Republicans Reckon With Midterm Election Fallout

The Republican Party, staring at the worst midterm performance by a party out of power in two decades, traded recriminations on Friday over whether the ultimate cause was poor candidates, an overheated message or the electoral anchor that appeared to be dragging the G.O.P. down, former President Donald J. Trump.

With election results still rolling in, a narrow Republican majority in the House was still likely, but the party’s path to capturing the Senate had narrowed. For Republican leaders who had predicted a red wave that would broadly rebuke President Biden, the disappointing showing was undeniable.

Democratic incumbents have so far won nearly all of their races, while Republicans have racked up surprising losses from Maine to Washington, with candidates endorsed by Mr. Trump losing the pivotal Senate contest in Pennsylvania and key House and statewide races in Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina and elsewhere.

“As a party, we found ourselves consistently navigating the power struggle between Trump and anti-Trump factions of the party, mostly within the donor class,” Paul Cordes, the Michigan Republican Party’s chief of staff, wrote in a memo on Thursday.

He continued: “That power struggle ended with too many people on the sidelines and hurt Republicans in key races. At the end of the day, high-quality, substantive candidates and well-funded campaigns are still critical to winning elections. We struggled in both regards to the detriment of Michiganders across the state.”

The first substantive battle for the party broke out over the shape of leadership in the next Congress, in both the House and the Senate.

Jason Miller, who is helping to organize Mr. Trump’s expected announcement next week that he will again seek the presidency, went on Steve Bannon’s internet radio show on Friday and issued a veiled threat toward Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the man who wants to be speaker and whom Mr. Trump has called “my Kevin.” If Mr. McCarthy wants the gavel, Mr. Miller said, “he must be much more declarative that he supports President Trump” in 2024.

Raising the heat, a potential rival for speaker, Representative Elise Stefanik of New York, the chairwoman of the House Republican Conference, leaped to endorse Mr. Trump for the 2024 nomination, writing, “It is time for Republicans to unite around the most popular Republican in America.”

Even in the Senate, where control hangs in the balance, Senators Rick Scott of Florida, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Mike Lee of Utah circulated a letter asking for a delay in leadership elections, amid calls from the former president to depose Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky as the Republican leader.

“We are all disappointed that a red wave failed to materialize, and there are multiple reasons it did not,” they wrote. “We need to have serious discussions within our conference as to why and what we can do to improve our chances in 2024.”

Senator Marco Rubio, handily re-elected to his seat in Florida, seconded the call. “We need to make sure that those who want to lead us are genuinely committed to fighting for the priorities & values of the working Americans (of every background) who gave us big wins in states like #Florida,” he wrote on Twitter, quickly receiving the backing of Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming.

Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, the party’s presidential nominee in 2012, released his own prescriptions for the future, which strongly hinted that Republican losses reflected the party’s embrace of rage and recrimination over policy proposals. He counseled Republicans to work with Democrats in the coming Congress to slow inflation by curtailing spending on Medicare and Social Security, to open broader pathways to legal immigration, and to address climate change globally while increasing domestic energy production.

For many Republicans in today’s party, he acknowledged, that would be the road “less traveled.”

“The more tempting and historically more frequented road would be to pursue pointless investigations, messaging bills, threats and government shutdowns,” he wrote.

Representative Liz Cheney, the Wyoming Republican exiled by her party for her resolute opposition to Mr. Trump, called the midterm results “a clear victory for Team Normal,” but speaking on Friday afternoon at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics, she signaled that Tuesday’s vote was “a step in the right direction.”

“We need stiffer spines,” she said.

The criticism lands as Republicans face a trajectory-altering decision: whether to continue to align behind Mr. Trump as the undisputed head of the party or to look to new leadership. The former president has signaled that he intends to force the issue by formally declaring next week that he will run for the White House again in 2024.

Representative Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, a Democrat who won re-election in a newly drawn district that leaned more Republican than before, said: “I desperately want two healthy parties in this country that are empathetic but have a different view of government in people’s lives. I cannot fix the Republican Party. Only they can fix themselves.”

She added, “But I can beat them at the ballot box again and again and again until they take a little trip together to rethink and revamp their approach.”

It’s unclear whether any of the Republican introspection about the election will make a difference. After the party’s losses in 2012, a post-mortem by the Republican National Committee counseled a move to the center, especially on immigration, to appeal to Latino voters and other voters of color. Republicans did the opposite, turning to Mr. Trump, who vowed to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, with what initially seemed like positive results for the party. Since then, he has led Republican candidates to underperform in 2018, 2020 and 2022.

In an interview on Friday, Representative Peter Meijer, a Michigan Republican who lost his primary after voting to impeach Mr. Trump, said Republicans had winning policy messages on education and so-called election integrity. But candidates then took those messages to extremes, he said, with talk of children identifying as cats or bamboo ballots manipulated by the Chinese. (The Trump-backed Republican who beat Mr. Meijer in the primary lost on Tuesday.)

“There’s this temptation to give in to those who view politics as entertainment and identity rather than policy,” he said. “It’s pretty clear that there’s a lot of folks who really enjoy and want to continue to reap the benefits of conservative governance, but what they’re a little bit less crazy on is conservative politics.” He called that politics “self-soothing and disconnected from reality.”

Roy Cooper, the Democratic governor of North Carolina and the head of the Democratic Governors Association, said in an interview on Friday that voters had assessed the economic issues that Republicans thought would be their deliverance, and weighed them against the prospect of Republican governance.

“Voters are not one-dimensional,” he said, adding that they ultimately opted for pragmatic leadership over “MAGA extremists who hang on to conspiracy theorists.”

Chris Sununu, the moderate Republican governor of New Hampshire, said on Friday that the policies his party put forward had turned voters off. A proposal by Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, for a national ban on abortion after 15 weeks, with exceptions for pregnancies that resulted from rape or incest or threatened the life of the mother, was supposed to be a moderate position for the G.O.P. to rally around.

Instead, it fueled a sense that Republicans were pushing extreme policies even onto Democratic states. Coupled with the plan by Rick Scott, the head of Senate Republicans’ campaign arm, to “sunset” the current versions of Medicare and Social Security, those policies were unnecessary “bits of gasoline on the fire,” Mr. Sununu said on a SiriusXM radio show.

And they fed a broader narrative that, for all of voters’ qualms about Democratic policies, they simply could not turn to Republicans as an alternative.

Voters’ judgment was “we’ve got to push back on extremism, we can fix policy later,” Mr. Sununu concluded.

The question was whether the party’s Trump flank would feel chastened or press its case in a narrowly divided House and Senate. In a long screed on Twitter, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican of Georgia, who will exercise outsize power if Republicans win a slim House majority, blamed everything but the Trumpism she embodies: the news media, the Democratic donor George Soros and poor candidates who lacked “work ethic & ability.”

But she ended on what might be a conciliatory note: “My personal commitment is this. I’m going to work as hard as I can for as long as I can to fix the problems in order to put America first & that is for every single American to have a good country to live in.”

In Mr. Trump’s defense, Mr. Scott said, “While some might disagree with his tactics, President Trump endorsed candidates he believed in.” He added: “He raised, spent money and campaigned to elect them. And he believed in and worked hard to elect a Republican majority in the Senate.”

What is clear is that a power struggle has begun over the future of the party. Mr. McCarthy, the Republican minority leader, pressed forward with his campaign for speaker as if Republican control of the House had been secured, announcing “Transition Teams so that on Day 1, House Republicans deliver for the American people.”

He said that Representative Jim Jordan, a pugilistic Republican from Ohio, and Representative James Comer of Kentucky would lead “oversight and accountability” — the raft of investigations that many Republicans hope will lead to the impeachments of Alejandro Mayorkas, the secretary of homeland security; Merrick B. Garland, the attorney general; and ultimately Mr. Biden, as well as criminal referrals for the president’s son Hunter Biden.

Representative Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican and ardent Trump supporter, said Mr. McCarthy’s actions were “already delegitimizing” the coming votes in the Republican conference for the party’s House leadership.

Russell Vought, a former Trump White House budget director, said of Mr. McCarthy, “It is incredibly disrespectful to his members to be that presumptuous when he knows he doesn’t have the votes to be speaker of the House.” He suggested that a small group of conservatives would deny Mr. McCarthy the gavel.

Maggie Haberman contributed reporting.


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