Polls show the Republican party doing fairly well in the run-up to the midterms. It’s poised to take control of the House and is competitive in the Senate. The party of the sitting president generally does poorly in midterms, so the GOP is understandably hopeful.
Despite some decent poll numbers, though, Republicans do have some reason to worry. The normal-ish look of the midterms has for the moment papered over the party’s growing divisions and escalating internal chaos.
The name of that chaos is Donald Trump, whose refusal to step aside in the traditional manner of former presidents has set up the GOP for a possibly devastating presidential election in 2024. When the midterms are over, the Republicans are going to have to face their internal problems squarely, and it’s not going to be pretty.
The first rumblings are beginning even before Election Day. This weekend was meant to be the last big push for both parties before the midterms. Party actors are supposed to be unified, positive, and enthusiastic.
Trump didn’t get the memo, though. At a Saturday rally in Pennsylvania, purportedly to boost Senate Candidate Mehmet Oz, Trump was found boasting about himself, as usual. He read through some numbers that he claimed showed polling support for different candidates in the 2024 presidential primary. “There it is, Trump at 71. Ron De-Sanctimonious at 10 percent,” he declared.
“Ron De-Sanctimonious” was a reference to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is running for re-election in Florida against Democrat Charlie Crist. DeSantis is also obviously contemplating a 2024 run for president, where one of his primary opponents will be Trump.
Trump hates to be challenged by anyone in any capacity. So rather than supporting his own party, he decided to mock and insult a Republican governor in an active re-election bid.
For what it’s worth, DeSantis’s governor’s race is not especially close; FiveThirtyEight’s poll aggregator has him beating Crist by more than 10.5 points. Even with a fairly large polling error, he’s probably going to win the seat. Still, that doesn’t mean he’s happy to have the de facto leader of his party insult him three days before the election — though he has yet to react publicly.
Other conservatives were almost comically horrified. “DeSantis is going to run, and he’s going to beat Trump,” blustered Will Chamberlain, a right-wing lawyer and co-publisher of the conservative website Human Events. Meanwhile, Daily Wire pundit Matt Walsh, one of the most sanctimonious figures in current US politics, called the nickname “dumb.” “We’re all supposed to be showing a united front,” he whined.
Walsh’s anxiety is justified. As international relations professor Nicholas Grossman said on Twitter, conservative pundits and politicians have spent a lot of time and effort convincing themselves and their voters that Trump is a regular, reliable GOP politician. To some extent, they have convinced even themselves that Trump cares about advancing conservative goals and the conservative party.
But he doesn’t. The only thing Trump cares about is Trump. As long as the GOP supports Trump, Trump is happy to have them lick his boots. If they try to put someone else at the center of the party, though, he is equally happy to destroy them. And he has repeatedly pursued his own interests over the GOP’s.
Following the 2020 election, Trump refused to admit he had lost. He demanded the party and all its members sign onto conspiracy theories and election denial nonsense as he ramped up to staging the January 6 coup attempt.
Trump’s demands for personal fealty, and his attack on local GOP officials who defied him, caused chaos within the party. In particular, by keeping the focus on himself, he made it difficult for the two Republican Senate candidates in Georgia to rally focus on their run-off elections. Democrats won both, gaining control of the Senate.
A contested 2024 Republican primary could be even more damaging. Trump’s 2020 election denial has become a standard in the party; GOP politicians no longer see a need to accept losses. An intra-GOP contest could easily descend into accusations and counter-accusations of voting fraud, with everyone refusing to concede. The GOP has also normalized threats of violence — including against other Republicans.
Trump’s attack on DeSantis makes it clear, too, that he is willing to go nuclear on any primary opponent, or anyone who supports a primary opponent. Indeed, he is notorious for holding grudges. If a Senate candidate came out in support of DeSantis early, it’s easy to imagine Trump campaigning against that person in 2024, even if it meant a Democrat would win. The former president has already shown he doesn’t care about a GOP majority.
This doesn’t mean that Republicans are doomed in 2024. So far, they’ve managed to figure out way to appease Trump without facing electoral disaster. This cycle, for example, they’ve nominated poor-quality, Trump-approved Senate candidates like Herschel Walker in Georgia and JD Vance in Ohio, while still retaining a shot at the Senate. Partisanship, Republican structural advantages, and voter suppression can carry the party over a lot of division.
So Trump hasn’t blown up the party yet. But he’s still a potential time bomb. Each new election cycle is another chance for him to explode, taking DeSanctimonious and the rest of the Republican party with him. This won’t change, no matter how Tuesday goes for the GOP.