Within a day after the midterm elections, a narrative emerged among mainstream political analysts: Given the setbacks suffered by some GOP candidates endorsed by Donald Trump and the strong re-election victory by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, GOP insiders would work to clear the way for DeSantis to win the GOP presidential nomination in 2024.
But top UC Berkeley political scientists, in interviews yesterday, offered a different picture: Efforts by party leaders to derail Trump have failed repeatedly since he first campaigned for the presidency in 2015. He still holds a powerful corps of the GOP base. And because of his combative nature, he certainly — or almost certainly — will not go quietly.
More likely, the scholars said, Trump, DeSantis and perhaps others will wage an escalating campaign for control of the GOP’s radicalized base, and the party, before the next election. And the political turbulence is likely to roil America’s entire political culture.
“I’m skeptical of the idea that Trump’s moment in the spotlight is passing or in decline just because some of his endorsed candidates didn’t perform as well as expected in the midterms,” said Charlotte Hill, director of the new Democracy Policy Initiative at Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy.
“Trump really has positioned himself as the strongman authoritarian figure,” Hill added, “so that can make it hard to draw too many conclusions about his viability as a political leader from the performance of his preferred candidates. It’s very possible that right-leaning voters don’t like Trump’s acolytes, but they will continue to support him as the leader of the party.”
Added Henry Brady, former dean of the Goldman School: “Trump is weakened — but whether he’s weak is the big question.”
The midterms were hardly a full-on disaster for the former president. A New York Times study found that more than 200 candidates for state and national office won election after embracing Trump’s claim that the 2020 election was stolen from him, or who questioned the outcome. Among the most dramatic wins was J.D. Vance, the writer allied with a top conservative billionaire and endorsed by Trump, who captured an Ohio seat in the U.S. Senate.
But in key battleground states such as Georgia, Pennsylvania and Arizona, Trump’s high-profile, right-wing U.S. candidates were either defeated, at risk of defeat or forced into a runoff election. The Berkeley political scientists said it seems increasingly likely that the Democrats will hold narrow control of the U.S. Senate. The outcome of the House races remains uncertain, though it seems possible that the Republicans will control the chamber with only a narrow margin over the Democrats.
Challenges, disruptions and threats across the political landscape
With the outcome still being resolved, the scholars see threat and instability across the political landscape. Some of that is the usual uncertainty that comes after an election.
For example, the Democrats are largely pleased with the outcome of the midterms, but they’re facing deep internal conflict over their struggle to connect with white working-class and rural voters. Many in the party are questioning whether U.S. President Joe Biden, now nearly 80, is too old to seek a second term.
But other challenges are unusual, linked to the nation’s polarization and a powerful anti-democratic movement based in the Republican Party.
Trump is facing investigations that could lead to criminal charges — and potentially to furious counterattacks.
Kari Lake, the hard-right, pro-Trump candidate for governor in Arizona, is trailing Democrat Katie Hobbs by a narrow margin, with tens of thousands of votes still to be counted. Already, Lake is suggesting the election was rigged against her and seems poised to challenge the outcome.
In the U.S. House, even if Republicans win control, their majority will be narrow. Dozens of new members are 2020 election deniers, and at least one has been linked to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Some GOP leaders promise a range of investigations into Biden and other Democrats that would inject more chaos and division into governance.
Could the Republicans move even further right?
The Berkeley scholars saw little sign that Republicans are ready to moderate their politics. Indeed, an internal fight could reinforce the party’s hard-right turn — or drive the party and its base further to the right, they said.
Even before the election, DeSantis was widely seen as a potential challenger to Trump. The question was whether he would risk running a campaign against a still-popular former president. But after his huge re-election in Florida this week, DeSantis’ calculation may have shifted.
At a victory celebration, his supporters chanted, “Two more years!” signaling a readiness to take Trump on in 2024. Among party leaders and donors, there may be rising interest in DeSantis, said Eric Schickler, co-director of the Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies .
“There has long been a contingent of Republicans looking for a way to get past Trump, or beyond Trump,” Schickler said. “But they’ve been stymied by the fact that Trump is the one figure who’s been most successful in mobilizing the party base.”
Schickler said the GOP’s setbacks Tuesday raised the odds that DeSantis will run — and that he’ll find support among some party leaders who find him “less erratic” than Trump.
But far from moderating the party’s rightward momentum, that could reinforce it.
Trump and DeSantis have a lot in common, the scholars said. Both are hard-right. Both are fighters who aren’t afraid of causing offense. And that raises a question: How far would they go to win the hearts of a radicalized base?
Their contest might result in a noisy, divisive campaign, but in Schickler’s view, that’s not unusual in U.S. politics. Think Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama in 2008, or Clinton and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2016. After the campaign was settled, the foes quickly joined forces.
“It’s potentially very different with somebody like Trump,” he explained, “just because you can’t assume he’ll be a team player afterwards.”
The scholars saw few scenarios in which Trump would back down — unless, Schickler said, he was indicted and his opponent offered him a pardon.
The base has the power
Ultimately, that gives the base tremendous power in setting the GOP’s course over the next two years. And the base still seems solidly with Trump.
In August, Hill said, polls showed that Republican voters saw Trump more favorably than DeSantis. Some 60% wanted Trump to run again, and even more thought he could recapture the presidency.
A new poll , conducted just before the election, showed that Trump’s numbers were down, and DeSantis’ were up — but Trump still led him 48% to 26%, with another 26% going to someone else.
“I don’t think that the underperformance of the Republicans in the midterms is a great indication that the base has moved away from Trump,” Hill said.
A key question, in Brady’s mind, is whether voters in the base and others are ready for a change.
“I think it’s going to be interesting to see, after the midterms, whether members of Congress are going to go back to their districts and start finding out that the people are saying, ‘Let’s stop talking about 2020. Let’s stop talking all the time about Donald Trump. Let’s start talking about trying to solve some of the problems we have.’”
Is there anything that can pull the country together?
Looking at the post-election numbers, both Hill and Brady saw the midterms as an affirmation of the Democrats’ strategy to focus on the health of American democracy. But the results were so close, and the nation remains so divided, that neither scholar expressed much optimism about the months ahead.
“The reality,” said Hill, “is that our political system is designed to function when there is significant overlap in the values and priorities of people and the identities of people from both major parties. But when the parties diverge on all of those dimensions, … then politicians can crystallize how different they are from their opposition, and that just exacerbates those divisions.
“And we now have one party that has been taken over by people who deny election results and reject democracy itself. … I think it’s going to keep getting worse.”
Brady’s outlook is not much brighter. Polarization is so deeply entrenched throughout the culture, he said, and there’s no clear way to rebuild the trust that holds a democratic society together.
Still, he said, the midterm results may buy some time — and that’s a reason for hope, however faint.
“Before the election, “ Brady said, “I was worried this would be the start of the fire, and 2024 would be the inferno. But maybe the results will help decelerate a little bit the movement to deny the results of democratic and fair elections, at least for the moment. I think that, for now, the movement is not going to accelerate, although it will continue.”