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Why the 2022 election was such a disaster for Trump

Former president Donald Trump waves to guests during an election night party at his resort in Palm Beach, Fla. (Phelan M. Ebenhack for The Washington Post))

Former president Donald Trump has made no secret in recent days that, even as Republicans were aiming for takeovers of both the House and Senate, he was utterly preoccupied with his own political fate.

While ostensibly campaigning for fellow Republicans, he has repeatedly prioritized teasing his own potentially imminent presidential campaign and sought to begin the intraparty maneuvering that comes with that — most notably by going after his erstwhile ally Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).

He could scarcely have picked a worse time. Election Day 2022 is looking like a growing disaster for Trump. The question is whether anyone in the party summons the courage it has lacked to actually call that out and course-correct.

We’ll never know for sure — and the results are still coming in — but it’s quite possible that Trump cost the GOP the Senate majority, two elections in a row.

Live maps: Where midterm votes are still being counted

As in recent days, Trump was focused two years ago on himself during the runoffs in Georgia — specifically, with a far-flung attempt to overturn his election loss. While he perhaps views those baseless claims as legitimate, even Trump himself acknowledged last year that Georgia Republicans didn’t want to vote because they didn’t trust the process.

Today, consider his favored candidates, who had won primaries in each of the four key Senate toss-ups: At least three of the four carried notable image problems into the general election, in potentially decisive ways.

One of the them lost what had appeared to be a very winnable race Tuesday: Pennsylvania’s Mehmet Oz, who probably would have lost his narrow primary without Trump’s help. Now the GOP depends on both Blake Masters in Arizona and Herschel Walker in Georgia — both candidates who brought significant baggage, in different ways.

Pennsylvania Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman declared victory over his Republican opponent Mehmet Oz on Nov. 9. (Video: The Washington Post)

Current data suggests Democrats are slight favorites in the outstanding races in Arizona and Nevada, where heavy mail voting leads to a slow count. Georgia, meanwhile, appears headed for another runoff, on Dec. 6, according to Gabriel Sterling of the Georgia secretary of state’s office.

If Democrats can win both Arizona and Nevada, they wouldn’t even need Georgia for the majority. If they win one of them and Georgia goes to a runoff, the majority would come down to the prolonged and highly flawed candidacy of Walker, who has faced a series of ugly allegations about his family life even beyond the women who say the antiabortion hard-liner urged them to abort their pregnancies with him.

Tracking results where abortion access hangs in the balance

On top of these unpopular Senate candidates, other results Tuesday tell a similar tale. To wit:

  • Trump endorsed extreme Republican governor candidates Tudor Dixon in Michigan and Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania. Both helped cost the GOP winnable swing-state governorships, with Dixon trailing by eight points early Wednesday morning and Mastriano losing by double digits — both in states the GOP should rightly have been competing for in a midterm that almost always favors the party that doesn’t hold the White House. Republican Tim Michels also lost in Wisconsin by a wider-then-anticipated four points.
  • His primary-endorsed candidates also lost winnable races against Reps. Chris Pappas (D-N.H.) and Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), as well as a pretty pure swing district in North Carolina. Kaptur’s opponent, in particular, appeared to win Trump over thanks in large part to the mere gesture of painting a Trump banner on his lawn for all to see.
  • Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), Trump loyalist and GOP provocateur, found herself in perhaps the nation’s most surprisingly competitive race. She trailed her Democratic opponent for much of the night despite coming from a district Trump won in 2020 by more than eight points that most race raters didn’t even bother to handicap. Few have embodied Trumpism like Boebert during her short tenure.
  • While Walker struggled in Georgia, two candidates Trump failed to defeat in primaries — Gov. Brian Kemp (R) and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) — won easily and racked up the biggest margins for statewide Republicans.
  • Similarly, DeSantis won a resounding victory in Florida in a way that will only further the belief that he’s a much more electable version of Trump, without all the headaches.
  • GOP secretary of state candidates who were most aligned with Trump’s stolen-election claims underperformed the other statewide Republicans who ran on the same ballots in virtually every state.

One key outstanding race on this front is Arizona governor. While many Republican candidates tempered their past stolen-election talk after winning primaries and some de-emphasized their support for Trump (for example, by disappearing mentions of him from their websites), GOP nominee Kari Lake featured both extensively in the closing days of the campaign. (She even allowed herself to be photographed vacuuming a red carpet for Trump ahead of his visit last month.) She is running ahead of Masters, but her race with Democrat Katie Hobbs appears closer than many expected.

Regardless of that outcome, Trump’s candidates in key races struggled, underperforming where they shouldn’t have. And the data we have on the election indicates independents split between the two parties — despite voting against the president’s party by double digits in each of the last four midterm elections.

Perhaps some of that was caused by the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade. But midterms are usually a referendum on the president’s party — particularly when that party controls both chambers of Congress, as Democrats do. Trump allowed it to be about him and the flawed candidates he happened to like, regardless of their electoral prospects.

Republicans gave Trump a pass after the 2020 Georgia runoffs, seemingly in part because the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol by his supporters (which transpired the next day) so abruptly shifted the focus and because they decided the impeachment process that followed demanded a united front. And they no doubt fear what Trump could do to the party if it turns on him, which will temper any true reckoning with what Trump has wrought in the 2022 election.

Tracking which 2020 election deniers are winning, losing in the midterms

But in 2020, Trump became the first president since the Great Depression to lose the House, the Senate and the presidency in a single term. And you’d think ushering the party to a potential loss of a very winnable Senate majority and a subpar midterm election might cause certain people to decide maybe this isn’t working for them.

They’ll probably just hope that it blows over — a tack they have almost always taken — and that DeSantis or someone else will come to their rescue in 2024 without forcing them to confront all of this. But they had a chance to attempt a full break with Trump in early 2021, and no doubt many of them are ruing that they didn’t force the issue then.

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