The Republican Party, staring at the worst midterm performance by a party out of power in two decades, traded recriminations Friday over whether the ultimate cause was poor candidates, an overheated message or the electoral anchor that appeared to be dragging the GOP down, former President Donald Trump.
With election results still rolling in, a narrow Republican majority in the House was still likely, but the party’s path to capturing the Senate had narrowed. For Republican leaders who had predicted a red wave that would broadly rebuke President Joe Biden, the disappointing showing was undeniable.
Democratic incumbents have so far won nearly all of their races, while Republicans have racked up surprising losses from Maine to Washington, with candidates endorsed by Trump losing the pivotal Senate contest in Pennsylvania and key House and statewide races in Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina and elsewhere.
“As a party, we found ourselves consistently navigating the power struggle between Trump and anti-Trump factions of the party, mostly within the donor class,” Paul Cordes, chief of staff for the Michigan Republican Party, wrote in a memo Thursday.
He added: “That power struggle ended with too many people on the sidelines and hurt Republicans in key races. At the end of the day, high-quality, substantive candidates and well-funded campaigns are still critical to winning elections. We struggled in both regards to the detriment of Michiganders across the state.”
The first substantive battle for the party broke out over the shape of leadership in the next Congress, in both the House and the Senate.
Jason Miller, who is helping to organize Trump’s expected announcement next week that he will again seek the presidency, went on Steve Bannon’s internet radio show Friday and issued a veiled threat toward Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the man who wants to be House speaker and whom Trump has called “my Kevin.” If McCarthy wants the gavel, Miller said, “he must be much more declarative that he supports President Trump” in 2024.
Raising the heat, a potential rival for speaker, Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., chair of the House Republican Conference, leaped to endorse Trump for the 2024 nomination, writing, “It is time for Republicans to unite around the most popular Republican in America.”
Even in the Senate, where control hangs in the balance, Republican Sens. Rick Scott of Florida, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Mike Lee of Utah circulated a letter asking for a delay in leadership elections, amid calls from Trump to depose Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., as the GOP leader.
“We are all disappointed that a red wave failed to materialize, and there are multiple reasons it did not,” they wrote. “We need to have serious discussions within our conference as to why and what we can do to improve our chances in 2024.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who was handily reelected to his seat, seconded the call. “We need to make sure that those who want to lead us are genuinely committed to fighting for the priorities & values of the working Americans (of every background) who gave us big wins in states like #Florida,” he wrote on Twitter, quickly receiving the backing of Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming.
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, the party’s presidential nominee in 2012, released his own prescriptions for the future, which strongly hinted that Republican losses reflected the party’s embrace of rage and recrimination over policy proposals. He counseled Republicans to work with Democrats in the coming Congress to slow inflation by curtailing spending on Medicare and Social Security, to open broader pathways to legal immigration, and to address climate change globally while increasing domestic energy production.
For many Republicans in today’s party, he acknowledged, that would be the road “less traveled.”
“The more tempting and historically more frequented road would be to pursue pointless investigations, messaging bills, threats and government shutdowns,” he wrote.
The criticism lands as Republicans face a trajectory-altering decision: whether to continue to align behind Trump as the undisputed head of the party or to look to new leadership. Trump has signaled that he intends to force the issue by formally declaring next week that he will run for the White House again in 2024.
It’s unclear whether any of the Republican introspection about the election will make a difference. After the party’s losses in 2012, a post-mortem by the Republican National Committee counseled a move to the center, especially on immigration, to appeal to Latino voters and other voters of color. Republicans did the opposite, turning to Trump, who vowed to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, with what initially seemed like positive results for the party. Since then, he has led Republican candidates to underperform in 2018, 2020 and 2022.
What is clear is that a power struggle has begun over the future of the party. McCarthy, the Republican minority leader, pressed forward with his campaign for speaker as if Republican control of the House had been secured, announcing “Transition Teams so that on Day 1, House Republicans deliver for the American people.”
He said Rep. Jim Jordan, a pugilistic Republican from Ohio, and Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., would lead “oversight and accountability” — the raft of investigations that many Republicans hope will lead to the impeachments of Alejandro Mayorkas, secretary of Homeland Security; Attorney General Merrick Garland; and ultimately Biden, as well as criminal referrals for his son Hunter.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., an ardent Trump supporter, said McCarthy’s actions were “already delegitimizing” the coming votes in the Republican conference for the party’s House leadership.
Russell Vought, a former Trump White House budget director, said of McCarthy: “It is incredibly disrespectful to his members to be that presumptuous when he knows he doesn’t have the votes to be speaker of the House.” He suggested that a small group of conservatives would deny McCarthy the gavel.