The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A red wave of criticism crashes into Donald Trump after midterm losses

The former president has faced and survived Republican blowback before. Is this time different?

Former president Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Latrobe, Pa., on Nov. 5. (Shuran Huang for The Washington Post)

As Republicans grapple with their lackluster performance in Tuesday’s midterm elections, one man has begun to take on an unusual amount of criticism from his fellow partisans: Donald Trump.

The former president, who boosted some inexperienced Senate candidates in their primaries who underperformed on Tuesday, declared before the midterms that he wanted “all the credit” if Republicans won. “If they lose, I should not be blamed at all,” he told NewsNation.

But now that Republicans are facing the prospect of being in the minority in the Senate and are still waiting to see whether they will officially nab an uncomfortably narrow majority in the House, some unexpected voices within the party are beginning to question Trump’s influence.

Candidates endorsed by former president Donald Trump did not fare well in the midterms. Here’s what that could mean for his expected 2024 presidential campaign. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

Virginia Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears, a Republican who strongly supported Trump, said the poor performance of some of his endorsed candidates is a sign he should step aside.

“It turns out that those he did not endorse on the same ticket did better than the ones he did endorse,” she said. “That gives you a clue that the voters want to move on. And a true leader knows when they have become a liability to the mission.”

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) — who cruised to victory as the Trump-endorsed Senate candidate Don Bolduc lost by a large margin — told SiriusXM on Friday that Trump could “muck up” the opportunity for GOP Georgia Senate candidate Herschel Walker to win if he announces his run before a December runoff in the state.

“What the former president doesn’t understand is if he announces … he’s not going to keep anyone else out of the race,” Sununu said, calling it an “awkward” thing to do. “I don’t think they’ve started out very well.”

The volume of open criticism illustrates a rare moment of weakness for Trump among Republicans just as he prepares to announce his 2024 presidential bid next week. Exit polls showed his favorability as even lower than President Biden’s on Tuesday, and polls of Republican voters suggest he is losing ground to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) in hypothetical presidential matchups.

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But Republicans who have long been critical of Trump are wary of getting their hopes up that the party’s newfound critiques mean they are ready to move on this time. An outpouring of criticism for Trump following the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape in 2016 and following the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol last year was quickly followed by backtracking as Republican base voters rallied around Trump.

“We’ve heard this song before,” said Doug Heye, a former spokesman for the Republican National Committee who has long been critical of Trump. “The question is: Will this time be different?”

This time around, the criticism comes as Trump is attempting to restart his political career and faces potential challenges from Republicans who lack his baggage. The fact that many candidates who emulated his style, such as defeated Michigan gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon, fared the worst on Tuesday also underscores Trump’s own loss in 2020. His expectation that GOP candidates endorse his false claim that the 2020 election was stolen kept them mired in a backward-looking and conspiratorial message that turned off many voters.

Tellingly, some of the criticism of Trump has also come from the few Republican success stories of the midterms so far. Mike Lawler, a Republican state assemblyman who nabbed a seat from Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), the chair of the House Democrats’ campaign arm, said the party needed to move beyond Trump.

“I think moving in a different direction as we move forward is a good thing, not a bad thing,” he said in an interview on CNN this week. “But ultimately, look, the voters will decide what they want to do, and the former president will decide what he wants to do.”

Trump recently attacked two potential rivals. He mocked Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) in a statement on Friday, saying his name sounds “Chinese.” He also released a long statement going after DeSantis, who he has warned against running against him.

The debate is playing out on Fox News, which was a stronghold of Trump support during his years in office. Their commentators talked up DeSantis’s big win in Florida and pointedly questioned the former president’s influence.

“I love Trump. I want him to run. I think he’s a great candidate. I loved him as president,” Fox News host Jesse Watters said Wednesday evening. But he added: “He brings out such insanity on the left. They will walk over hot coals to vote against Donald Trump.”

Kayleigh McEnany, the former White House press secretary under Trump, warned that he should not announce his presidential run before the Senate runoff election in Georgia, and praised DeSantis as someone who could boost Walker in the state.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who handily won reelection Tuesday, chimed in on Twitter: “Let’s look to the next election. Quit talking abt 2020.”

Former congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) declined to criticize Trump’s influence on the midterms but described DeSantis as “the future of the party.”

“We have great candidates who could also run for president like Tim Scott, Marco Rubio,” she said, referring to Republican senators from South Carolina and Florida, then referring to former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley and former secretary of state Mike Pompeo. “I hope Marco runs again. And Nikki Haley and Mike Pompeo. I mean, we just have a lot of good candidates in the Republican Party, and we don’t need to look in the rearview mirror.”

Trump has continued to insist on loyalty as he prepares to announce his 2024 run for the presidency next week. His adviser Jason Miller said on a podcast Friday that Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who is running for House speaker, must be “much more declarative of supporting President Trump.”

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), who is running for a leadership spot, endorsed Trump in a Friday statement. “Republican voters determine who is the leader of the Republican Party and it’s very clear President Trump is the leader of the Republican Party,” she said.

But privately, several House Republicans have complained about Trump’s influence on some of their races, which they say contributed to what will probably be a tiny and hard-to-manage House majority if enough races are called for GOP control. Trump supported extreme House candidates, including Bo Hines in North Carolina and Karoline Leavitt in New Hampshire, whose fixation with his false 2020 election claims and other positions probably turned off general election voters.

The complaints are loudest in Pennsylvania and Michigan, both states that backed Trump in 2016 but where Republicans performed dismally on Tuesday. Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.), who is retiring and whose seat Republicans lost to Democrat John Fetterman, said Trump’s influence in the state was “toxic.”

“I’m increasingly of the view that his influence is going to wane,” Toomey said. “I suspect last night’s elections are going to accelerate that process because his influence was so unhelpful to the party and to its prospects.”

Republicans are asking why he insisted on holding a rally in Pennsylvania and teasing his own 2024 campaign announcement, putting the focus on him in the race’s final days. He also handpicked TV personality Mehmet Oz in the Senate primary and backed election denier Doug Mastriano in the governor’s race later on in the primary. Both lost.

“He interfered with the primary here when there was no reason for it,” Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.), an early Trump endorser who unsuccessfully ran for the gubernatorial nomination, told the Philadelphia Inquirer.

In Michigan, the Republican Party blamed the “Trump effect,” abortion and an unpopular gubernatorial candidate for their poor showing in the state in a memo. The party “operated within the political reality that President Trump was popular amongst our grass roots and a motivating factor for his supporters, but provided challenges on a statewide ballot, especially with independents and women in a midterm election,” wrote Paul Cordes, the state party’s chief of staff.

Paul D. Ryan, the former GOP House speaker and an occasional Trump critic, said the former president is a political headache for Republicans.

“We lost the House, the Senate and the White House in two years when Trump was on the ballot, or in office,” Ryan told a Wisconsin news outlet. “I think we just have some Trump hangover. I think he’s a drag on our office, on our races.”

Even some in the alt-right took the knives out for him this week. “Losing always sucks but at least no one has to suck up to Trump anymore. He’s going to feel the vibe shift real quick,” wrote Mike Cernovich, a far-right commentator who helped spread the baseless Pizzagate conspiracy theory against Democrats.

Trump allies are attempting to deflect the blame on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for the poor showing, while Trump has released a flurry of statements falsely claiming fraud in the midterm elections and saying he will easily win another Republican primary.

He pointed out that many Republicans opposed him in 2016, when he knocked out his opponents one by one before winning the nomination. ″We’re in exactly the same position now. They will keep coming after us, MAGA, but ultimately, we will win,” he wrote.

Theodoric Meyer contributed to this repor

The 2022 Midterm Elections

Georgia runoff election: A runoff between Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) and Republican challenger Herschel Walker on Dec. 6 will cap a turbulent election year. Here’s how the runoff will work and a look at Warnock and Walker’s paths to victory.

Divided government: Republicans narrowly won back control of the House, while Democrats will keep control of the Senate, creating a split Congress.

What the results mean for 2024: A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign on Tuesday, experts helped us game out what would happen if he wins again.

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