These five states may send a powerful message about 2024. But will Republicans hear it?
In November, voters in all five of those states will render verdicts on candidates virtually hand-selected by Trump in Republican primaries — including the GOP Senate nominees in Pennsylvania, Georgia and Arizona and gubernatorial nominees in all five states, except Georgia (where Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, who is up for reelection, has feuded with the former President).
Across these tipping-point states, the success or failure of Republican candidates who are cast so firmly in the Trump mold may offer important insights about the viability of the former President himself in 2024. If most of these nominees running on Trump-style messages lose this fall, even in an environment that favors Republicans overall, it would raise serious questions about Trump’s ability to recapture these critical states in 2024.
If the Trump candidates can’t win in these states “in a midterm that should be a good year for you, when normally the out party can be expected to perform better than it did in the previous presidential election,” asks Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz, “why would you expect better results in the presidential year” for Trump himself?
Even so, many operatives on both sides believe Trump’s hold on the GOP is so stifling that the party is unlikely to engage in a serious debate about his influence, even if the November results from these critical states send a clear warning sign about voter resistance to his direction.
“If that were possible, we would have that conversation after losing two Georgia Senate seats,” says Jason Roe, a Michigan-based Republican consultant and former executive director of the state Republican Party. “The reality is he doesn’t seem to be held accountable for his role in our losses, but only seems to be celebrated for his wins.”
These big five states, of course, are not the only places where Trump-endorsed candidates will face voters in November. But their results may be especially revealing because the states are highly likely to serve again as tipping points in the 2024 presidential race. In 2020, four of them were achingly close: Biden won Georgia, Arizona and Wisconsin by less than 1 percentage point, and Pennsylvania by only a little more; only in Michigan did he have any breathing room with a nearly 3-percentage-point margin. Operatives in both parties expect all five to be extremely close again in 2024.
Trump has left his fingerprints all over key races in all five states this fall. His endorsements helped power the nominations of GOP Senate candidates Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, Herschel Walker in Georgia and Blake Masters in Arizona. His embrace also lifted GOP gubernatorial nominees Tudor Dixon in Michigan, Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania, Tim Michels in Wisconsin and Kari Lake in Arizona.
For Republicans, Trump’s increased visibility this year is, at best, a mixed blessing. All GOP campaigns hope to benefit from his unique capacity to mobilize his most ardent supporters — particularly White voters without a college education whose turnout often lags, especially in midterm elections. Yet, Democratic strategists say, Trump’s prominent role in selecting and promoting these nominees has eroded the earlier tendency among many centrist and swing voters to separate their feelings about other Republicans from their views about him because they considered Trump such a unique figure. Democratic pollster Celinda Lake says that in her focus groups many more voters now express frustration that Trump has taken over the Republican Party. “They are really surprised that insurrectionists and people who supported the attacks on the country on January 6 are running for office,” she says. “His faction is seen as having taken over and there are a lot of voters who don’t understand why Republicans have allowed this to happen but also feel like you have to stop them now.”
Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg similarly says that the party’s improvement in many races this summer is not so much “a swing away” from Republicans as “a return to the 2018 or 2020 norm.” Earlier in Biden’s presidency, she says, “you saw independents shift away, and you saw diminishing enthusiasm among Democrats.” But now, she says, with the US Supreme Court decision to overturn the constitutional right to an abortion “and the kind of dominance of Trump, I’ve seen a shift among independents, younger people, college-educated women, all going back to where they were [in 2018 and 2020] and exceeding it.”
Yet, however close the final outcomes, GOP strategist John Thomas says that if most of the Trump-backed candidates lose in a year that started off so promising for Republicans, “I think it’s the bat signal” for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis “to go toe to toe with Trump in a primary race.” Such losses, Thomas argues, would position DeSantis, in particular, to argue that “we love Trump, he was great, but he’s past his prime and we have to get back to winning. I think that very well could be DeSantis’ justification to run against Trump.” The problem, Thomas acknowledges, is “I don’t know … that the party is going to have the courage” to challenge Trump’s dominance, whatever the results.
Roe, the former Michigan GOP executive director, says Trump has reason to argue that he could turn out more of his base and run better in 2024 than his endorsed candidates across these states this year. Roe says another argument for Trump — particularly across the critical Rust Belt trio of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — is that no other Republican presidential nominee has found a formula to win any of those states since 1988. Yet even with those caveats, Roe says, losses for the Trump candidates in November would be a clear warning sign for the GOP. “I do think it makes it a lot more difficult to argue that he can win in 2024 if his proxies in these key states are unsuccessful,” Roe says.
Still, Roe is also dubious that even a highly disappointing midterm result would prompt much pushback against Trump because his supporters now constitute such a dominant faction in the party. Lake, the Democratic pollster, says that rather than viewing any losses as a voter repudiation of Trump, his supporters — and the candidates themselves — may “double down” on his disproven claims of fraud in 2020. “These Republicans may not consider it a legitimate election if their people lose,” she says. “In fact, I’m sure they won’t.” Privately, some Republican strategists predict the same thing.
That possibility explains why Trump’s influence in the GOP may solidify after November, whatever happens to his candidates in these tipping-point states. If his candidates win, Trump will surely take credit and claim that it demonstrates his ability to recapture these states, and with them the White House, in 2024. If they lose, he could blame the “establishment” for insufficient support and plunge the party deeper into his rabbit hole of election-denying and conspiracy theories. Little over the past few years suggests that mainstream GOP leaders would forcefully repudiate such claims — much less point a finger of blame at Trump if his candidates stumble. Which means that even if voters send a cautionary signal in November, it will likely prove as difficult for the GOP to emerge from Trump’s shadow in 2024 as it has been in 2022.