washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Assessing Trump’s Midterm Culpability

I didn’t really trust either Trump or his Republican critics to give a fair accounting of his responsibility for Republican underachievement in the midterm elections, so I conducted a review of my own at New York:

A lot of Republicans are really mad at Donald Trump. They are unhappy that the big red midterm election wave they had been promised did not materialize, and a lot of the blame is being directed at him.

Some of this angst probably amounts to opportunistic potshots from Republicans who were looking for an excuse to undermine Trump’s position in the party and/or preferred other leaders (notably Florida governor Ron DeSantis, in whose state Republicans actually overperformed high expectations).

But some of the caviling is sincere. Instead of staying out of the news and letting voters forget he was the leader of the party that was hustling them to either vote Republican or stay home, Trump did two things that affected the elections. First, he pursued an extensive candidate-endorsement strategy in the primaries and in the general election that had a big impact on who represented the GOP in November and how they were perceived. Second, he constantly fanned the flames of grievances over the 2020 election in ways that encouraged candidates to become election-denying extremists, which was another distraction from the desired party message.

Trump’s endorsements are the main object of postelection finger-pointing. But some were clearly more important than others. Indeed, the majority of the ex-president’s 495 endorsements this cycle were for House GOP incumbents who were in no danger of losing; partly this was intended to pad his winning percentage but also to show he appreciated Republicans who didn’t cause him any trouble even if they weren’t shrieking MAGA bravos.

There were some House candidates closely identified with Trump who won contested primaries and subsequently lost winnable races or may lose when all the votes are in. These include Ohio’s J.R. Majewski, the man who “first caught the eye of then-President Donald Trump after going viral for painting his lawn into a massive ‘Trump 2020’ banner,” as the Toledo Blade explained; New Hampshire’s Karoline Leavitt, Trump’s former assistant press secretary; Washington State’s and Joe Kent, who with Trump’s backing purged pro-impeachment Republican incumbent Jaime Herrera Beutler and is now trailing Democrat Marie Gluesenkamp Pérez as results slowly come in. Perhaps the most conspicuous Trump misstep was his backing of Sarah Palin in a special election in Alaska, which she promptly lost to Mary Peltola, the first Democrat to represent the state in the U.S. House since 1973. Now Palin is trailing Peltola in the race for a full House term. Of course, she’s weighed down by baggage that predates Trump’s political career by a good while.

The newsiest Trump misfires involve U.S. Senate candidates who have apparently failed to flip that chamber. Let’s look at a few and assess Trump’s culpability.

Dr. Oz: A star born of Oprah, but a pol born of Trump.

While Mehmet Oz built the celebrity that he traded on in entering Pennsylvania politics from a TV career originally sponsored by Oprah Winfrey, there’s no question Oz’s surprise endorsement by Trump lifted him to the U.S. Senate nomination over his wealthy rival David McCormick, who unlike Oz was actually from Pennsylvania (though he left to make his fortune in Manhattan). He beat McCormick by an eyelash, and despite his anodyne political background, he ran a relatively MAGA-ish general-election campaign, ranging from his demagogic attacks on an allegedly pro-crime, pro-open-borders John Fetterman to his Trump-like cruelty in mocking his opponent’s struggle to overcome the effects of a mid-campaign stroke.

When Trump endorsed Oz, he said, “Women, in particular, are drawn to Dr. Oz for his advice and counsel. I have seen this many times over the years. They know him, believe in him, and trust him.” According to the exit polls, Fetterman trounced Oz among women by a 57-to-41 margin.

Trump fully owns this loser.

Herschel Walker: Trump’s friend and stooge but also a ruined hero.

To be clear, Herschel Walker may well be the junior U.S. senator from Georgia in January; he faces Democrat Raphael Warnock in a December 6 runoff after finishing (at this count) less than a point behind the incumbent. But since Walker ran nearly 5 points behind his ticket mate, Republican governor Brian Kemp, and failed to win the majority that every other statewide GOP nominee got in Georgia, he has clearly been a suboptimal candidate in a crucial contest.

Trump’s culpability here is real but not complete. He has been Walker’s patron for much of the brilliant ex-athlete’s adult life, signing him to his first professional-football contract in the early 1980s and later making him a compelling figure on Celebrity Apprentice. And Trump clearly talked him into leaving his Texas home to return to Georgia and run for the Senate; the ex-president announced Walker’s candidacy before the candidate did.

But in urging Walker upon Georgia Republicans, Trump was clearly pushing on an open door. Practically from the moment of Warnock’s election, Peach State Republicans began yearning for Walker as a unifying candidate in a party that might otherwise be torn apart in a divisive Senate primary. And when the state’s agriculture commissioner, Gary Black, ran against Walker and warned that the Heisman Trophy winner would soon be damaged goods after his background of questionable behavior toward women came out, most Republicans (including Mitch McConnell) dismissed these concerns and backed Walker to the hilt.

While Trump remains responsible for his friend and stooge’s candidacy, he probably didn’t know about the full extent of Walker’s baggage, particularly the allegations that, in the not-distant past, he repeatedly impregnated women outside of wedlock and on occasion urged (and even financed) their abortions. So the ex-president is only partially to blame if Walker fumbles this winnable Senate election.

Adam Laxalt: The golden boy adopted by Trump.

Adam Laxalt, the Republican U.S. Senate nominee in Nevada, lost to Democratic incumbent Catherine Cortez Masto. Some blame will be directed toward Trump since Laxalt has been a staunch MAGA supporter who actually ran the former president’s narrowly unsuccessful 2020 campaign in the state.

He was hardly unknown before Trump hit the scene, though. He’s the grandson of former Nevada governor and U.S. senator Paul Laxalt and the product of an affair between Laxalt’s daughter and Pete Domenici, the longtime Republican U.S. senator from New Mexico. He was elected attorney general of Nevada in 2014 before losing a gubernatorial bid in 2018. Trump is only partially responsible for Laxalt’s loss, like a stepdad dealing with a stepson’s misadventures.

Blake Masters: A child in joint custody.

Arizona’s Blake Masters lost his challenge to Democratic incumbent U.S. senator Mark Kelly. He ran several points behind the even Trumpier gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake. But while Lake has preternatural political talents that have led some to consider her a possible successor to Trump as MAGA chieftain, Masters is a strange dude who entered politics as a protégé and employee of rogue Silicon Valley mogul and proto-authoritarian Peter Thiel. Like his fellow Trump-Thiel joint-custody child J.D. Vance of Ohio, Masters received a crucially timed Trump endorsement during the primary season that elevated him over a crowded field of rivals who were battling for the MAGA vote.

Give Trump at least half the blame for Masters’ loss, which is probably as good an assessment as you will get of his overall responsibility for the Republican disappointments of 2022.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.