The Republicans' disappointing performance in the midterm elections is also a personal defeat for Donald Trump, who had been counting on the success of the candidates he endorsed to launch his own presidential bid next Tuesday. To make matters worse, Ron DeSantis, his potential rival for 2024, also celebrated a resounding victory in Florida.
Feelings of anger and frustration swept through Mar-a-Lago's gilded halls on Wednesday. The mansion’s owner, Donald Trump, who has been living in Florida since he left the White House, spent election night reeling over the fact that the big "red wave" the Republicans had promised ahead of the midterms had not materialised.
"Trump is livid" and "screaming at everyone", an adviser told CNN reporter Jim Acosta.
Trump was furious with the results, explains Todd Landman, a professor of Political Science at the University of Nottingham, as they "indicate that having backing from Trump and using MAGA arguments no longer galvanises people the way it used to and that he is actually seen as a liability".
Although not all the results are in yet, the latest projections suggest that the Republican Party will regain control of the House of Representatives with only a slim majority. The Democrats, who the opposition had promised would suffer a stinging defeat in both houses, may well retain control of the Senate.
Conservatives feel Trump is to blame for many of the losses. Although a few prominent candidates such as writer J.D. Vance, who was elected senator in Ohio, emerged victorious, many Republican contenders – especially the "election deniers", those who believe the conspiracy theory that the 2020 presidential election was stolen – failed to win in key states.
More than 140 of the some 200 Republicans who backed Trump’s election lies won their seats. The fact that this number is so high is "symptomatic of an erosion of trust in the media, the election system, the courts and system of government. I would argue that’s where Trump is most dangerous, the challenge that he poses to the fundamentals of institutions, regardless of political leanings", says Dr. Emma Long, an associate professor in US history and politics at the University of East Anglia in England.
‘Trump is furious’
"Trump is indeed furious this morning, particularly about Mehmet Oz [the Republican Senate candidate in Pennsylvania defeated by Democrat John Fetterman] and is blaming everyone who advised him to back Oz, – including his wife," tweeted New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman.
Also in Pennsylvania, Democrat Josh Shapiro, who ran against Trumpist Doug Mastriano, one of the most extreme Republican candidates in this campaign, was elected governor.
In the key states of Michigan and Wisconsin, the Democrats also retained the governorship against pro-Trump Republicans. And results are still pending in Arizona, where Republican Kari Lake, the most famous "election denier", appeared to be in trouble. Interestingly enough, Georgia Republican Brian Kemp, who had alienated Trump by certifying Joe Biden's victory in 2020 following the recount, was re-elected governor.
The key vote of independents
Two years after Trump's defeat in the presidential election, the candidates who back him have suffered numerous electoral setbacks, which has led the Republican party to "realize that he may not necessarily be an advantage" to it but also ask itself how much control it has over Trump, says Steven Ekovich, a US politics and foreign policy professor at the American University of Paris.
According to exit polls, 49% of independents voted Democrat compared to 47% for the Republicans. Biden's popularity rating among this electorate has only been 30% in recent months, a sign that they decided to hold their noses and cast their ballots for the party that campaigned to defend democratic values. The Democrats even went so far as to fund the Republican primaries of some "election deniers" so that they could more easily defeat them later.
The Republicans thus find themselves in a paradoxical situation. Trump’s key supporter base has demonstrated unwavering loyalty to him, as demonstrated by the primary victories of the candidates he endorsed. But this same Trumpist line has driven away independents, voters crucial to winning against the Democrats.
"I think it's a big question for the Republican party, whether they’re strong enough to take a stand against Trumpism or whether they feel that they have to go down that route simply to get elected," says Long. Ekovich adds: "Trump is on a downward slide, is he going to keep going down? That’s the big question."
"The leaders of the Republican party are afraid that a Trump candidacy will fracture the party and not result in an election win for them," Ekovich continues.
Although there have been populist anti-establishment candidates in the past, says Long, the "difference with Trump is the extent to which he is anti-institutionalist, the most significant damage that Trump has inflicted on the Republican party is that he has eroded people’s trust in institutions".
However, the Grand Old Party has little time left for it decide whether it needs to change candidates to win.
The issue is all the more pressing following arch-rival and potential Republican primary candidate DeSantis's landslide victory on Tuesday night. His re-election as Florida governor was all the more triumphant, as he won in even traditionally Democratic counties like Miami-Dade. At his post-election party, his supporters chanted "Two more years!", encouraging him to finish his term as governor early so that he can enter the race for the White House.
Ron DeSantis, the winning formula?
This is an additional slap in the face for the former president, who was planning to announce his 2024 candidacy on November 15 from Mar-a-Lago. "There are people pushing Trump to reschedule his announcement next week, and several Rs [Republicans] have texted asking whether he will, but it’s risky and would be acknowledging he’s wounded by yesterday, something that some of his advisers insist is not the case," adds Haberman. Postponing the announcement would be "too humiliating", Trump’s adviser told Costa.
However, some journalists are already trying to work out what will happen next. "Did Ron DeSantis just become the 2024 Republican Front-Runner?" asks New York Times journalist Ross Douthat, who says the Florida governor could lead a centre-right platform based on a multicultural coalition (with a growing number of Latinos) of working-class voters to victory.
DeSantis' success in Florida "proves that you can be an avatar of cultural conservatism, a warrior against the liberal media and Dr. Anthony Fauci, a politician ready to pick a fight with Disney if that’s what the circumstances require", he writes. During the pandemic, DeSantis was slow to introduce social distancing guidelines in his state. He also got caught up in a feud with the Disney group, which disagreed with a law banning teachers from talking about sexual orientation and gender identity with schoolchildren.
Douthat feels that DeSantis has other strengths that make him the best Republican candidate: "You just also have to be competent, calculating, aware of public opinion as you pick your fights and capable of bipartisanship and steady leadership in a crisis. The basic Trump combination – cultural pugilism and relative economic moderation – can work wonders politically; it just has to be reproduced in a politician who conspicuously knows what he’s doing and who conspicuously isn’t Donald Trump."
Long is apprehensive: "It’s hard to tell whether DeSantis is a threat yet to Trump. He has just won big in Florida, following a previous election that he barely scraped through. If he could translate what he’s done in Florida to the national level, then he could very well be the next Republican presidential candidate."
Ekovich is also not ready to make any definitive statements just yet: "DeSantis is playing the Trump card because he knows it works well in Florida and other states. Today, vis à vis Trump, he’s the only candidate that could appear to challenge Trump, but he also has to ask himself whether now is the right time to launch a presidential bid. And Republicans need to ask themselves whether De Santis incarnates the party."
This article was adapted from the original in French.