[OP-ED]: The GOP Needs to Look in the Mirror Instead of Blaming Donald Trump


Noah Jenkins, Staff Writer

Reflecting on last month’s midterm elections made me realize that it was one of the most confusing elections I have ever lived through. I recall scrolling through the early returns in disbelief. I could tell from the start that there would not be the “red wave” we had been promised. The map, with some notable exceptions, looked virtually like a carbon copy of 2020. The relentless series of mistakes by the Biden administration over the last two years—the failed Afghanistan withdrawal and the subsequent Russo-Ukrainian War, the inflation crisis, and reckless spending, not to mention President Biden’s apparent inability at times to form coherent sentences—seemed to be met with indifference by the American public.

But instead of focusing on why this was the case, the Republican Party, like a dog distracted by a mischievous squirrel, can only focus on President Trump and the extent to which his presence played a role in the outcome. This is a total farce. To even say he had a presence is a tough sell in itself. For a man who loves hearing himself talk, especially publicly, he seems to have been relatively disciplined, barely making headlines this year. Instances when he did make the news—the Mar-a-Lago raid, the January 6th Committee proceedings, and the never-ending investigations into him and his company—all stemmed from the actions of others, not Trump himself.

The GOP grievance that Trump-backed candidates did badly in their races does not hold against scrutiny either. According to Ballotpedia, out of the 253 endorsements Trump made in the 2022 cycle, 215, or 85%, won their general elections. While his picks only won 40% of the battleground races, according to Ballotpedia, we must keep in mind that the GOP as a whole did not perform well in battlegrounds. Politico even noted that “Democrats flipped GOP seats in Ohio and Michigan while helping almost all of their high-priority incumbents hang on.”

It is also worth keeping in mind that, despite the likes of Kari Lake and Doug Mastriano making headlines, not all of Trump’s endorsees were crazy, eccentric far-right “election deniers.” A glance at the 200-odd list of Trump-backed candidates reveals that Trump did not rubber stamp every GOP candidate—and I believe he should not have. In fact, he did endorse many solidly conservative, but relatively banal, candidates like Marco Rubio and Greg Pence, the former vice president’s brother, many of whom performed well in their own right.

Still, many who insist on resting blame in the hands of Trump will claim that the general aura of Trumpism that remains over the party drove people away, just as was the case in 2020. Polls, however, show otherwise. According to a Gallup poll, the top seven issues important to midterm voters ranged from the economy to climate change, but not once did an issue specifically related to Trump make an appearance. Additionally, while a Pew Research poll places “[t]he future of democracy in the country” and “[p]olicies about how elections and voting work in the country” higher on the list of voter priorities, the spread between Democratic and Republican concern was relatively small compared to other issues listed.

While I do believe  that Trump cannot be solely blamed for the election results, that is not to say that I believe he didn’t do anything wrong. I, for example, do not believe his rhetoric about the 2020 election being rigged was politically helpful. I likewise find his “general aura” over the party, even in his limited presence after being chucked off Twitter, to have been a great boon for the party as well. Of course, as we have seen since the famous escalator ride seven years ago, it too has been a boon for the Democrats, but, despite all that Never-Trumpers say, I think we need to seriously ask ourselves what the party would have been without him. Who would we imagine as the face of the GOP? It cannot be Ron DeSantis because, as Trump snidely reminded us all in one of his ostentatious “Ron DeSanctimonious” attacks, he would have never been close to the governor’s mansion without Trump’s endorsement. Who else? Ted Cruz? Jeb Bush? Or, even worse, Mitt Romney?

Turning back to the midterms, I believe the biggest lesson the GOP should take away from 2022 is that candidate quality matters. And tThis idea is two-fold: candidates ought to be electable while advocating for good—that is, actually conservative—policies. Yes, as some figures, including Liz Cheney and Romney would like it, the GOP could once again be the party of the neocons, letting social and cultural issues fall by the wayside while they and their donors—focused on “pro-business” policies above all else—get richer. On the other hand, the GOP can embrace its new identity as a populist, nationalist—a word that has been unfortunately stigmatized and conflated with national socialism, a truly evil ideology—and socially conservative party unafraid to fight the culture wars that have animated so much of its base.

It is this understanding that has not only allowed politicians like Ron DeSantis, Brian Kemp, and Tennessee’s own Bill Lee to win their states’ races, but to thrive in their state’s political environments as well. DeSantis, the most prominent of the three, has turned my state, Florida, from a purple state arguably into a safely red one by delicately balancing the two variables in the “equation” for optimal candidate quality.

I would caution against the impulse I also see from many who have tossed their support behind DeSantis to copy and paste his approach around the nation. A large part of electability has to do with the electorate. The people of Florida are not the people of Virginia. If we look at Glenn Youngkin’s upset win there, instead of donning a harsh, brash persona like Florida’s DeSantis—a persona (and I can say this as a Floridian) that is more compatible with its people—Youngkin adopted a calm, measured tone (electability) while creating a new coalition of parents rightly concerned about the material being exposed to their children in school (good policy). Kari Lake nearly calibrated the two variables in Arizona regarding the border crisis, losing only by 0.6%. I would be remiss not to note that it really does not matter how much cushion GOP wins have—just that, especially in the battlegrounds, we win.

If the GOP’s goal is to be conservative, if the goal is to move the Overton window to the right, the party must conserve our values and our culture. To conserve our values and our culture, we must enact conservative legislation and stop “squishing,” as we saw recently with the 12 Senate Republicans acquiescing to the left’s hostile takeover of the institution of marriage. To enact conservative legislation, we must win. And to win, we must stop simply pointing fingers—both when warranted, as with the Democrats, or unwarranted, as in this instance with Trump. To win, we must present America with a vision of our own.

Image Source: Wikipedia Commons (​​Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)