December 5, 2023

Relocations: Trump is still in control of his party

Donald Trump speaking to supporters at a 2016 campaign rally in Phoenix, Arizona. Gage Skidmore photo
December 8, 2022

He may be a liability, but even Republican losses demonstrated his influence over the rank-and-file

“The report of my death was an exaggeration.”

— Mark Twain

By Herbert Rothschild

To cite the midterm election results as evidence of the end of Trump’s control of the Republican Party is akin to looking at one of those trick drawings that show two different images depending on what portions you choose to foreground and refusing to allow one’s eyes to refocus. Trump keeps telling people to look at the entire picture, not just the races his endorsed candidates lost. Too many of us won’t.

Herbert Rothschild

Consider the 10 Republican House members who voted to impeach Trump after the January 6 insurrection. Three chose not to run for re-election because they knew they would lose to Trump-backed challengers in their primaries. Five ran and lost. Liz Cheney, the most visible of those five, lost by a margin of 2 to 1. David Valadao, one of the only two who survived, won because he had two MAGA challengers, plus Kevin McCarthy persuaded Trump not to campaign for either of them because only Valadao could win the general election in a district that trended Democratic.

Seven Republican senators voted to impeach Trump after January 6. Of those, four weren’t up for re-election this year. Nebraska’s Ben Sasse decided to resign his seat anyway out of frustration with the current Republican Party. Two of the three up for re-election, Richard Burr of North Carolina and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, chose not to run again. That left Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski. Because of Alaska’s open primary and ranked voting system, her contest with Trump’s hand-picked challenger was only decided in the runoff to the general election. She bested Kelly Tshibaka, who had never held elective office, 53.7% to 46.3%.

Despite this demonstration of Trump’s continuing power within the Republican Party, the mainstream media highlighted primary wins by Brian Kemp, Georgia’s governor, and Brad Raffensperger, its secretary of state, as evidence to the contrary. Trump had targeted them because they had resisted his illegal demand to change Georgia’s vote count in his favor. The losses in Georgia must have stung Trump, but as he boasted on social media right after the primaries, “A very big and successful evening of political Endorsements. Overall for the ‘Cycle,’ 100 Wins, 6 Losses (some of which were not possible to win), and 2 runoffs.” I’m not sure what races he was counting, but his tally couldn’t have been far off.

In his count were victories in Republican primaries that determined who would challenge a Democratic opponent or contend for an open seat. Trumpean candidates often prevailed over more obviously qualified opponents. Thus, in New Hampshire Donald Bolduc, a retired Army general who had never held elective office, beat state Senate President Chuck Morse. Bolduc espoused the Big Lie and vaccine conspiracy theories, and called incumbent Republican Governor Chris Sununu, who backed Morse, “a Chinese Communist sympathizer.” Trump called Bolduc a “strong guy, tough guy.”

Bolduc lost in the general election to incumbent Democrat Maggie Hassan, whom party strategists had considered vulnerable. That was the case in all the other U.S. Senate seats that Republicans hoped to flip — Arizona, Colorado, Georgia and Nevada — and in Pennsylvania, which they hoped to hold after Toomey’s retirement. Party pros like Mitch McConnell had expressed concern that the primaries hadn’t produced the candidates most likely to win independent voters, and the results largely justified their concern. Coupled with fewer than anticipated wins for House seats, the Republican failure to regain the Senate confirmed their view that Trump has become a liability for party leaders who prize power above all else.

That may well be true. But to conclude that Trump’s grip on the party has loosened is wishful thinking. The first thing to note is the other races on the scorecard. More Republican seats (20) were up than Democratic (13), and six of them (5 R, 1 D) were open because of retirements. The Republicans held all their seats except Pennsylvania. In open North Carolina and Ohio, Trump-supported primary winners won in races that Democrats had a good chance to take and so went all in on. They hoped to flip Wisconsin as well, where incumbent Ron Johnson is almost as appalling as Trump himself, but Johnson edged out Lt. Governor Mandela Barnes, a highly qualified and attractive candidate.

The second thing to note is that what many commentators cited as evidence of Trump’s eroding control — the Republican losses in Arizona (governor and senator), Georgia, Nevada and Pennsylvania — actually demonstrated his clout. Those races were cliffhangers, which meant that Republican voters turned out in high numbers and overwhelmingly supported the Republican challengers despite the glaring weaknesses of all of them except Paul Laxalt in Nevada.

Herschel Walker in Georgia best illustrates this point. The man was totally unqualified for public office by experience, intellect and character, and during the campaign there was one damning revelation and gaffe after another. Yet, in the runoff Tuesday he received more than 48% of the vote. The only explanation is that he ran as a MAGA Republican. Rural white Southerners voted for a black man because Trump endorsed him.

Yes, the Republicans should have done much better in this election. Historically, the party in control of the White House loses more Congressional seats in the mid-term than the Democrats did this time despite high inflation and Biden’s low approval ratings. Party professionals may be right to attribute the disappointing results to Trump’s baleful influence and to call for a rebranding of the party. But rank-and-file Republicans will have none of that.

Tom Scocca, the editor-in-chief of Popula, a journalist-owned, journalist-run news publication, nailed it in a guest piece in The New York Times on Nov. 14: “The combination of resentment, rule-bending, and shamelessness that gave rise to Mr. Trump’s presidency is still the reigning attitude of the party — a necessary attitude for a minority party bent on dominating the majority, rather than forming a majority of its own.”

If Trump isn’t in jail in 2024, he’ll be the Republican nominee for president.

Herbert Rothschild is an unpaid board member. Opinions expressed in columns represent the author’s views and may or may not reflect those of Email Rothschild at

Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Email him at

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