By the time votes were counted in New Hampshire on Tuesday, ex-South Carolina governor Nikki Haley was vowing to continue her quixotic primary run against former president Donald Trump. “It’s time to put the negativity and chaos behind us,” she told supporters, as news of her second-place finish rolled in.
The conventional wisdom of how this year’s Republican primary has gone goes something like this: After the 2022 midterms, Trump was on the out in favor of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. DeSantis won the hearts of GOP tastemakers with his anti-woke crusading and anti-media pugilism. He was the natural MAGA successor, famously labeled “DeFuture” by Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post.
Then DeSantis went on an unexpected journey. He barely defeated Haley in Iowa, and lost to Trump by double digits. It seems the Florida governor’s fortunes soured when Trump’s legal problems gained momentum.
The former president’s indictment by a New York City grand jury caused a rallying to the flag that brought skeptical voters back into Trump’s camp. Even those who had previously been turned off by his conduct and soured on his potency as an electoral force by disappointing results in the 2022 midterm elections seemed to change their minds.
This theory also posits that none of Trump’s opponents ever had a chance of dethroning him once he reached the status of criminal defendant four times over. Republican voters apparently believe that any effort to secure accountability from the disgraced former president is per se illegitimate.
But Republican political veterans and insiders who spoke to The Independent painted a different, far more damning picture of the failure of DeSantis, Haley, and the rest of the Republican primary field (save for avowedly anti-Trump contenders Chris Christie and Asa Hutchinson) to effectively campaign against the ex-president.
The failure, say these onetime GOP stalwarts, stems from the amnesia-inducing effect Trump has had on an entire generation of Republican would-be chief executives.
In short, they say Trump’s dominance of the party — even in defeat — has caused other successful politicians to forget the nuts and bolts of how to campaign against a vulnerable opponent with easily exploitable flaws.
One longtime consultant — who asked for anonymity because they still work on Republican campaigns and fear being blacklisted by Trump and his allies — told The Independent that the collective cowardice of the GOP field showed through when no one seemed to know how to attack the ex-president over his criminal history.
“DeSantis had a moment. He’s an ex-Navy JAG, a Harvard-educated lawyer who served as a military prosecutor. He could have called out Trump with each indictment and pointed out that he, unlike his opponent, is not an accused criminal,” they said.
“In politics, your opponent getting indicted is like Christmas, Easter, and your birthday all rolled into one. Pretending it’s part of a witch hunt against the other guy is playing his game and letting him define the rules of the contest, and it’s complete bullsh*t to think DeSantis couldn’t have made hay of it all, but he lost his damn nerve,” they added.
Another Republican operative with ties to the now-defunct DeSantis operation conceded that their candidate had lost his nerve. They added that the Florida governor should have gone on the attack long before indictments started to drop.
“The Mar-a-Lago raid should have been used as a wake-up call. The FBI wasn’t knocking on the governor’s mansion door and we should have been screaming about it from the top of our lungs when we had the conservative street cred to do so,” they said.
During his aborted presidential run, DeSantis assembled a team of influencers and social media personalities who’d become prominent during the Trump years to relentlessly flog his candidacy. But even these former Trump boosters couldn’t push positive narratives about the Sunshine State executive to a point were he ever picked up much momentum.
One of those pro-DeSantis voices, YourVoice America host Bill Mitchell, told The Independent that the wagon-circling effect Trump benefited from when he was first indicted was difficult for DeSantis to counter because of Trump’s efforts to delegitimize law enforcement efforts against him.
“It really was a catch-22,” he said, because telling voters that Trump was a criminal defendant rather than a persecuted man would be seen as “standing up for the two-tiered justice system”.
Mitchell, who was once one of the most popular and influential pro-Trump voices in the lead-up to the 2016 and 2020 elections, said he believed DeSantis hesitated to attack Trump over the criminal charges because he “didn’t want to seem like he was toxic, like Trump”.
“But the problem is that when you got a guy like Trump, who is shooting flaming cannonballs at you all day — if you don’t respond in kind, you’re going to look weak,” Mitchell said. Trump’s effect on the party has led that weakness to infect an entire cohort of officeholders who would otherwise be seen as rising stars in the party, he added later.
Mitchell said Trump has caused Republicans to be averse to running the sort of “highly emotional, highly visual campaign” that would be required to beat him out of fear of angering his base.
“God says in the Bible, ‘I’d rather you be hot and cold, because if you’re lukewarm, I’ll spit you out of my mouth,’ and this is the problem we have — too many of the candidates running against Trump went at it from a lukewarm standpoint, hoping not to offend the middle and so on and so forth, as opposed to just out-Trumping Trump and just going hard at this guy,” he added.
Mitchell pointed out that Trump could see his poll numbers plummet in the event he is convicted of any charges against him, causing him to lose to Biden for sure.
Sarah Longwell, the ex-Republican strategist who now runs Defending Democracy Together, said in a phone interview that the Trump effect on the GOP will have a long tail in future elections. That’s because the next crop of presidential hopefuls will lack the political skills necessary to survive general elections, even if they’ve adapted to survive in Trump-era GOP politics.
She told The Independent that the reason even the smallest attempts to use Trump’s alleged criminality against him had failed was because no one running had the requisite charisma to get it done.
“Attacking him was going to take a certain amount of political talent … You were going to have to do it in ways that demonstrated that you were the alpha on this,” she said.
The problem candidates like DeSantis had, she continued, was that he was not able to talk about how Trump was “damaged goods” in a way that resonated.
“It’s not that it was impossible — we just never saw anybody do it,” she said. The failed candidates were caught in a “triangle of doom” between themselves, GOP voters and “right-wing infotainment media”.
She said the effect of the “triangle of doom” has been to make GOP politicians afraid of their own voters. It has also rendered those same voters immune to the charms of normal politics, making them view even the most dyed-in-the-wool conservatives as suspect if they spend enough time in Washington that they look like “regular politicians”.
Longwell added that once Trump is off the scene, it’s unclear who would meet the voters’ demand for non-politician figures with no interest in reaching across the aisle.
“They loathe regular politicians, they think they sell them out, they think they’re part of a uniparty that compromises with Democrats, they are not interested in governing, and they also like having their worldview enforced by somebody,” she said. “So who like that emerges post-Trump? I don’t think it’s a Josh Hawley or Tom Cotton … Those people read to voters as somebody who is just another establishment politician who they don’t like.”
“Being a two-time Senator just isn’t what it used to be to get you in line to move upward, so I think the Republican Party is going to go through some things.”