the two previous races is not exactly as advertised either. In 2018, the Republicans lost 41 seats in the House, but gained two in the Senate. A 50-50 Senate is only a possibility now because of those gains. In 2020, President Trump lost in what was described as a “revolution in how people vote,” but his presence on the ticket was essential to flipping 14 House seats, a highly unusual result. Those House seats on his coattails are the only reason why Republicans are likely to regain control of the chamber.
Putting this another way, the record is far more mixed than Mr. Podhoretz would have you believe, and there is a clear argument to be made that we wouldn’t be talking about controlling the House were it not for President Trump. It’s equally telling that Mr. Podhoretz assigns no blame whatsoever to the Republican leadership either at the federal or state level. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell took the unusual step of criticizing our own candidates, as did many Never Trumpers, a circular firing squad if ever there was one. There are reports out of Pennsylvania, for example, indicating that the state Republican Party actively opposed Mr. Mastriano, thwarting his bid before it got off the ground. There are, of course, questions about how the national Republican Party allocated funds and got out the vote given the Republican’s share of the national electorate. Party leadership insisted both the House and Senate were relatively easy wins, blithely unaware of what was actually happening on the ground. A clear eyed party should question whether Trump’s impact is a positive or a negative and respond accordingly, but anyone that does so without also questioning the actions of the party as a whole, especially a person that has opposed Trump vociferously for over seven years now, seems to have an obvious ax to grind. The truth is: Mr. Podhoretz and his Never Trump comrades have hated the former President from the moment he came down the escalator in 2015. They have collectively written hundreds if not thousands of articles claiming Trump was finished, over everything from jabs at the late Senator John McCain to the supposed insurrection of January 6th. We have no reason to believe them now.
Likewise, many in the Republican Party who loathe Donald Trump have been promoting Florida Governor Ron DeSantis for the past two years. After his triumph on Tuesday night, crushing his opponent by almost 20 points and helping to turn Miami-Dade county red for the first time in recent memory, Governor DeSantis is perhaps the only clear winner of what was essentially a split election. He deserves congratulations and plaudits for this feat, especially considering Florida was a swing state as recently as 2016. We should, however, exercise caution before coronating him the new head of the Republican Party. The New York Post, for example, is simultaneously touting Governor DeSantis while trashing former President Trump, running the headline “DeFUTURE” last Wednesday, immediately after the election. Fox News’ Liz Peek claimed the governor was “the new leader of the Republican Party” and that we are at the beginning of a “new era.” The Wall Street Journal also chimed in, prompting CNN to opine, “Rupert Murdoch, the media mogul who controls some of the most powerful organs in conservative media, appeared to make clear Wednesday that he would prefer to cast aside former President Donald Trump in favor of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as the leader of the Republican party.” This is altogether premature for a man who has not yet faced a single voter outside his state. Governor DeSantis would not be the first state official who earned a decisive victory for a second term, only to crash and burn for whatever reason. Once upon a time, Chris Christie won election in blue New Jersey by about the same margin in 2013, and was considered a top tier candidate for President. Pugnacious, not afraid to fight the powers that be, and effective in his home state, he had many of the same qualities as Governor DeSantis, but never recovered from the “Bridgegate” scandal and could never translate his regional appeal to national politics. This should not be a surprise: Historically speaking, most of the people who are considered potential Presidents do not actually become them. There are countless examples, far too many to name here.
I do not say this because I am not a fan of Governor DeSantis. I am and I understand why many feel he is the future of the Republican Party. I hope that one day he will rise to that level, but there is a long road between being a popular governor and a winning presidential candidate. This road is not nearly as straight as the simplistic thinking on display recently. The belief seems to be that Governor DeSantis can secure the votes of both Trump supporters and some of those that tilt slightly right yet loathe the former President, but one of the lessons of 2022 that few are mentioning is that political coalitions are not transferable. Dr. Oz, for example, was unable to secure the same blue collar votes as President Trump, even though President Trump supported him. We cannot assume that a potential DeSantis candidacy would be guaranteed Trump’s support, nor can we assume that DeSantis can build upon the coalition without alienating voters on either side. Hypothetical votes, while fine in theory and certainly a necessary part of a viable political strategy, are not real votes. President Trump earned the votes of over 74 million Americans. Ron DeSantis has earned the vote of 4.6 million Floridians. There is a huge difference between the two. There is also something to be said for the nature of Governor DeSantis’ accomplishments. In one sense, he has been a bold governor, a fierce advocate of freedom, and a cultural warrior on behalf of conservative issues. This is undoubtedly true, but there is also an argument that he is simply a canny politician with a knack for picking issues where the conventional wisdom as propagated by the mainstream media is fundamentally flawed. For example, Governor DeSantis gets well deserved credit for refusing to enact strict lockdowns and forging his own, much less stringent path during the pandemic. He did so against fierce criticism from public health experts, but how difficult is it to imagine the people would be on his side in a state that nets some $47 billion from tourism and welcomes over 100 million visitors on an annual basis? Likewise, he suffered withering criticism for the falsely named “Don’t Say Gay” bill, but again how hard was it to guess that most parents, whether liberal or conservative, don’t want schools putting on drag shows for five year olds or that they would resent a huge corporate like Disney meddling in their affairs?
I am not saying these were easy battles or a less courageous politician would have fought them, but they are also battles that favor an adroit politician with an insight into the electorate, especially in a state that tilts slightly right. The battles Governor DeSantis will have to fight in Washington, DC are not nearly the same. You cannot compare President Trump’s role in overturning Roe v. Wade to anything in Florida, but you should assume that Governor DeSantis would come under the same withering criticism, and perhaps become almost as polarizing if he attempted anything on that scale. Putting this another way, does anyone reasonably believe a potential President DeSantis campaigning to ban abortion after 15 weeks, shut down the border and increase deportations while completely restructuring the FBI would be met with support in establishment circles? Of course not, taking a sledgehammer to the establishment cannot be done without retaliation. You cannot overturn the shaky bipartisan consensus that had emerged on the border and amnesty, international relations and forever wars, government regulation and taxation, remake the entire judicial branch of government, and more as President Trump has done without suffering serious blowback. Ultimately, conservative Never Trumpers have always based their opposition to their nemesis on an inherent irony: No one reasonably believes a hypothetical Jeb Bush presidency would have accomplished anything close. President Trump has done more for the causes they claim to believe in than anyone since Ronald Reagan, if not Calvin Coolidge a century ago (more on that in another post later this week), and yet they have hated him the entire time. This time is no different, and whatever they say: It will be the voters who ultimately decide. We should coronate neither man at this point. The primary is a process, and if they both choose to run the people will have their chance to assess their strengths and weaknesses, delivering their own verdict on who is best for the future of the party. Contrary to their claims, neither Mr. Hinderaker, nor Mr. Podhoretz, nor Mr. Murdoch, nor any other Never Trumper speaks for the Republican Party. The voters speak for themselves.