Off-year special elections always get more attention than they deserve. The recent Ohio congressional primaries are no exception, but their outcomes do provide clues to how national politics could proceed over the next three years.
And, in that calculus, President BidenJoe BidenRand Paul calls for Fauci's firing over 'lack of judgment' Dems look to keep tax on billionaires in spending bill Six big off-year elections you might be missing MORE scored a big win, while former President TrumpDonald TrumpSix big off-year elections you might be missing Twitter suspends GOP Rep. Banks for misgendering trans health official Meghan McCain to Trump: 'Thanks for the publicity' MORE caught a small win and a significant loss — if by proxy.
Biden got a big boost with the victory of Shontel Brown over Nina Turner in Ohio’s 11th Congressional District. Turner led the race early and had loud support from the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, including in-person campaigning by Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersRepublican spin on Biden is off the mark Sanders on Medicare expansion in spending package: 'It's not coming out' Briahna Joy Gray: Biden must keep progressive promises or risk losing midterms MORE (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezRepublican spin on Biden is off the mark House progressives call on Biden to end all new fossil fuel permitting Schumer endorses democratic socialist India Walton in Buffalo mayor's race MORE (D-N.Y.). But establishment Democrats poured in resources, and Rep. James Clyburn (D-Ga.) made defeating Turner a personal mission after her ill-advised insults.
In the end, the establishment (Brown) beat back the progressives (Turner) 50.4 percent to 44.3 percent, with a scattering of nobodies pulling in nearly nothing. The establishment victory in the most liberal district in Ohio (Cook Political Report Partisan Voting Index rating of D+32) boosts Biden by knocking back the loud left. A victory by Turner would have emboldened progressives, giving them the momentum to attempt to scupper the bipartisan infrastructure bill and any future compromises.
With the Brown win, Biden is on firmer political ground to withstand the more radical elements of his party.
Brown also showed that the establishment can successfully stand up to the far-left Twitterverse and leftist elites. That’s bad news for Trump and Republicans, who have found progressive-left radicalism a potent tonic for their recent losses.
Trump weaker in the GOP, but still in control
For Trump, a win is a win, and his guy won Ohio’s 15th District primary — but at 37 percent in an 11-way field, it’s not that impressive. Losing the 15th would have been a catastrophe, as it would have come on the heels of the loss of Trump’s endorsed candidate in Texas's 6th District.
The real takeaway is not that Trump is dominant; it’s that he is the most influential GOP personality because the unease and opposition to him is fractured. That dynamic leaves him as party leader, but his power is attenuated, posing significant risks for himself and Republicans who are putting all their chips on him for the 2022 elections, while keeping him the front-runner for the 2024 presidential nomination.
The challenge for Trump in the midterms is the sheer volume of races. With more than 450 House and Senate and state governor races, there is simply no chance Trump can successfully endorse in every race and police each one, making sure the “true” Trump candidate wins.
The two special elections have already shown that GOP voters are not going to automatically vote for the candidate with the Trump seal of approval — and that is for races where the former president’s support is well-known and promoted. In the cacophony of the midterms, Republican candidates would be well-advised to simply claim Trump’s support and let Trump and his team exhaust themselves in futile attempts to set the public straight.
In fact, given Trump’s abysmal ratings with Democrats and negative scores with independents, GOP hopefuls may want to avoid a Trump endorsement and ride the typical anti-incumbent off-year wave.
Unfortunately, Republicans might not be able to dodge Trump’s “help.”
While Republican House and Senate candidates do not need Trump to get elected, it is unlikely there will be an exodus of GOP support for Trump anytime soon. Regardless of how the midterms go, Trump will remain the odds-on favorite for the 2024 nomination, if he wants it.
Trump for president, again
Trump continues to have high approval ratings within the GOP, but there is a significant drop-off from his approval to whether even Republicans want him to run again in 2024. But the drop-off is not enough to make his nomination unlikely.
The Republican primary process for president aims to force a decision. Winners get all the delegates or big proportions, which pushes out the laggards and makes a brokered convention highly unlikely. A candidate with a dedicated 35 to 40 percent of the GOP facing a fractured field is in a practically unassailable position.
Trump did not rampage his way through the field in 2016. In fact, it took him longer to secure the nomination than any candidate since 1976. Trump did not get a majority in any state until New York on April 19 — over 35 contests in. What won the nomination for Trump in 2016 was the fractured opposition who refused to get out. Particularly egregious was strident Trump critic John Kasich who did more to hand Trump the Republican nomination than just about anybody.
Trump lost the first contest, Iowa, to Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOvernight Health Care — Presented by Carequest — Colin Powell's death highlights risks for immunocompromised The Senate confirmation process is broken — Senate Democrats can fix it Australian politician on Cruz, vaccines: 'We don't need your lectures, thanks mate' MORE, and barely finished ahead of Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSenate GOP campaign arm outraises Democratic counterpart in September House passes bills to secure telecommunications infrastructure Senators call for answers from US firm over reported use of forced Uyghur labor in China MORE. In fact, if Jeb Bush (who was clearly out of the running by then) had dropped out, and his sliver of voters (2.8 percent) had split between Cruz and Rubio, Trump would have wound up in third.
In South Carolina, Kasich and Bush soldiered on, hopelessly, collecting over 15 percent of the vote. Let’s say both had dropped out and endorsed Rubio, who was ideologically aligned with them: If their vote split two-thirds for Rubio and one-third for Cruz, Rubio would have won South Carolina and become the front-runner with all its 50 delegates.
In later contests, Kasich’s spoiler effort in Arkansas, Vermont, Virginia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Illinois, Missouri, and North Carolina was the margin between Trump and Cruz. Once Rubio dropped out, Kasich’s continued presence prevented a real one-on-one fight between Trump and Cruz that might have given the Texas senator an outside shot. Kasich may have thought he could force a brokered convention, but that shows ignorance of reality — or perhaps some people just can’t walk away from the spotlight.
The other dynamic helping Trump was that Cruz and Rubio were both strong enough to be competitive early, but not strong enough to knock the other out. If Cruz, for example, had been a bit stronger, forcing Rubio out after Nevada, Cruz likely would have won at least seven of the 11 Super Tuesday states, and Trump would have been on the ropes.
Any opposition to Trump in 2024 is likely to face the same problem.
Trump has enough hardcore support to win. Even in a weakened state, a fractured field would hand him the nomination. And that is what can be expected. Incredibly, in 2020 the “Never Trump” opposition could not unite — fielding four candidates opposing Trump.
The 2024 Republican nomination is Trump’s for the taking — but if he thinks he could be a two-time loser to Joe Biden, he just might not want it.
Keith Naughton, Ph.D., is co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, a public and regulatory affairs consulting firm. Naughton is a former Pennsylvania political campaign consultant. Follow him on Twitter @KNaughton711.