Former President Donald Trump’s persistent false claims about the 2020 election were an obstacle for GOP candidates and a leading reason the party performed poorly in the midterms, two prominent Republicans said a day after the party suffered another stinging midterm defeat.
“I think his obsession with the 2020 election became an albatross and a real liability for people who were running, especially in swing states,” Senator John Thune, the No. 2 Senate Republican, told reporters in the wake of Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock’s victory Tuesday in a Georgia run-off with Trump-backed Herschel Walker.
Warnock’s win cemented a 51-49 majority next year for Democrats, despite earlier predictions that the GOP would take power in the Senate. Republicans did win control of the House, but will have a much smaller majority than expected.
Utah Republican Senator Mitt Romney, who has frequently sparred with Trump, said winning the backing of the former president has meant a candidate’s likely to win a party primary but lose a general election.
“For someone who actually wants to win an election, getting endorsed by President Trump is the kiss of death,” Romney said.
The remarks by Thune and Romney are the latest signal that many congressional Republicans are seeking to distance themselves from the former president. Thune said Trump’s insistence that candidates he endorsed back his claim that he won and Joe Biden lost in 2020 was a significant setback for the party.
Trump is currently the only Republican to launch a presidential bid for 2024, but Thune said he expects other Republicans to challenge the former president.
“My expectation is that will change and when it does I think we’ll have a robust conversation about hopefully the future of the country,” Thune, of South Dakota, said.
Thune last week told a panel of Bloomberg reporters and editors that his party is “evolving” and “in transition,” but declined to endorse a specific person to run for president. He said that South Carolina Senator Tim Scott “offers a lot” and should be considered and that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has shown he can be a prolific fundraiser. He also noted that other potential candidates, including Mike Pompeo, Mike Pence and Nikki Haley, have bases of support.
“I think the sooner our party breaks with Donald Trump, the better off we’ll be,” Romney said.
However South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham noted that Walker and some of the other losing GOP Senate candidates in the midterms also got backing from other prominent Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
“The popular thing is to make this about Trump. The truth is far more complicated,” Graham said.
In the wake of midterm losses, Republicans are reassessing not only which candidates to promote but how to get their voters to cast ballots.
Thune said Republicans need to rethink their strategy in states like Georgia with early voting. Trump has questioned the legitimacy of early voting and mail-in ballots, which became increasingly popular at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We’re really good at using resources to put messages on the air, but in the end it all comes down to turnout,” he said. “That’s something we’ve got to get better at.”
Other prominent Republicans also have recently argued that the party is at a strategic disadvantage because its grassroots voters aren’t using early voting and vote-by-mail, including Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel.
“Our voters need to vote early,” she said Tuesday on Fox News. “I have said this over and over again. There were many in 2020 saying, ‘Don’t vote by mail, don’t vote early.’ And we have to stop that and understand that if Democrats are getting ballots in for a month, we can’t expect to get it all done in one day.”
Not all Republicans, however, want to move away from Trump. Some loyalists, particularly in the House, are trying to push the party to adhere more closely to the former president’s agenda.
Arizona Republican Representative Andy Biggs said he’ll challenge House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy for the speakership next year in order to “reinvigorate the America First movement that was founded by former President Donald Trump.” Another GOP House member from Arizona, Paul Gosar, said Wednesday in a tweet that since has been deleted that he agreed with Trump recent comments calling for a “termination” of the Constitution to declare him the winner of the 2020 election.
--With assistance from Ryan Teague Beckwith and Steven T. Dennis.
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