Republican leaders in Washington and around the country are openly blaming Trump for leading the party to its third consecutive electoral letdown. A conservative press that cheered his presidency reprised the hostile tone many right-leaning outlets took when he first appeared on the political scene in 2015. And an emboldened array of potential 2024 competitors for the nomination have stepped forward to suggest an alternative future for the party, even if they are not formally joining Trump in the race yet.
Few major donors or even former Trump administration officials immediately came to his defense — with some, most notably Blackstone CEO Steve Schwarzman, a longtime adviser to Trump in the presidency, saying he would support someone else. And some polls show Trump has seen significant erosion among Republicans.
“For the first time since the 2020 election it is clear that Trump is far more vulnerable than people may have thought,” said John Tillman, CEO of the American Culture Project, a conservative nonprofit group funded by major donors to the GOP. “As Trump continues to focus on himself, criticize fellow Republicans, endorse less competitive candidates that go on to lose — that means he is helping more and more Republican primary voters see his flaws.”
Trump announced his 2024 plans on Tuesday night at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla. — with few Republican leaders in attendance, with Fox News and other cable networks cutting away from his full remarks, and with the networks declining to air it live. About 170 miles away in Orlando, concern about Trump was a constant theme of a meeting of the Republican Governors Association, a three-day gathering near Walt Disney World. Multiple elected leaders there blamed Trump for the party’s disappointing showing and offered fresh hope that Republican voters might soon choose to move beyond his style of politics.
“Our children learn a lot by what we say and what we do. And they especially mimic and learn by how we treat other people. And there is not much inspiring about the way we treat people in politics,” Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) said at one panel discussion. He argued that a return to a “degree of civility” would “inspire a group of voters” and benefit Republicans.
Back in Washington, Trump’s clout within the party suffered another setback as Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky defeated Sen. Rick Scott of Florida to remain the Senate’s Republican leader. Trump has repeatedly demanded McConnell’s immediate ouster and made clear his preference for Scott, yet the challenge attracted only 10 votes.
House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy of California — fresh off his own win in leadership elections but short of the votes needed to become speaker in January after the GOP clinched the House — declined to endorse Trump on Wednesday, telling reporters at the Capitol, “You guys are crazy.”
McCarthy told others before the election that he did not expect to immediately endorse Trump if he ran for president again. He was the first member of the House leadership to endorse Trump in 2016 — as well as the first major Republican to publicly embrace Trump after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol — and Trump has been supporting him for speaker.
Advisers say Trump sees being an outsider as a valuable political advantage and wants to talk about “draining the swamp” and how the establishment — and the entire media — is against him. But his team also courted a number of advisers, members of Congress and other influential Republicans, including Republican National Committee members, who did not show up on Tuesday night.
The party’s chairwoman, Ronna McDaniel, was not present. Nor were several of Trump’s most reliable congressional allies, such as Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, Matt Gaetz of Florida or Jim Jordan of Ohio, who in some cases blamed their absence on the weather.
Among the few notable Republicans present were Rep. Madison Cawthorn (N.C.), who lost his primary and is leaving office; Michigan GOP co-chair Meshawn Maddock; and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. Instead, the crowd was padded with Trump rally superfans, alt-right influencers, and alumni of various Trump political and business ventures. There were no prominent elected officials.
“His team was hoping for far more people there and they didn’t get it,” said one senior Republican, who like some others spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose internal discussions.
Trump used his announcement speech to portray himself as the underdog taking on the world.
“I don’t like to think of myself as a politician, but I guess that’s what I am. I hate that thought,” he said. “We will be resisted by the combined forces of the establishment, the media, the special interests, the globalists, the Marxist radicals, the corporations, the weaponized power of the federal government, the colossal political machines, the tidal wave of dark money, and the most dangerous domestic censorship system ever created by man or woman.”
And as much as he wants to be an outsider, people close to him say he needs to cement establishment endorsements and show some political strength to stymie a range of challengers. So far, many allies and advisers are simply dodging the question or remaining noncommittal.
After the launch, Trump received snap endorsements from Rep.-elect Max Miller (R-Ohio) — a former White House aide — and Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.), both of whom won their seats with significant help from Trump.
“As President Trump said in his announcement speech, America is in decline due to the weak leadership of Joe Biden,” said Trump spokesman Steven Cheung. “President Trump is running on a platform to stop the staggering economic decline of the past two years, the invasion of our southern border, and to defeat the establishment of both parties that have dragged us into endless wars and consistently put Americans last.”
Trump announced support on Truth Social on Wednesday from Greene; Paxton; unsuccessful Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake; Rep.-elect Wesley Hunt of Texas; Reps. Troy E. Nehls of Texas, Mary E. Miller of Illinois and Mike Carey of Ohio; and the New York Young Republican Club. Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York and Gaetz also endorsed Trump before the announcement.
But other lawmakers and his own former Cabinet officials have not rushed to Trump’s side. Former vice president Mike Pence and former secretary of state Mike Pompeo are making moves to run against him, with Pompeo sounding increasingly critical of Trump. Former Trump defense secretary Mark T. Esper called him “unfit for office” in a CNN interview on Wednesday, and former energy secretary Rick Perry told the Texas Tribune, “Show me what you got.”
Some of the party’s top donors are also maintaining a wait-and-see approach, not ready to coalesce around a single challenger — what many believe ultimately may be the top strategy to defeat Trump — but not wanting Trump to clear the field either, according to people in touch with the contributors. One Republican operative with ties to donors said many are deterring some Republican elected officials from immediately endorsing Trump by making clear it could cost them financial support for future bids for higher office or leadership positions.
“I don’t think most major Republican donors are worried about it right now,” said Doug Deason, a prominent Texas donor who supported Trump and hosted major fundraisers for him. “We are waiting for the completion of the midterms, then will watch for the next few months who announces and then make a decision. We have a huge bench of qualified candidates, unlike the Democrats.”
A few donors have been more direct about tiring of Trump, such as Schwarzman, billionaire investor Ken Griffin and metals refiner Andy Sabin. Ronald Lauder, a prominent New York donor and longtime friend of Trump’s, will not back him in 2024.
“Mr. Lauder has no plans to support Donald Trump,” a Lauder spokesman said.
Trump also lost the support of the Club for Growth, one of the largest outside spenders in Republican campaigns. Trump has gone through rounds of confrontation with the group before, and never enjoyed the most enthusiastic support among many traditional party donors.
But his success at online fundraising and knack for driving press coverage has made him less reliant on them than many other candidates.
“Money is not as big a deal to him as it is to other people, because he’s just an earned media machine,” said Cliff Sims, a former Trump administration staffer. “The campaign has always been him, an airplane, a rally and tens of thousands of people, and then some press interviews.”
South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R), who said this summer that she would support Trump if he decided to run for president again, declined to say on Tuesday — hours before Trump’s announcement — whether she would endorse him.
“Politics changes so much in six months or eight months, so anybody who thinks they are predicting or laying down their marker today has no idea what it is going to look like,” she said. “I am focused on being the governor of South Dakota. I don’t have any plans to run for president.”
Noem said she had received an invitation to attend his Mar-a-Lago announcement but was committed to the Republican governors event in Orlando so could not attend.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R), who is considering a presidential campaign announcement in January after he leaves office, said the midterm election results were “an alarm bell” that the party needs to shift directions. Hutchinson, who was traveling in Iowa on Wednesday, said he watched Trump’s announcement with concern.
“I thought he was right on target in terms of his criticism of Biden’s policies, but then he drifted into the same grievances and negative tone that we have seen before that has cost us elections,” he said. “I am confident that there will be good alternatives in 2024.”
At the Republican governors meeting, Trump’s name was rarely invoked favorably, and much of the excitement centered around Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who won in a landslide on Election Day and received a standing ovation at the meeting as he described his own ability to win over historically Democratic parts of the state.
DeSantis, who was introduced by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) and interviewed onstage by Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts (R), never mentioned Trump in his address, according to people in the room, and instead talked about his large win in Florida. Earlier in the day, he appeared to dismiss Trump’s attacks on him as the noise of an also-ran.
“One of the things I’ve learned in this job is when you’re leading, when you’re getting things done, you take incoming fire, that’s just the nature of it,” he said. “We’ve focused on results and leadership, and at the end of the day, I would just tell people to go check out the scoreboard from last Tuesday night.”
Still, Trump has overcome pushback from within the party before, and he maintains considerable advantages over his 2016 run and other potential primary rivals.
“It’s a deja vu all over again situation of what we’ve seen in the past, and I’d argue he’s in a stronger position now than he was before,” said Doug Heye, a Republican operative who has long been critical of Trump. “He didn’t have that base of support before. It started as a lark — even his own people will tell you that. And he has more professional people around him, which he didn’t at the beginning last time. And he has a database that’s extremely large and valuable.”