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No Exit

Republicans Are Starting to Regret Cultivating a Base of Extremist Voters

The party wants to move on from Trump and his preferred MAGA candidates. They haven’t convinced their base to go along.

Caroline Brehman/Getty Images
A Trump supporter yells at counterprotesters outside the U.S. Supreme Court during the Million MAGA March in Washington.

After Republicans did significantly worse in the midterm elections than expected, the party’s Brahmins took stock of the situation and decided that things weren’t all bad. “Republicans: Trump is your problem. Wake up,” summed up National Review, and much of what was left of the party’s anti-Trump faction agreed. Mitt Romney, who also pushed his colleagues to embrace fiscal responsibility, identified a paradox that had doomed his party: “If you get endorsed by him in the primary, you’re likely to win. If you get endorsed by him in the general, you’re likely to lose,” Romney told a reporter. “So, for someone who actually wants to win an election, getting endorsed by him is the kiss of death.”

Mitch McConnell, who was left doing another stint as Senate minority leader after the hoped-for “red wave” fizzled, came to a similar conclusion. “We ended up having a candidate quality test,” McConnell told reporters. “Our ability to control the primary outcome was quite limited in ’22 because the support of the former president proved to be very decisive in these primaries. So my view was do the best you can with the cards you’re dealt. Now, hopefully, in the next cycle we’ll have quality candidates everywhere and a better outcome.”

This was the consensus among much of the pundit class: Republicans had a candidate quality problem. If they had just run reasonable candidates instead of insane ones in races in Arizona, Georgia, and Pennsylvania, among others, they would be sitting in the catbird seat today. Recognizing you have a problem is always a good first step. Surely, with this knowledge in tow, the GOP won’t make the same mistake again.

Or will they? Months after their disastrous midterm showing, many extremists are once again poised to run in primary elections. Doug Mastriano, the election denier who got clobbered in Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial race, is pushing for a comeback in the form of a Senate run. And it’s not just Pennsylvania—far-right candidates are mulling runs and gaining traction amid clear signs they will fail miserably in the general election, putting GOP hopes of reclaiming the chamber at risk, per Politico. There’s onetime Fox News mainstay and former Sheriff David Clarke pondering a run against Senator Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin; Montanan Matt Rosendale is having a break from being photographed with Nazis to mull taking on Democratic Senator Jon Tester; meanwhile, Blake Masters and Kari Lake, both deemed too extreme for Arizonans in 2022, are considering running against newly independent Senator Kyrsten Sinema.

In fairness, the GOP has made some effort to course-correct. Steve Daines is the new chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, having taken the reins from Rick Scott. Daines insists that he is all about electability. “Chairman Daines has been clear he’s willing to do whatever it takes to nominate candidates who can win both a primary and a general election,” NRSC spokesperson Mike Berg told Politico, in a comment that could be interpreted as a shot at both Scott and Trump.

But Daines and his NRSC colleagues may not have enough thumbs to put on the scale to tip things back toward “electable.” Donald Trump’s endorsement isn’t the only factor. Republican voters, given the choice between extremists and staid alternatives, are sticking with the weirdos. For many in the party, the fact that the 2020 election was “stolen” is holy writ, and they want candidates willing to make that part of their message. Republican voters, moreover, aren’t thinking about electability—looking toward the presidential election cycle, a recent poll found that Republicans prefer a candidate with whom they agree over one who can beat Biden. Trump himself is soaring in the polls, leading his main rival, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, by 15 or 20 points or more in most polls. The GOP base is as issue-oriented as ever, but those issues are now more often the kind that generate attention only in hermetically sealed environments, such as right-wing cable news. Concerns about “election integrity” and “wokeness” have yet to be translated into election-winning ideas, however.

In 2022, Trump’s endorsement certainly put some candidates over the top in their primaries—that is particularly true of Dr. Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania and J.D. Vance in Ohio. But these were candidates who needed to win over voters who were skeptical of their far-right bona fides: Oz had previously been a TV doctor; Vance had, only a few years earlier, been one of the country’s most prominent Trump critics. Some candidates who straddle the far-right/establishment line—particularly Governors Ron DeSantis and Glenn Youngkin—have found success in the party. But it’s not evident that their message would work nationally or, for that matter, if there are candidates who fit their mold who are ready and willing to run in competitive states like Arizona and Pennsylvania.

The involvement of the NRSC and other GOP organs could even backfire—candidates such as Mastriano and Lake would love to run ads about how the Republican establishment is out to get them. It’s easy to see a situation that’s the inverse of what happened in 2022, with the endorsement of the NRSC acting as a kiss of death in the primary.

Naturally, all the effort to find and install more “electable” candidates to run in the most important primaries may succeed in the end. But as with all of the latter-day hand-wringing about how the power of Trump’s endorsement was the cause of the party’s chronic underperformance in the 2022 midterms, there’s a larger point being missed. Extreme candidates succeed in Republican primaries because Republican voters prefer extreme candidates to the alternative, and they’ve been pushed to those preferences by the very same party elites that now want to change course.

This article has been updated.