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Trump’s Nightmare Scenario?
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Trump’s Nightmare Scenario?

A midterm postmortem.

Ron DeSantis with his family after winning reelection. (Photo by Giorgio Viera/AFP/Getty Images.)

One benefit of being a pessimist is that, when you’re forced to eat crow, it tastes delicious.

Expect the worst in any situation and your outcomes can range only from gloomy affirmation of your astuteness to pleasant surprise.

In my defense, yesterday’s midterm premortem wasn’t entirely wrong. Republicans did improve nationally with black and Latino voters. Weak gubernatorial nominees did matter, as Democrats down ballot in New York are discovering today. Trump’s looming presidential announcement really could upend the coming runoff in Georgia.

And Ron DeSantis is certainly now the prince of MAGA, if not the king.

But I thought the conventional wisdom was correct that a red wave was en route. I thought candidate quality wouldn’t matter in Senate races. (It didn’t in Ohio, alas.) I thought Republican-friendly pollsters like Trafalgar would put the establishment polling industry out of business. And I thought the so-called “fundamentals” would overwhelm any backlash to the Dobbs ruling and sweep conspiratorial MAGA cranks to power across the country.

You want a bite of this crow? It’s really tasty.

Weeks ago I imagined the midterm as a contest between an irresistible force and an immovable object. The immovable object was anxiety over inflation and crime. If your party controls the government at a moment when voters fear public order is breaking down and everything costs 10 percent more than it used to, you know what you’re in for on Election Day—normally. The X factor this year was outrage over the end of constitutional abortion rights, an irresistible force in theory depending upon how much of the pro-Roe majority turned out to make its unhappiness known. Democrats surged in the generic ballot this summer after the Dobbs decision and overperformed in special elections, portending a “Roevember” surprise. But by fall, after another discouraging inflation report, the polling had tilted back toward the GOP. It seemed that the immovable object, political “gravity,” would hold.

It may not have held.

There’s no way to tell how heavily abortion influenced the electorate but some of last night’s results are, shall we say, suggestive. In Pennsylvania, which sent an addled John Fetterman to the Senate, more voters said abortion mattered most to their vote than said so of inflation. Kentucky’s pro-life ballot initiative failed and Montana’s was on the brink. Democrat Laura Kelly won reelection as governor in Kansas, a red state that voted decisively against a pro-life effort to eliminate a state constitutional right to abortion back in August. And in Michigan, a successful pro-choice initiative to amend the state constitution helped easily reelect Gretchen Whitmer and flipped the state legislature to Democrats for the first time in 40 years.

The following result in particular is hard to explain apart from some strong countervailing force across the electorate pushing back against political “gravity.”

Whatever happens with races that are yet to be called, 2022 is a lock to be the worst performance by the out-party in a midterm election in 20 years.

It ain’t “Roevember.” Brian Kemp and Mike DeWine signed laws banning abortion after six weeks in their states and each cruised to reelection, after all. But national upset at the Dobbs ruling may have been just irresistible enough to turn a red wave that practically everyone expected into a red ripple.

The claim that “democracy is on the ballot” may also have been more persuasive than anyone, including me, expected.

Every midterm postmortem published today will mention “candidate quality” to explain the GOP’s underperformance, a catchall term to describe the many ways in which some of the party’s most prominent candidates came across as obnoxious. Mehmet Oz, for instance, isn’t a populist firebreather or an emphatic election denier. But he lost in Pennsylvania anyway because he’s a celebrity snake-oil salesman and a carpetbagger from New Jersey.

Poor “quality” comes in many forms.

Yet there’s one particular attribute that appears to have scared off swing voters this year.

The various kooks who ran for secretary of state in hopes of overturning a Democratic victory in 2024 also had a terrible night. “So far, preliminary research by the Democratic data firm Catalist suggests that this year looks much more like 2018 than it does the sleepy affairs that took place under former President Barack Obama,” the New York Times reported. “Many analysts now think the United States may have reached a new plateau of permanently high participation, stoked by each party’s fear of the other side.”

It’s impossible to believe that Joe Biden’s underwhelming speech about democracy spooked Democrats into unexpectedly high turnout. But it’s quite easy to believe that two years of daily promises by Trump and toadies like Kari Lake that they’ll jerry-rig a coup on his behalf in 2024 if he loses again did. Normally midterms are low-stakes affairs for voters in the president’s party since they know they’ll control the White House afterward no matter what. In an age when the Republican Party’s biggest stars are authoritarians vowing to tamper with the results of the next election to install their man, there’s no longer any such thing as a “low-stakes” election. Democratic midterm turnout might remain lofty for the foreseeable future, at least until the Trumpist threat has passed.

Speaking of, you know which Republican had a good night endorsement-wise?

Elissa Slotkin of Michigan and Abigail Spanberger of Virginia were two of the most endangered Democrats in the country, and would have been pushovers for the GOP in a true wave election. Both won narrowly with Cheney’s endorsement. I won’t tell you they would have lost without her support, but Cheney has become a unique figure in American politics who might punch above her weight electorally. As despised as she is by most of her party, her courage in defense of democracy has made her a hero to the small but meaningful segment of Trump-leery voters on the right. If anyone’s capable of persuading Republican-leaning indies or maverick conservatives to vote Democratic in a key race by showing up to warn that democracy is on the ballot there, it’s her.

Having the GOP’s populist nominees rhetorically flip the bird to those same voters doesn’t hurt either.

After Cheney aired an ad in Arizona encouraging Republicans to vote Democratic this year, Kari Lake thanked her for the “in-kind contribution” to her campaign. We’ll see how that works out for her as the outstanding votes there are counted.

According to the exit polls, just 3 percent of self-identified Republicans voted for Democrats last night. (The same percentage of self-identified Democrats voted for Republicans.) But independents tilted Democratic, which makes me wonder how many “McCain Republicans” bolted the party after the insurrection, refashioned themselves as indies, and are prepared to vote Democratic on democracy grounds until the Trump era ends. There may be a durable anti-authoritarian coalition forming that will hold down Republican gains, at a minimum, until the GOP sobers up.

Which brings us to last night’s big loser.

No, I don’t mean Kevin McCarthy. He’ll still be speaker. But good luck to him trying to somehow satisfy both the MAGA caucus and the moderates in his ranks while managing a very narrow House majority. It’s an impossible task. He deserves every headache and humiliation he’ll get from it, and more.

I don’t mean Trafalgar polling either, although if you want to call it the big loser, I won’t fight you. Trafalgar had Tudor Dixon, Lee Zeldin, Tim Michels, Herschel Walker, and Mehmet Oz all ahead in its final polls of those races and had Joe O’Dea and Tiffany Smiley narrowly behind in Colorado and Washington, respectively. All of them either lost or currently trail their opponents, some by huge margins. Zeldin ended up losing by 5 points, Dixon by 10, and O’Dea and Smiley by 12 points or worse.

In some cases, Trafalgar got the winner right and the margin wildly, wildly wrong. Its final Pennsylvania gubernatorial poll had MAGA miscreant Doug Mastriano within 4 points of Josh Shapiro. After the votes were counted, it was Shapiro by 13.

“If I ever hear the name Robert Cahaly again, I will puke,” said one GOP official to Axios about Trafalgar’s chief pollster, who claimed to have a finger on the pulse of the electorate by using short surveys that “hidden” Trump voters would supposedly be more likely to complete. The great right-wing polling revolution will have to wait for another cycle.

Trafalgar was the second-biggest loser of the night. We all know who the biggest loser was. Hint: Not this guy.

There were four potential outcomes from the midterms last night, which I’ll list here from best to worst for Donald Trump’s 2024 prospects.

Best for Trump would have been MAGA candidates nationally overperforming and Ron DeSantis, his only serious rival for the nomination, underperforming. This scenario was always unlikely, of course, since any national wave capable of buoying up MAGA nominees would have buoyed DeSantis too. But had it happened, DeSantis’ “electability” argument would be up in smoke. Trump would be nominated again, without question.

Next best would have been MAGA candidates and DeSantis each underperforming. Trump would have explained this one away by claiming that things would have been different for the party had he been on the ballot. And this outcome likely would have all but clinched the nomination for him, too, as it would have meant DeSantis is no more formidable on Election Day than a replacement-level populist Republican.

Third best would have been MAGA candidates and DeSantis each overperforming. A big night for DeSantis would alarm Trump but a good showing from his handpicked nominees would suggest that he and his brand of populist politics aren’t as repellent to swing voters as we might suspect. He still has enough electoral juice in swing states to get kooky candidates over the finish line, we’d be told. And DeSantis’ performance could be dismissed as the product of a national red wave, not anything specific to the candidate himself.

The worst outcome, the Trump nightmare scenario, would have been MAGA candidates underperforming and DeSantis overperforming. That was the one result that might lead Republican voters to believe Trump is fading as a political force and that his rival is a special talent who’s ascendant.

That’s the one we got.

We got more than that, in fact. DeSantis didn’t just overperform. He blew the roof off.

Weeks ago I considered the tantalizing possibility that he might win his race by 10 points, an unheard-of margin in modern Florida politics. He ended up winning by 19. He won the traditional Democratic stronghold of Miami-Dade County by 11 points, producing audible gasps on MSNBC. In Osceola County, which is majority Hispanic and went decisively Democratic two years ago, he won by nearly 7. He outperformed Trump’s 2020 margins in Florida among rural and non-college voters, the core of the MAGA base. He won Latino voters statewide by 13, per the exit polls. He gained 21 points among Puerto Rican voters since 2018, winning an outright majority of them too.

It was a beating so vicious that David Plouffe, the architect of Obama’s 2008 campaign, pronounced the Obama coalition in Florida dead as the votes rolled in. The ultimate swing state is now blood red. 

DeSantis fans who gathered for his victory speech knew what it all meant.

If you’re eager for the post-Trump era to begin, you got everything you could have hoped for last night and more. It was Christmas morning with a PlayStation 5 under the tree.

As the governor reveled in an historic victory, the bad news rolled in for Trump. A national exit poll placed his favorable rating among midterm voters at 37 percent favorable, 60 percent unfavorable. Mehmet Oz, whom Trump propelled to victory over the objections of his base in the Pennsylvania Senate primary, somehow lost to a man showing unmistakable signs of brain damage. Online chatter picked up about how stingy Trump had been in not using his super PAC war chest to fund Republican candidates. Fox News turned on him with a piece highlighting the new conventional wisdom that Trump blew the midterms for the GOP while opportunistic DeSantis admirers at National Review seized the moment to call for a belated end to the Trump era

By morning, Trump was coping the way he always copes, blaming others for not being loyal enough to him. He celebrated Joe O’Dea’s defeat in Colorado because O’Dea had criticized him earlier in the campaign and scolded Don Bolduc for having retreated from election denialism during the general election. Reportedly he was raging privately over Oz’s defeat, going so far as to blame his own wife for convincing him to make that endorsement.

Publicly, however, he’s the only Republican in America who’s happy with the results. Why? Supposedly because they reflect well on him.

The GOP could have had top-tier Senate nominees this cycle like Chris Sununu in New Hampshire, Doug Ducey in Arizona, and Larry Hogan in Maryland and another successful gubernatorial candidacy for Charlie Baker in Massachusetts. Pat Toomey might have been persuaded to run again for Senate in Pennsylvania. But each of them had been “disloyal” to Trump in different ways in the past and knew that would guarantee them a vicious Trump-backed primary if they ran. So they opted against it. Unless Blake Masters comes from behind, the GOP will end up going 0 for 5 in those races.

In fact, if not for Brian Kemp’s fortitude in facing down a Trump-endorsed primary challenge, Stacey Abrams would probably be governor-elect of Georgia this afternoon.

Trump supported terrible, sometimes plainly stupid nominees for no better reason than that they parroted his conspiracy theories or offered to be instruments of his grudges against his enemies within the party. After last night, across four elections during the Trump era, the GOP has lost the presidential popular vote twice, lost the House, lost the Senate, lost the presidency, and underperformed in what should have been a gimme of a midterm. It sounds ridiculous to say that his “winning mystique” is now in question when he and his party haven’t won much of anything since 2016, but the myth of the rigged 2020 election has proved so stubborn among Republican voters that this year’s midterm result might be the first time they’ve had occasion to question whether he’s more of a liability to the party than an asset.

Many of them are angry about it. Much angrier than they were at Trump’s role in the insurrection according to some observers, which speaks volumes about how MAGA zombies and their apologists in wider right-wing media prioritize basic civic duties relative to acquiring political power.

It also means 2024 just got interesting.

But not too interesting.

The cardinal rule of being a Never Trumper is that only suckers have hope, a natural fit for a pessimist like me. The Republican base and its leaders in Washington have had numerous chances to repudiate Trump since 2016, most notably after January 6, and have declined every time. You underestimate the cultish nihilism of the populist right and the cowardice of its political leadership at your peril. 

The only stimuli to which modern Republican voters seem to respond is having the right enemies and demonstrating “strength” in the form of dominance, cruelty, and ridicule. It’s possible, if not likely, that DeSantis will challenge Trump in 2024 and Trump will start calling him “Fat Ron” or “Husky Ron” or whatever and DeSantis’ polls will collapse. Until the challenger can show that he can own the libs—or his primary opponent—as much as Trump can, he’s at a disadvantage.

… But after last night’s devastating landslide in Florida, it’s less of a disadvantage than it used to be.

Trump knows it too. His anxiety about DeSantis, long simmering according to media reports, bubbled over into public view this past week as the likelihood of a blowout in Florida grew. He jabbed at him during a rally by calling him “DeSanctimonious,” complained that the governor should have been more “gracious” after receiving Trump’s endorsement in 2018, then threatened to release dirt on DeSantis if he challenged him for the nomination in 2024. A few of his most sycophantic toadies, like Kari Lake and Marjorie Taylor Greene, publicly endorsed him for president as a warning to DeSantis to stay out of the next primary. One of Trump’s lawyers made that warning more explicit. His “big announcement” next Tuesday also seems aimed at establishing pride of place in the coming primary in hopes that certain people who jump in later might be viewed as haughty usurpers by Republican primary voters.

For all the hype about Trump having a stranglehold on the nomination, these are not the words and actions of someone who’s unconcerned about the opposition.

Trump will have lines of attack against DeSantis. He’ll note that the enormous landslide in Florida was driven by Marco Rubio at least as much as it was by the governor. He’ll credit his own last-minute rally for Rubio in Miami as a catalyst for Republican turnout, of course. He’ll claim that the GOP would have done better last night had he been running given that the party did in fact overperform down-ballot in 2020. And he’ll say, well, this:

But DeSantis will have lines of attack too. He’ll hit Trump hard on COVID policy, tying him to Fauci and demanding to know why he went along with the pro-lockdown conventional wisdom during the early days of the pandemic. (Never mind that DeSantis himself eventually issued a stay-at-home order.) As for the tricky question of what happened in 2020, Jonathan Chait is right that DeSantis will probably accuse Trump of having blown it no matter what one believes. Either he lost the election outright or he failed to “fight” hard enough to prevent Democrats from rigging the vote. Fightin’ Ron won’t let that happen as president.

As for the fear that we’ll see a reprise of the 2016 primaries in which Trump divides and conquers a splintered anti-Trump majority, I’m less worried about it than I was 24 hours ago. A 19-point blowout in Florida means DeSantis is the only plausible non-Trump game in town. It may hurt Mike Pence’s feelings to hear it, but after last night I think any multi-candidate primary would whittle down to Trump vs. DeSantis lickety split once the primaries begin.

Only suckers have hope, I know. But if believing that DeSantis now has, say, a 1 in 4 chance of knocking off Trump makes me a sucker, I can live with that. And even if he doesn’t, realistically he has no choice but to run anyway. Ross Douthat is right that if DeSantis lets Trump intimidate him into passing on 2024, his credibility as a “fighter” will dissolve long before 2028. Once you let Trump emasculate you, there’s no coming back.

Either way, if you happen to be a Trump fan and you’re worried about DeSantismania, try not to sweat it. Remind yourself that 98 percent of the people in conservative media who are demanding an end to the Trump era this afternoon will come crawling back to him for the general election if he dispatches DeSantis in 2024, and that Trump knows it. This was, and will remain, a hostage crisis until the non-MAGA right proves it’s willing to shoot the hostage to end it. If DeSantis can’t end it for them, they’re not going to end it themselves.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.