Trump Is Chief Obstacle to Republican Revival

From a New York Times guest essay by Matthew Continetti headlined “Trump Is the Chief Obstacle to a Republican Revival”:

Matthew Continetti is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of “The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism.”

The final votes have yet to be counted, but so far the 2022 midterm campaign bears a striking resemblance to the midterm elections of 1998. A quarter century ago, Republicans were convinced that historical precedent and the manifest flaws of the incumbent Democratic president would bring them a landslide victory.

Instead, the party found itself losing ground in the House of Representatives and gaining nothing in the Senate. Conservatives felt demoralized and diminished. Within a week, Speaker Newt Gingrich announced his resignation from Congress. “This will give us a chance to purge some of the poison that is in the system,” he was reported to have said at the time.

The setback led to renewal. The Republicans turned to one of the big winners of the 1998 election, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, to redefine the party and restore it to power. Its strategy worked two years later (with help from the Supreme Court).

The party may be in a similar position today. A disappointing election has rattled conservatives. The nation’s most influential Republican, Donald Trump, is implicated in the unsatisfying result. But a dazzling performance in one state has presented the party with an opportunity to think again about renewal — and to embrace a popular alternative to Mr. Trump’s abrasive style and divisive leadership.

Of course, even if a new standard-bearer has more widespread appeal, the party must still move beyond Mr. Trump. Mr. Trump will have a say in that, too: He may not allow the Republican Party to disenthrall itself from him without a costly fight.

For conservatives, this is a fight worth having. Since his takeover of the party in 2016, Mr. Trump’s G.O.P. has lost the House, the White House and the Senate. If Republicans do end up taking both houses of Congress this year, it won’t be because of Mr. Trump, but despite him.

There may be a silent majority of “normie” Americans open to Republican leadership — but those voters run in the other direction at the first sight of Mr. Trump and his most devoted supporters. Mr. Gingrich saw that the party’s interests were best served under different leadership. Mr. Trump sees no interest but his own. He is the chief obstacle to a Republican revival.

In 1998, one silver lining for Republicans was Mr. Bush, who won re-election for governor by nearly 40 points. In 2022, foremost among a cohort of Republican leaders is Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who won a second term by 20 points.

Mr. Bush and Mr. DeSantis share certain strengths. They knitted independents, Hispanics and suburbanites into a broad coalition. They raised a record-breaking amount of money. Mr. Bush demonstrated that conservative values could be blended with a “compassionate” approach to education, immigration and faith-based charitable reform. Mr. DeSantis combines competent administration and conservative principles with a Trump-like pugilism and grass-roots suspicion of liberal elites and expert opinion.

Mr. Bush offered Republicans a way out of their 1990s dilemma. Decades later, America and the Republicans have changed, but the party’s problems — among them, the perception that it is beholden to extremists — have not.

Republicans have taken the popular vote in a presidential election just once in 34 years. The last time they won independent voters at the national level was 2016, and it was a plurality (48 percent). They went from losing moderate voters by nine points in 2016 to 15 points in 2022. Their narrow margin in the suburbs, where most voters reside, has remained nearly unchanged since 2016. To win a national majority, Republicans must rack up big margins among independents and suburbanites and narrow their differences with moderates.

After Tuesday, it is obvious to all but his most blinkered fans that Mr. Trump has made the task more difficult.

Republican success at the state level shows what is possible. Mr. DeSantis has garnered the most attention, but he is far from alone in offering a popular model of conservative governance. From Mike DeWine of Ohio (who won re-election by over 25 points), Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, Greg Abbott of Texas and Brian Kemp of Georgia to the departing Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and Larry Hogan of Maryland, Republican governors have broadened the party’s appeal by meeting voters where they are — seizing the common-sense mainstream and addressing public concerns calmly and effectively and often without the sort of backlash Mr. Trump has inspired.

Doug Ducey of Arizona, who is also stepping down, recently signed the most expansive school choice bill ever. Glenn Youngkin’s win in last year’s Virginia governor’s race, Mr. Kemp’s re-election after standing up to Mr. Trump in 2020 and the almost 10-point swing toward Mr. DeSantis in Florida from 2018 to 2022 show that a different version of the G.O.P. is waiting in the wings — a party that can rise above the self-imposed limits of Mr. Trump’s coalition without giving much up. Republican governors run the gamut from abortion-rights moderates to anti-abortion MAGA culture warriors. What makes Mr. Kemp, Mr. Youngkin and Mr. DeSantis unique is their ability to exploit the weaknesses of the cultural left without frightening the center of the electorate.

Still, Mr. Trump, who is widely expected to announce for president soon, is the undisputed front-runner for the 2024 Republican nomination. He has a sizable lead over Mr. DeSantis in national polls. What’s more, Mr. Trump says he is willing to use the same scorched-earth personal attacks against potential rivals that he deployed in 2016.

If Mr. DeSantis enters the presidential stakes, then, he will have to win over conservative media and wrest control of the G.O.P. from Mr. Trump. It might even come at the risk of driving Mr. Trump to start an independent candidacy.

But only then will the party have a chance to purge some of the poison that is in the system.

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