Is Trump really to blame for the GOP's lackluster midterms?

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“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

In the days following the midterm elections, prominent Republicans have been pointing fingers at members of their party in an effort to explain why the widely anticipated “red wave” failed to materialize.

Republicans on Wednesday seized the majority in the House of Representatives, though by a much smaller margin than most forecasts had predicted. Their hopes of flipping the Senate, however, were dashed after GOP candidates came up short in tightly contested races in Arizona, Nevada and Pennsylvania. Democrats may even increase their Senate advantage if incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock defeats GOP challenger Herschel Walker in next month’s runoff in Georgia. Republicans were also disappointed by results in high-profile governor’s races.

Some notable members of the GOP and right-wing media figures have placed the blame for the party’s disappointing showing on the shoulders of former President Donald Trump. Paul Ryan, who was speaker of the House for two years during Trump’s presidency, told reporters that Trump “gives us problems politically” and was “kind of a drag on our ticket” in close races across the country. Trump and his GOP allies, for their part, have tried to direct blame onto Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Trump was heavily involved in the Republican midterms campaign. During the GOP primaries, he used his influence to boost a number of candidates who echoed his lies about fraud in the 2020 election — helping them defeat more mainstream Republican opponents. He also held several rallies in support of Republican candidates in the weeks leading up to Election Day.

Why there’s debate

Trump’s critics, both inside and outside the GOP, say he is a primary reason Republicans fared so poorly in the midterms. His most detrimental influence, many argue, was promoting MAGA-style candidates in the primaries who proved to be too extreme for swing voters and independents when it came time for the general election. “All over the country there’s a very high correlation between MAGA candidates and big losses,” Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., told CNN. Some also say Trump’s insistence on remaining the center of attention drew voters’ focus away from issues like inflation, crime and President Biden’s approval rating.

But others make the case that Trump is being used as a scapegoat by Republicans who don’t want to face their own role in their disappointing performance. Some election analysts say the GOP made their entire campaign about perceived failures of Democrats, without offering a coherent plan for how they might solve any of the problems facing the country. “I think we didn’t have enough of a positive message,” Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., told Fox News. Many experts also say the main driver of Democrats’ surprising success was backlash to the Supreme Court ruling overturning nationwide abortion protections established in Roe v. Wade.

Some pundits on the left argue that the debate centers around a false choice. As damaging as Trump may be to Republicans’ electoral performance, they say, he’s only in that position because the GOP has instead chosen to remake itself in his image. They point out that it was Republican voters, not Trump himself, who chose the far-right primary candidates who came up short in key races.

What’s next

Trump officially launched his 2024 presidential campaign on Tuesday night. It may be several months before any potential challengers, most notably Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, decide whether to join the race for the Republican nomination.


Yes, it’s Trump’s fault

Without Trump, Republicans would have had much stronger candidates in key races

“Trump did his part to make the Senate primaries so treacherous and potentially painful that first-tier candidates — incumbent senators, popular governors — stayed out. Why should they risk the humiliation and psycho-drama? Then, Trump pretty reliably put his thumb on the scale for the riskiest and most flawed candidates who actually ran because they were willing to do the most to prostrate themselves to him, or they were celebrities, or both.” — Rich Lowry, Politico

The election should have been about Democrats’ failures, but Trump made it about himself

“What will Democrats do when Donald Trump isn’t around to lose elections? We have to wonder because on Tuesday Democrats succeeded again in making the former President a central campaign issue, and Mr. Trump helped them do it.” — Editorial, Wall Street Journal

Anti-Trump sentiment is still strong even when he’s not on the ballot

“How did Democrats stop a red wave in 2022? The short answer: Donald Trump appears to have helped them. In a major departure from past trends, the 2022 midterm election turned out to be nearly as much of a referendum on the defeated former president as it was on incumbent President Joe Biden.” — Sahil Kapur, NBC News

Trump’s obsession with the 2020 election has infected the entire GOP

“Americans are remarkably unhappy with Democrats on issues including the economy and energy policy, and they were keen to support Republicans who ran actual campaigns based on ideas. But GOP candidates who kept up the tired drumbeat of election denialism and cultish fealty to Donald Trump drew minimal enthusiasm across the country.” — J.D. Tuccille, Reason

Trump has turned the GOP into a party of extremism that scares away swing voters

“The simplest explanation is probably best: Plenty of voters are worried about unchecked progressivism on the left, but they’re even more worried about unchecked extremism on the right. … All of this extremism, which so many swing voters spurned on [Election Day], is embodied by one person: Donald Trump.” — Tim Alberta, Atlantic

No, it isn’t Trump’s fault

It’s not enough to complain about the economy; you have show voters how you’ll fix it

“The Republicans should have done much better on inflation and the economy. They lacked an effective and transparent message on how they planned to fix things. Complaining about rising prices and issuing the ‘Commitment to America’ were not enough to generate a red wave.” — Matthew Continetti, National Review

Mainstream Republicans have welcomed the MAGA movement into their ranks

“The extremists who make up a good swath of the GOP base did nothing to hide their cruelty. … So the fact that such indecent behavior was never broadly condemned by the party at large made a difference. I think voters had to weigh the cost of a gallon of milk against the cost of putting some troublingly unkind people in positions of power, and they decided to take a stand for what’s right, pocketbook be damned.” — Rex Huppke, USA Today

Conservative media is too insulated to understand what voters really care about

“This happened because Fox News and the conservative media universe it spawned created the perfect echo chamber — a fun house of mirrors where truth about what American voters actually want never enters.” — Chris Jennewein, Times of San Diego

Republicans have been too timid to embrace true conservative principles

“The Republican Party lost this week for the same reason it always loses: it’s soft. …

For all its posturing, the Republican party refuses to acknowledge that the culture war is a war, and needs to be fought like one.” — Declan Leary, American Conservative

All Republicans are responsible for the abortion rights backlash

“There are a couple of straightforward lessons here for Senate Republicans in shock at how they screwed this up. The first is that if you work to fulfill a decades-long quest to install a Supreme Court that will eliminate constitutional rights, prepare to live with the electoral consequences of that Supreme Court eliminating constitutional rights.” — Jim Newell, Slate

Trump and the GOP are too intertwined for blame to be placed on one or the other

“Where does Trump end and the far-right begin? If you dump Trump but keep the people who built him up and protected him every step of the way, did you really change anything? Blaming Trump is easy. Organizing a realignment of the GOP coalition to improve its standing with younger voters — by purging the party of its openly racist and seditionist elements, for example — is more of a challenge.” — Christian Vanderbrouk, Bulwark

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images, Joe Raedle/Getty Images, Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images