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What the midterms tell us about the race for the Republican presidential nomination

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DONALD TRUMP: Well, I think if they win, I should get all the credit. And if they lose, I should not be blamed at all.

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

That's former President Trump commenting about his midterm endorsements on the cable outlet NewsNation.

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TRUMP: But usually, what would happen is, when they do well, I won't be given any credit. And if they do badly, they will blame everything on me.

RASCOE: That was on Election Day. Republicans underperformed their expectations. And yes, there are fingers pointing to Trump, who is rumored to be close to announcing another presidential bid. Liam Donovan is a veteran of Republican campaigns, now at the lobbying firm Bracewell LLP. And he joins us now. Welcome to the program.

LIAM DONOVAN: Thanks, Ayesha.

RASCOE: Look. This is just the latest time that Republican officials have seemed to start pointing fingers at Donald Trump or expressed a desire to move on from him. How much weight do you put on the current criticism?

DONOVAN: Look. I think the skepticism is warranted in the sense that, as you said, we've been here before, at least among Republican elites establishment. I think the difference here is, what you've seen from former President Trump in each of his elections and really each election that Republicans have had since the Trump era began, was they beat expectations at some level. In 2016, obviously, he wasn't supposed to win. In 2018, when Democrats did actually have a good cycle, he was able to say, well, Republicans picked up Senate seats.

And so in 2020, he beat the spread. Obviously, Republicans did not win the presidency, but they did better than they were supposed to do, according to the expectations. So I think we're kind of full circle to that moment, where we finally get the bad election results, as a result, in part of President Trump, you know, affecting Republicans and at least having people rethink whether he is a net positive in this party going forward. Now, do the voters agree? The question remains unsettled.

RASCOE: That is a key question - is whether the base feels the same way. You do have some leading conservative voices - the New York Post, The Wall Street Journal editorial page, hinting at, maybe the GOP should start looking at Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Others are looking at Glenn Youngkin, Virginia's governor. But, you know, then you have house GOP conference chair Elise Stefanik flat-out endorsed Trump on Friday. She's trying to get ahead of the pack. So if Trump does announce soon, what do you think that does to the rest of the GOP field for 2024?

DONOVAN: This was probably going to happen either way. But it was expected to happen in a triumphant moment for President Trump. He was expected to take credit for this big wave that rippled across the country. And, of course, that didn't happen. So instead of doing this from a position of strength, he's obviously doing this from a position of weakness.

And I think the interesting thing is if he does indeed announce this coming week, that is with a no longer climactic but still important for him and for Republicans run-off election in Georgia, with his hand-picked candidate. And it will reflect on his political strength in a number of different ways. So I think he's taking a risk there. I don't know that it affects the immediate-term outcome of the 2024 jockeying, because these guys are going to wait and see what happens with him. The potential Trump competitors are keeping their powder dry at the moment.

RASCOE: When we talk about the results of Tuesday's race, the thing about that is in the primary, you are trying to talk to the base. And Trump - he still has pull with the base. That's how he was able to put his thumb on the scale and get, you know, the candidates he wanted in some of these races, like Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania for the Senate race or Herschel Walker in Georgia for that Senate race. What motivates the Republican base these days? If it's not Trump, is it the Supreme Court? We're in a post-Roe world.

DONOVAN: Well, one thing I will say, I mean, all these factors and dynamics predate President Trump. And in some ways, Trump is the culmination of those dynamics. Republicans have lost the Senate in 2010 and 2012, because they put up poor candidates. The difference here is that President Trump, I think, locked these fields into questionable candidates. You had people that might have been the strongest staying out because they didn't want to go anywhere near this. You had a number of strong governors who might have come in and easily won these seats that stayed out. So I think he's somebody that people don't necessarily want to grapple with.

But I think the things they want - it's a fighter - somebody with the Trump attitude. I think they also want somebody who can win. In 2016, he seemed like the guy that could win. Now, the question is, after he lost in 2020 - and he seems to have lost in 2022 - can he really present as the winner in 2024? And I think that's the best argument that a DeSantis or a Youngkin or a non-Trump Republican candidate has. He's not a winner anymore. He's a loser. You need to elect B.

RASCOE: Are there any presidential politics going on with Florida Senator Marco Rubio calling to wait a bit before voting on the Senate Republican leader, a position that's long been held by Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell? And we should note that you served as a campaign aide under McConnell's leadership. And it's not just Rubio - some other senators, as well, said that there should be a pause before voting for the next senate Republican leader.

DONOVAN: I think it's interesting because, I think, had Republicans had the sort of night they maybe were expecting, I think you would have gotten the same sort of chorus coming from - I mean, as it's been reported, I think Rick Scott, the current NRSC chair, was intending to make such a bid. And he is pushing for a similar delay. I think the Rubio effort comes from a different place. It's coming from a place of disappointment. And so if you read his statements, it's very much geared toward, OK, what went right in Florida, and what went wrong nationally? And we need to take a time out and take a look at that. You know, I think it certainly is an effort to distinguish himself and, you know, speak out as a voice that's kind of being obscured by the fact that everybody's talking about DeSantis in the context of Florida. But I think people forget that Rubio did win by 16 against a really strong candidate who actually outspent him there. So I think it's a way to make your voice heard as somebody who wants to be a leader in this party, one way or another.

RASCOE: That's former GOP campaign strategist Liam Donovan. Thank you so much.

DONOVAN: Thanks, Ayesha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe
Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.