Key Allies Are Inching Away From Trump
ORLANDO, Fla. — Three billionaire donors have moved on and others are actively weighing their options. A number of former allies are staying on the sidelines. A long list of potential rivals — from popular governors to members of Congress — are seriously assessing their chances for 2024. Even his own daughter has declined to get involved.
Within hours of Donald J. Trump announcing his third presidential bid on Tuesday, some of his former aides, donors and staunchest allies are shunning his attempt to recapture the White House, an early sign that he may face difficulty winning the support of a Republican Party still reeling from unexpected midterm losses.
While Mr. Trump has long faced opposition from the establishment and elite quarters of his party, this round of criticism was new in its raw bluntness, plainly out in the open by Wednesday and focused on reminding voters that the Trump era in Republican politics has led to the opposite of the endless winning Mr. Trump once promised.
“The message he delivered last night — which was self-serving, which was chaotic — was the same one that lost the last election cycle and would lose the next,” said Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, a Republican and Trump critic who spoke Wednesday from Iowa, where he is testing the waters for a presidential run in 2024. “We need alternatives.”
A growing chorus of Republican officials, lawmakers and activists blame the former president for their failure to regain control of the Senate and for what will be a narrow margin in the House.
The scope of the Republican losses has prompted some of his allies to publicly voice complaints they have long kept private about the former president’s ability to win the White House. For those who have been more vocal, their concerns have morphed into far more direct attacks as they try to seize what they see as a chance to move past Mr. Trump and embrace a new class of party leaders.
At an annual gathering of Republican governors in Orlando, donors and lobbyists mingled with governors past, present and future while weighing ways to wrest Mr. Trump from the party’s base. Their main complaint was not over policy or even style, but losses the party has taken since Mr. Trump won the White House in 2016.
Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota, a Republican often mentioned as a potential 2024 candidate, said she did not believe Mr. Trump offered “the best chance” for the party in 2024.
“If we narrow our focus there, then we’re not talking to every single American,” Ms. Noem said in an interview as she sat across a mahogany table from her political adviser, Corey Lewandowski, who served as campaign manager for an early portion of Mr. Trump’s 2016 bid. “Our job is not just to talk to people who love Trump or hate Trump. Our job is to talk to every single American.”
Representative Mo Brooks of Alabama, a former Trump ally who spoke at the Jan. 6, 2021, rally that preceded the attack on the Capitol, put it more bluntly in a phone interview: “In 2020, there was no other option. In 2024 we will have candidates who are vastly superior and will do much, much better competing against the Democrat nominee than the loser Donald Trump has proven himself to be.”
Whether the complaints filter down to a Republican Party base that has long stuck by Mr. Trump remains to be seen. Predictions of his demise among the party’s rank and file have long been undone by primary results, particularly in this year’s Senate contests. Officials who are closest to the party’s base — state legislators and county G.O.P. leaders loyal to Mr. Trump — said Wednesday that they had not seen the sort of defections predicted by the Republican elite gathered in the swanky conference rooms of a Waldorf Astoria hotel within a stone’s throw of Disney World.
“I haven’t had anybody express their dissatisfaction with Trump since the midterms,” said Terry Brand, the Republican chairman in Langlade County in rural northern Wisconsin. “The people that supported Trump in 2016 and 2020, the real supporters, they’re going to support him again.”
Understand the Outcomes of the 2022 Midterm Elections
What we know. It seemed as if the conditions were ripe for a red wave in the 2022 midterms, but in the end Republicans generated no more than a red ripple, leading to an improbable election. Here’s what the results tell us so far:
Biden beat the odds. President Biden had the best midterms of any president in 20 years, avoiding the losses his predecessors endured and maintaining the Democrats’ narrow hold on the Senate, which will provide him with a critical guardrail against a Republican-controlled House.
G.O.P. faces a reckoning. A thin Republican majority in the House appears likely, but a poor midterms showing has the party wrestling with what went wrong: Was it bad candidates, bad messaging or the electoral anchor that appeared to be dragging the G.O.P. down, Donald J. Trump?
Trump under fire. Ignoring Republicans’ concerns that he was to blame for the party’s weak midterms showing, Mr. Trump declared his intention to seek the White House again in 2024. While Mr. Trump is counting on his faithful supporters, he appears to be losing deep-pocketed donors.
Abortion mattered. In the first major election since the fall of Roe v. Wade, abortion rights broke through, as Democrats seized on the issue to hold off a red wave. In all five states where abortion-related questions were on the ballot, voters chose to protect access or reject further limits on it.
Voters rejected election deniers. Every 2020 election denier who sought to become the top election official in a critical battleground state lost at the polls this year. Voters roundly rejected extreme partisans who promised to restrict voting and overhaul the electoral process.
Moderation won. In battleground states and swing districts, voters shunned extremists from the right and the left. Republicans received an especially sweeping rebuke from Americans who made clear they believe that the G.O.P. has become unacceptably extreme.
But even his allies say they have not seen a rush to the bandwagon either.
“I am not seeing a riptide of support going out with the president,” said Kenneth T. Cuccinelli, who served in Mr. Trump’s Homeland Security Department.
The transformation of Mr. Trump’s position in the party over the past week has been striking — and his campaign kickoff appears to have done little to silence the criticism.
Georgia Republicans have made it clear that they prefer that Mr. Trump stay away from campaigning on behalf of his old friend Herschel Walker in the state’s Dec. 6 Senate runoff election. Gov. Brian Kemp, who has tangled with the former president over the 2020 election and said he hasn’t spoken with him in years, said Mr. Trump’s grievances directed attention away from winning the 2021 contests there. That cannot happen again, Mr. Kemp said.
“I don’t think we need to be getting distracted,” he said. “The last runoff, people got distracted and they were focused on other things besides winning the runoff. And you saw what happened to us. So my message to people is, don’t worry about ’24.”
Three major party donors — Stephen Schwarzman, Ken Griffin and Ronald Lauder — said this week that they intended to back someone other than Mr. Trump or have no plans to support him this time. Mr. Trump’s daughter Ivanka said she would not be involved with his campaign, saying that she is “choosing to prioritize” her children. Groups like the conservative Club for Growth, once a staunch Trump ally, are circulating polling showing Mr. Trump trailing Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida by double digits.
Other potential contenders — including Ms. Noem, former Vice President Mike Pence and Gov. Glenn Youngkin of Virginia — are reassessing their 2024 chances in the wake of the midterms. Another possible contender, Mike Pompeo, who served as Mr. Trump’s secretary of state, wrote on Twitter that Republicans needed “leaders who are looking forward, not staring in the rearview mirror claiming victimhood,” a reference to Mr. Trump’s declaration on Tuesday that “I’m a victim.”
On Capitol Hill, some Republican lawmakers long loyal to Mr. Trump began a slow backpedal.
Representative Kevin McCarthy, who has tied his bid to become the next House speaker to Mr. Trump’s political legacy, wouldn’t say if he will endorse Mr. Trump for president. Senator Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, a staunch ally who won his 2018 election on the back of Mr. Trump’s endorsement and support, said he was rooting for a wide-open presidential primary.
“I hope a lot of other people get in,” Mr. Cramer said. “He’s not entitled to the job. None of us are.”
Plenty of others jumped to Mr. Trump’s side, however. They included not just his most fervent supporters — Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Representative Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina, who lost his primary — but rising stars, such as Wesley Hunt of Texas, one of two new Black Republicans elected to the House.
“Donald J. Trump is exactly the man America needs to save our nation from its rapid decline, courtesy of Joe Biden and the Democrat Party,” Mr. Hunt wrote in a formal endorsement.
John Fredericks, a syndicated conservative talk-radio host who attended Mr. Trump’s campaign event Tuesday, said Trump-endorsed Republicans who lost midterm elections had run lousy campaigns. He added that he had seen no evidence that Mr. Trump or his preferred candidates could be beaten in party primaries.
“Beat us,” Mr. Fredericks said. “Stop talking, stop having meetings, get in the primaries, get into conventions, get into the delegate meetings and beat us. This is a populist party and there’s no other candidate that we have except Donald Trump.”
That wasn’t the sentiment at the annual meeting of Republican governors.
“He’s a loser,” said Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, who won a commanding re-election victory last week. “He lost in 2020. And most Republicans agree with that.”
Former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, a longtime-but-no-more Trump ally, received a standing ovation on Tuesday morning after he told a roomful of party donors, governors and strategists that Mr. Trump cost the party victory in the past three federal elections.
But in an interview hours later, Mr. Christie acknowledged that the former president might not have lost his grip on the party’s base. “Primary voters need to understand the ramifications of another vote for Donald Trump,” said Mr. Christie, not ruling out his own 2024 bid. “It will mean four more years of a Democratic president.”
Polling indicates that about one-third of the Republican Party remains devoted to Mr. Trump, making it difficult for another candidate to oust him in a sprawling primary field. That explains why most elected Republicans have remained silent as they wait to see how far Mr. Trump gets and whether possible challengers like Mr. DeSantis will be able to withstand his taunts and assaults or will fold like his rivals in 2016.
“I am on the horns of a DeSantis-Trump dilemma,” said Tom Tancredo, a Republican and former Colorado congressman who helped pioneer the anti-immigration politics that Mr. Trump successfully exploited. “I guess it will just boil down to which looks more electable by primary time.” He said he thought that would be Mr. DeSantis.
Al Baldasaro, a retiring New Hampshire state representative and Trump campaign official, was at Mar-a-Lago on Tuesday, and was still brimming with excitement the day after. Of Mr. DeSantis and anyone else who challenges Mr. Trump in the primary, he predicted the former president would “eat them up.”
That threat of highly personal attacks from Mr. Trump may color the decisions of fellow Republicans considering entering the race. Gov. Spencer Cox of Utah, who said he’d like Mr. DeSantis to enter the presidential race, warned that Mr. Trump posed a unique threat to the party — particularly if he does not end up as its nominee.
“You have a candidate who isn’t afraid to bring down the party,” Mr. Cox said. “It’s a different calculation for him than it is for my colleagues.”
Reid J. Epstein and Lisa Lerer reported from Orlando, Fla., and Jonathan Weisman from Chicago. Catie Edmondson contributed reporting from Washington, and Maggie Haberman from New York.