Former President Donald Trump has steered the Republican Party’s ship for six years, but now prominent players are ready to throw him overboard.
Their complaint: He ran the party aground instead of steering it atop a red wave in the midterm elections when Republicans should have capitalized on President Biden’s unpopularity to make huge gains in Congress.
Mr. Trump’s hand-picked candidates fared disastrously in key races. Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania ceded a Republican-held Senate seat to a Democrat, and a pro-Trump candidate in Michigan lost on Tuesday after his primary win over a congressman who voted for impeachment.
“I think Donald Trump gives us problems politically,” former House Speaker Paul Ryan told WISN radio in Milwaukee. “I think we just have some Trump hangover. I think he’s a drag on our offices and our races.”
Others were far blunter.
Virginia Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears, who led a group in 2020 called Black Americans to Re-elect the President, said it is time for the Republican Party to move on from Mr. Trump. She said the election results this week made it clear that voters “want a different leader.”
SEE ALSO: Trump refuses to take heat for Mehmet Oz’s loss in Pennsylvania Senate race
“And a true leader understands when they have become a liability,” she said on Fox News. “A true leader understands that it is time to step off the stage, and the voters have given us that very clear message. The voters are saying enough is enough.”
Gregg Nunziata, a former aide to Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, said Mr. Trump “picked sure losers in winnable races.”
“He picked weak candidates in otherwise slam dunk races requiring the party to spend tons of money we’d rather spend elsewhere,” Mr. Nunziata tweeted. “Speaking of money, he hoovered up tens of millions and barely spent a dime to help Rs.”
It’s more complicated for Republicans who remain in Mr. Trump’s orbit and are working to promulgate his “America First” agenda again. Some of them are waiting to see what happens.
“There is a bunch of people who have decided they are not riding the train again, but generally speaking, I think the crew is pointed in the same direction as before the election,” said Mike McKenna, a Washington Times columnist and former deputy assistant to Mr. Trump in the White House office of legislative affairs. “They are not at all deterred by what they saw.”
At the same time, he said, “I don’t know how you look at those election results and say everything is fine, just keep moving. There [are] a fair amount of former Trump folks who are ready to pull the rip cord, but they are just not ready to do it in public yet.”
Kayleigh McEnany, a press secretary in the Trump White House, raised eyebrows by saying on Fox News that Mr. Trump should delay his planned announcement Tuesday of a presidential campaign until after the Dec. 6 runoff for a Senate seat in Georgia.
She also said it would make more sense for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, instead of Mr. Trump, to campaign for Republican nominee Herschel Walker.
Mr. Trump’s grip on the Republican Party has been ironclad since he shocked the political world with his “Make America Great Again” movement and an upset victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016. He appointed three conservative Supreme Court justices and continued to draw boisterous crowds at rallies. He outperformed the polls in 2020, leading to messy post-election challenges of presidential election results and the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.
Since leaving office, Mr. Trump has played the role of kingmaker from his perch at Mar-a-Lago. As the fulcrum of the party, he has impacted races across the country.
Yet Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republican leaders have warned for months about inferior Trump-backed candidates falling short in races that the party should have been able to win.
“We’ve really never seen anything like this before,” said Colin Reed, a Republican Party strategist who served as a gubernatorial spokesman for Chris Christie in New Jersey. “It’s indisputable he’s a draw when he’s on the ballot. He’s had less success when his name isn’t on the ballot. The difference here is President Trump is allowing himself to be judged because he’s getting involved. He got involved in these primaries, and many of them couldn’t get across the finish line. This is a problem of his own making.”
The Georgia runoff could determine whether top Republicans keep Mr. Trump in good graces or leave him behind. Mr. Trump’s grievances over his 2020 defeat were blamed for twin Republican losses in Georgia in January 2021 that handed the Senate to the Democrats.
If Republicans win a Senate seat in Nevada or Arizona, Mr. Walker’s bid against Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock will be pivotal. A Walker victory would allow Mr. Trump to claim some credit for the Republican takeover of the Senate because he backed the Georgia football legend.
For now, the reviews are withering.
Former Rep. Peter King, New York Republican, said it’s time to tell Mr. Trump, “You’re fired.”
“That’s the message Republicans must deliver to Donald Trump. ASAP! What should have been a Red Wave election for Republicans this year instead saw the GOP barely take back the House and stumble into another 50-50 stalemate in the Senate,” he tweeted. “The proximate cause of this failure was Donald Trump. He held massive rallies where he ranted endlessly about himself, complained about the 2020 election and attacked other Republicans. It was Trump’s ego first, last and always.”
Hogan Gidley, a top spokesman for the Trump White House and for the 2020 Trump campaign, said people shouldn’t be too quick to pin the Republican wins and losses on Mr. Trump because every race is different and impacted by a variety of issues.
“I think people always try to ascribe wins and losses to silver bullets, one issue and one factor. That’s not always the case,” said Mr. Gidley, vice chairman at the Center for Election Integrity at the America First Policy Institute, a nonprofit that perpetuates Mr. Trump’s agenda. “The quarterback gets all the blame and all the praise for every win and loss when that’s just not reality.”
He pointed to Pennsylvania, a state with hundreds of thousands more registered Democrats than Republicans. Mr. Trump is taking heat for backing Mr. Oz over David McCormick in the primary, only for the celebrity doctor to lose to John Fetterman in a key pickup for Democrats in their battle to maintain control of the Senate.
“It’s not like it’s this big right-wing state, so some of the issues [Republican candidates] face are going to be different than in a state like Florida, like Michigan, like Ohio,” said Mr. Gidley, referring to places where Republicans have made inroads in recent years.
Still, retiring Sen. Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania said he was “very disappointed” to have his seat go to a Democrat.
“I don’t think there’s a discrete moment where the party breaks with Trump in one fell swoop,” Mr. Toomey told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “I think Donald Trump’s influence gradually but steadily declines, and I think it accelerates after the debacle that he’s responsible for to some degree.”
Mr. Gidley said he wouldn’t try to tell Mr. Trump when to launch a presidential bid, nor would he handicap whether Mr. DeSantis will run. Yet he said the Florida governor is clearly popular and managed to peel off support in traditionally Democrat-leaning Miami-Dade County.
“I think Donald Trump still is the leader of the party, and you have a lot of people out there at conservative gatherings and straw polls, he still walks away with the win,” Mr. Gidley said. “When your party is out of power, there is always the constant drumbeat of who is the leader of the party because that’s part of not having the White House. But right now, it’s pretty clear Donald Trump still carries a whole lot of weight in the direction of where the party is going to go.”
He pointed to Rep. Elaine Luria, a Virginia Democrat who served on the House select committee on Jan. 6 and lost her race. He said many candidates who embraced “America First” policies fared well.
“I think everyone is looking for one thing to point to, and that’s a complete misread,” Mr. Gidley said. “There were some major achievements here. Nancy Pelosi is not the speaker of the House now.”
Mr. Trump said he “did a great job” in the midterms and is “very busy looking into the future.”
“While in certain ways, [Tuesday’s] election was somewhat disappointing, from my personal standpoint it was a very big victory – 219 WINS and 16 Losses in the General,” he said on his social media platform, Truth Social. “Who has ever done better than that?”
Many of his wins, however, were in heavily Republican places where the outcomes were not in doubt.
One glaring issue for Mr. Trump is the undeniable star power of Mr. DeSantis.
Some Trump allies, including Sebastian Gorka, are pushing the idea that Mr. DeSantis is the darling of Republicans who never liked Mr. Trump, including MSNBC host Joe Scarborough and “every Bushie.”
Longtime Republican Party strategist Steve Schmidt, a co-founder of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project, said Mr. DeSantis “has taken MAGA from Trump” and “all that is left for Trump is the looming indictment.” He was referring to an investigation into sensitive government documents found at Mar-a-Lago.
Mr. DeSantis defeated Charlie Crist, a former congressman and governor, by nearly 20 percentage points, sealing his prominence within the party and his status as the man waiting in the wings if Mr. Trump exits the stage.
Republican Party operatives said Mr. DeSantis faces a couple of challenges, including managing his day job and figuring out the best time to make a move if he is serious about a 2024 campaign for the White House.
“He still has to make sure he’s taking [care of] business at home. He’s the governor of one of the country’s largest states with a sprawling, diverse population,” Mr. Reed said. “History is littered with candidates who had second gubernatorial terms that tripped them up. It’s a lot of time between now and the primaries for his critics and people who don’t wish him well to make mischief. He’s sitting in the catbird seat right now. His challenge is not getting knocked out of it.”