WASHINGTON — When Donald Trump rode down the escalator at Trump Tower in 2015 to announce his first presidential campaign, he was a mystery as a politician, a former reality TV star who was viewed as a fringe candidate and seemingly more interested in building his brand than leading the nation.
Now after four tumultuous years in office, three straight disappointing Republican elections, two impeachments, and one deadly insurrection, Trump is a known political entity — and one who seems to be rapidly losing popularity among Republicans just as he announced another White House run Tuesday night.
“How much do people have to lose before they go, ‘Wait a second, it’s because this quarterback keeps throwing pick-sixes that we’re losing?’ ” said Republican pollster Jon McHenry. “How many times do you have to burn your hand before you realize the stove is hot?”
Republicans got burned badly in the midterms, when historic trends and high inflation fueled strong but unrealized expectations for a red wave that would sweep the party into congressional majorities. The Senate remains in Democratic control after Trump-backed candidates lost key races. Election-denying Trump supporters also were shut out in gubernatorial campaigns in pivotal battlegrounds Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Arizona. And while Republicans are still expected to gain the House majority, it will be by a razor thin margin ― and therefore extremely difficult to manage — as Democrats defied the trend of major losses by the president’s party in his first midterm election.
Many Republicans are blaming Trump and warning the party could suffer again in 2024 if he’s the presidential nominee.
“We need, as a party, to move past President Trump and to move on to an agenda that represents the voices of all those in the party and the people of the country,” outgoing Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker told CNN Monday. Utah Senator Mitt Romney, who said Trump was a drag on Republicans in the midterms, reached for another sports analogy.
“It’s like the aging pitcher who keeps losing games,” Romney said. “If we want to win, we need a different pitcher on the mound.”
It’s not just longtime Trump critics such as Baker and Romney who are expressing concerns. Others are doing so directly, or in some cases indirectly, by their lack of vocal support for Trump or their praise for other Republicans, including Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who could challenge him for the nomination.
Wyoming Senator Cynthia Lummis is a former member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, angled for a Trump Cabinet appointment, objected to certifying Pennsylvania’s 2020 election results, and joined with him this year to endorse the primary challenger in her state to Representative Liz Cheney, one of his most outspoken GOP opponents.
This week, Lummis sounded more like Cheney than a Trump enthusiast.
“I think he had a significant impact on the underperformance of the Republican Party,” Lummis told reporters at the Capitol, adding that she would “much prefer” he waited on his announcement until after the runoff election for Georgia’s Senate seat next month. Asked if she would prefer Trump not run for president at all, Lummis redirected the question.
“In my opinion, the current leader of the Republican Party is Ron DeSantis,” she said.
But Trump has faced strong backlash from within the party in the past only to survive, including after the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection. House minority leader Kevin McCarthy of California, for example, unequivocally declared a week later that Trump bore responsibility for the attack. Before the month was over, McCarthy was visiting Trump in Mar-a-Lago and back to defending him.
Trump still has high-profile backers among top Republicans who are speaking up for him. Representative Elise Stefanik of New York, the number three House Republican heading into the midterms, publicly endorsed him for president on Friday. After his announcement on Tuesday, it will be more difficult for the party’s leaders to avoid questions about the extent of their support for Trump’s bid.
But polls have shown his support softening among Republican voters after the midterms fell far short of the party’s hopes.
A Politico/Morning Consult poll released Tuesday found 47 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents would vote for Trump if the primary were held today. That was down from 57 percent in their poll in August. DeSantis had risen from 18 percent to 33 percent during the same period.
Other polls indicate more potential trouble for Trump.
A polling memo from the fiscally conservative Club for Growth, publicly released Monday, showed Trump trailing DeSantis among likely Republican voters in the early nominating states of Iowa and New Hampshire, Politico reported. And a poll conducted two days after the midterms by the American Firearms Association, a grass-roots organization that “fights aggressively in defense of the Second Amendment” found DeSantis got 68.8 percent support among its members when asked who they wanted to be president. Trump received just 28.9 percent, down from 66.7 percent in March.
“Our poll speaks for itself and we’re beginning to see similar movement in other public state level polls around the country,” the association’s vice president, Patrick Parsons, said in an e-mail. “Will their support for DeSantis hold for a year and a half? We’ll see what happens.”
In his announcement speech, Trump asserted the Republicans did well in the midterms, although he told the crowd that “despite the outcome in the Senate we must not lose hope.”
McHenry thinks Republicans might have attributed too much of their polling decline in the summer to the backlash over the Supreme Court’s June decision overturning federal abortion rights, when Trump may have also played a role because of the controversy involving the FBI’s seizure of classified documents from Mar-a-Lago was unfolding at the same time. And he thinks Trump’s decision to tease an upcoming presidential announcement in the days before the midterms might also have turned off some voters.
“When President Trump was heavily involved in the news, things didn’t go well for Republicans” in the polls, McHenry said. “When the focus was on President Biden, things were very good for Republicans. And I don’t know how many will admit it, especially on the record, but I think there’s a pretty good sentiment that [Trump] did drag us down just enough to fall short in the Senate.”
Some Republicans seem ready to just quietly move on from Trump, if not explicitly say so. Representative Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida, a staunch Trump supporter who visited him in Mar-a-Lago last year, was evasive this week when asked about Trump. But he was effusive about DeSantis, whom he called “a phenomenal leader, a phenomenal governor.”
“Here’s what I’m convinced of,” Diaz-Balart said. “I’m convinced that the next president of the United States is going to be a resident of Florida.”