Donald Trump is no longer president. He was impeached over his role in inciting an insurrection. He cost Republicans a majority in the Senate not once but twice, most recently in the 2022 elections. And he’s a proven turnoff for swing and suburban voters.
Yet on the eve of his expected 2024 presidential announcement, Republican lawmakers still can’t find it in themselves to publicly break from Trump.
“I’ve said it’s a free country and he’s going to do what he’s going to do. Probably not going to listen to what I have to say,” Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) told reporters on Monday when asked if he’d support a Trump 2024 bid.
“I’m not going to suggest I can tell the guy what to do, but our party has got to be forward-looking,” added Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.).
The GOP’s hands-off approach to Trump didn’t work during the 2016 Republican primaries, when his opponents weren’t able to coalesce around a single rival amid a crowded field of candidates. Republicans are now staring at the possibility of the same outcome as Trump looks ready to launch a third presidential run.
The former president remains popular with a significant contingent of the GOP base, and ousting him would require collective action. Some establishment Republicans are pinning their hopes on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as a rival, but it’s unclear whether he’s willing to challenge Trump. The former president has already attacked DeSantis and has even threatened to blackmail him.
“Currently, Ron DeSantis is the leader of the Republican Party, whether he wants to be or not,” Sen. Cynthia Lumis (R-Wyo.) told reporters on Monday. The senator also urged Trump to postpone his presidential announcement until after the Senate runoff election in Georgia.
Republicans lost a Senate runoff in Georgia in 2021 in large part due to Trump’s lies about the 2020 presidential election. Now they’re going into another Georgia runoff with Trump dominating headlines in a purple state where college-educated suburban voters are likely to decide whether Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) survives or Republican Herschel Walker heads to Washington.
Some establishment GOP voices ― who were already critical of Trump ― called on their party to finally come to its senses.
“That’s the definition of insanity, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result,” Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a potential 2024 GOP presidential candidate, said in an interview over the weekend.
“It’s like the aging pitcher who keeps losing games. If we want to win, we need a different pitcher on the mound,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) added Monday. “It’s time for him to get off the mound because we have a real strong bench of young people who are ready to go.”
But so far, it’s mostly been Trump’s critics who are speaking out against his hold on the GOP. The push to dump Trump hasn’t become the growing chorus that some had expected after the party's lackluster midterm performance. Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), a top House Republican, already endorsed his potential 2024 bid.
“I’ve decided ― as a recovering politician ― I don’t have to have any opinions on any of the political stuff. I have more freedom not to have an opinion,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who is stepping down this year, told HuffPost.
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), who is also leaving Congress this year, said it would be “premature” to weigh in on a Trump presidential bid.
“I'm going to retire and go home,” Shelby said. When HuffPost noted retiring senators have more freedom to speak their minds, Shelby said, “We’ve all got liberties. It comes with trepidation sometimes.”
Several high-profile Trump-backed Senate candidates lost last week, including Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, Don Bolduc in New Hampshire, Blake Masters in Arizona and Adam Laxalt in Nevada. The Nevada Senate race clinched the majority for Democrats over the weekend, lowering the stakes for Georgia’s Dec. 6 runoff.
In the House, Republicans are favored to win a narrow majority, but they underperformed greatly after scores of Trump-backed candidates lost their races in several battleground states.
Republican senators gave several different reasons for their party’s losses in the midterm elections on Monday. Some acknowledged that the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade, upending the right to abortion, hurt their party with suburban voters, while others pointed their finger at the lies spread about the 2020 presidential vote.
“It’s clear that running on relitigating the 2020 election is not a winning strategy,” Thune said, referring to lies about widespread voter fraud spread by Trump and many of the GOP candidates.