WASHINGTON — A forced reckoning over a poor election performance has ruptured the Republican Party, sparking conflict at the highest levels over what went wrong and spurring challenges to the top two GOP leaders in Congress while the party grapples with whether to nominate Donald Trump for president again in 2024.
“I’m a physician, so I would say when the patient dies, you do an autopsy. So this is, in effect, the post-mortem,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., arguing that the party must move on from Trump after it "underperformed" in the midterms.
“We need to have a message which looks to the future, which addresses the needs of the American people, doesn’t focus upon times past and doesn’t focus on a single individual,” he said.
But party leaders disagree about what went wrong. While some blame Trump's continued dominance over the party for pushing away independent voters, others say the Republican leaders were timid and failed to inspire conservatives, and others argue that the party's campaign arm, at least in the Senate, misallocated its resources.
Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., the Senate GOP campaign chief who unsuccessfully challenged Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky for the top job in the caucus Wednesday, said the problem was a lack of a fighting conservative vision. He told colleagues that the caucus must be "far more bold and resolute than we have been in the past" to inspire Republican-leaning voters to turn out.
The GOP failed to pick up the one seat it needed to capture control of the Senate, despite a host of opportunities across the country. Democrats have clinched 50 seats, NBC News projects, with a Dec. 6 runoff in Georgia set to determine whether they will end with 50 or 51. And while Republicans have clinched the majority in the House, it will be a narrow one — a disappointment for the party after it expected a blowout victory.
But McConnell, who defeated Scott in a secret-ballot vote of 37-10, offered a different diagnosis: Republicans alienated and “frightened” moderate voters by failing to convey responsibility.
“We underperformed among voters who did not like President Biden’s performance — among independents and among moderate Republicans — who looked at us and concluded: too much chaos, too much negativity. And we turned off a lot of these centrist voters," McConnell said Wednesday. “We have a problem with people in the middle who still — even though there are not as many of them as there used to be — determine the outcome.”
The long-simmering feud between Scott and McConnell, who declined to offer an agenda ahead of the 2022 elections, escalated this week into open warfare between their staffs. Scott's advisers accused McConnell and his super PAC of not doing enough to support Republican Herschel Walker in the Georgia runoff, while McConnell allies accused Scott of mismanaging the party's election arm.
Cassidy said Scott is misreading the dynamic in criticizing McConnell for not laying out a vision of what a GOP Senate would accomplish. “He’s wrong about that,” Cassidy said. “Positions don’t come from the individual leader but from members themselves."
But Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., a Trump ally, said: "I think Sen. McConnell’s view is that Trump is largely to blame and that Republicans have an image problem because of Trump. I have to say that I don’t agree with that."
Trump said at his 2024 presidential campaign launch Tuesday night that the problem in the midterms was that voters didn't recognize how bad things are in the country.
“Much criticism is being placed on the fact that the Republican Party should have done better. And frankly, much of this blame is correct. But the citizens of our country have not yet realized the full extent of the pain our nation is going through," Trump said in the speech at his Florida property.
But some Republicans have been pointing the blame for the losses at some of Trump's own behavior.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a former GOP campaign chair and a potential successor to McConnell, pointed to the “constant rhetoric about looking back at the 2020 election” — which was led by Trump, who has repeatedly denied Biden’s victory — saying it was “not very appealing to voters.”
Cornyn said there’s no consensus inside the party about what went wrong. Instead, he said, “there are a lot of crosswinds, a lot of difficulties, and everybody’s kind of got their own theory.”
“There’s just a lot of cross-currents because of President Trump’s decision to run again, his endorsement of various candidates in primaries,” he said. “What I hope we learned from this is you can’t win the general election merely because of your base vote. You got to expand the vote beyond that. That’s sort of Politics 101, but sometimes apparently we forget.”
Across the Capitol, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., faces a more serious threat to his hopes of becoming speaker next year.
By a vote of 188-31, McCarthy defeated far-right Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona on Tuesday to be nominated for speaker. But that was the easy part: He will need 218 votes on the House floor on Jan. 3 to secure the job, and a faction of right-wing members vow to deny him that, seeking to grow their power in the next Congress.
“The promised red wave turned into a loss of the United States Senate, a razor-thin majority in the House of Representatives and upset losses of premiere political candidates,” Biggs said, pitching his candidacy as an attempt to “turn a page” on the status quo. “Minority Leader McCarthy does not have the votes needed to become the next speaker of the House, and his speakership should not be a foregone conclusion.”
Biggs promised changes in House procedures such as guaranteeing votes on amendments, limiting bills to single subjects and requiring legislation to go through committee before floor votes. Biggs and the ultraconservative Freedom Caucus, which he used to chair, are supporting Trump for president in 2024. McCarthy hasn’t made an endorsement, which he dodged a question about Wednesday.
And McConnell vows to "stay out of" the presidential campaign, even as Trump launches a steady stream of attacks on him and blames him for the party's failures in the midterms.
"I don’t have a dog in that fight," McConnell said Wednesday. "I think it’s going to be a highly contested nomination fight with other candidates entering."
One candidate whom Republican power players are encouraging to run is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who was re-elected last week by a wide margin and is facing attacks from Trump, his former ally, which he brushed off at a news conference Tuesday.
"When you’re leading, when you’re getting things done, you take incoming fire. That’s just the nature of it," DeSantis said. "At the end of the day, I would just tell people to go check out the scoreboard from last Tuesday night."