Republicans have shown they can win important elections, but only if they keep the defeated former President Donald Trump at arms’ length. But how long can they do that?
The fact is, Republicans would have a good chance of winning the White House in 2024 — if they get someone other than Trump to win the nomination.
In this last election, with Trump mostly out of sight, voters were able to focus on their frustrations with President Joe Biden, and on other issues. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, Republicans seemed to be saying. It worked, but the curtain is rustling; the man behind it is restless. He won’t stay hidden for long.
For now, and the foreseeable future, however, the party is wholly subservient to the man who started his term in office with his party in control of the presidency and both houses of Congress, and then led Republicans in a reverse trifecta, losing the White House, the House and the Senate.
Any other politician would have been summarily, if politely, discarded by his party. But Republicans did the opposite. The more Trump lost, the worse he acted; the more lies he told — the more he insulted his critics — the closer they drew to him, fearful of becoming long-term targets of his vindictiveness. By the time the 2020 election came, he had transformed the party. Most of his prominent Republican critics either left or started paying homage to him.
Not content with losing the election — very much not content — Trump became the leader of a movement that to this day denies the outcome of a clean election and continues assaulting America’s democracy. But the party is still with him.
Today’s Republican Party is beholden to a man that a majority of Americans most likely do not want to see in the White House again.
Indeed, the undisputed leader of the GOP remains one of the most consistently unpopular US presidents in memory. Consider that while Biden’s approval rating has been sliding for months now, his approval is still significantly higher than Trump’s at this stage in his presidency, according to the FiveThirtyEight average of polls. In fact, Trump never, not once, managed to gain the approval of even half of the country. He was underwater throughout his entire presidency.
That’s the man who dominates the GOP; the man who apparently wants to become president again.
To win the presidency, and even other key races, the GOP is desperately trying to find ways to make itself appealing to voters other than Trump supporters. That is because, in today’s polarized political environment, Democrats and Republicans by overwhelming majorities are likely to support their own candidates.
The winners will be the ones who can convince independents to support them.
Throughout his presidency, Trump was reviled by Democrats — and by independents. In the last Gallup poll of his presidency, just 30% of independents approved of him. His support among independents remained in the 30s during most of his four years in office.
Most Republican voters believe Trump’s Big Lie, the thoroughly debunked claim that he won in 2020. An incredible eight of every 10 Republicans have accepted that falsehood, according to CNN polling. But most Americans have not.
In an off-off-year election, it’s easier for the GOP to keep Trump off the minds of voters and make them think about education or race or about the rough going of the Biden presidency, but in a year when Americans choose a president, Trump will prove a giant obstacle.
That’s why Republicans seem determined to find a path to capture the presidency even if it means doing an end-run around the will of the American people. And so, across the country, they have been introducing voting laws that make it harder to vote and easier for Republican-controlled legislatures to manipulate elections.
A more disciplined, more self-aware Trump would learn to watch his tone. But he seems incapable of viewing politics as anything other than a measure of his ego, damn the consequences.
Indeed, Trump risked sabotaging Youngkin’s careful strategy.
When observers noted that the GOP candidate for governor was trying to thread a needle, maintaining the support of Trump Republicans while keeping the former President at a distance, to avoid offending voters who find Trump unacceptable, Trump couldn’t resist an insult-laden statement, accusing the “fake media” and “perverts” of saying he and Youngkin didn’t like each other.
If Trump had been spilling his dark thoughts on Twitter day after day — an option no longer available to him since he was banned from the platform — Youngkin’s political career might be over now.
As they celebrate this moment, Republicans should consider they may not always have the Democrats’ circular firing squad to help them at the polls. The failure of Congressional Democrats to pass even part of Biden’s key agenda items is inexcusable: It was an extraordinary gift to Republicans delivered at a moment of maximum impact.
If Democrats learn the right lessons from this experience, they have a chance of pushing forward. For Republicans, the problem is far more complicated. It seems they can win if Trump is kept barely visible. But that task may well prove beyond their reach.