Nov 29, 2023  |  
 | Remer,MN
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Seth McLaughlin

NextImg:DeSantis holds an edge over Trump in building GOP

Republicans hold the slimmest of majorities in New Hampshire’s House right now and GOP officials in the state worry they won’t hold on to it if former President Donald Trump is the party’s presidential nominee next year.

During the years that Mr. Trump has been the undisputed leader of the GOP, Chris Maidment, chairman of the Republican Party in Hillsborough County, says swing voters, particularly in the suburbs, have turned away.

“If the election were tomorrow and Donald Trump was the nominee, I would be nervous,” Mr. Maidment told The Washington Times. “As it stands right now, I don’t think he is in the right position to grow the party.”

It’s a striking turn for a man who promised Republicans in 2016 that they would “get tired of winning” with him at the helm.

His four years in office saw the GOP lose majorities in both the U.S. House and Senate and shed eight governorships.

Meanwhile, in Florida, Republicans have enjoyed a boom since 2018 under Mr. Trump’s most prominent GOP rival, Gov. Ron DeSantis, who jumped into the presidential primary race on Wednesday.

Under Mr. DeSantis, Republicans in Florida swept the state’s top offices and claimed supermajorities in both chambers of the legislature. Mr. DeSantis cruised to a whopping 19-point win over his Democratic opponent, former Gov. Charlie Christ.

Registered Republicans also surpassed Democrats for the first time in state history on Mr. DeSantis’ watch.

“In addition to bringing new voters into the Republican Party, DeSantis won independents, women, and Hispanics in his 2022 re-election and flipped several traditionally blue counties for the first time in a generation,” a senior DeSantis campaign official said. “In an election where bringing voters back into the fold is critical to our party’s success, there is only one candidate with a proven record of doing so.”

Mr. Trump has challenged the idea that Mr. DeSantis deserves credit for the GOP’s winning in Florida.

“Florida has been successful for many years, long before I put Ron there — It’s amazing what Ocean and Sunshine will do!” Mr. Trump, whose endorsement helped get Mr. DeSantis elected in 2018, said in a recent email blast.

While most of the GOP primary discussion over the next year will center on policy, the ability to build the Republican Party will be a significant undercurrent — and for good reason.

If Republicans win the White House but fail to secure majorities in Congress, the next president will struggle to get big things done on the policy front. The better the GOP does at the ballot box, the more a president can achieve.

Mr. DeSantis isn’t the only Republican primary candidate with gubernatorial experience who built the GOP.

Nikki Haley, who was governor of South Carolina from 2011 to 2017, oversaw a slight uptick in the number of Republican seats in her state legislature.

In Arkansas, Asa Hutchinson, who just stepped down after eight years as governor, led Republicans to major gains in his legislature, adding more than 30 state House and Senate seats to the GOP’s column.

Mr. Trump’s record is not so stellar.

Heading into the 2016 election, Republicans held 54 U.S. Senate seats and 247 House seats. They lost control of the Senate in 2020, as Mr. Trump sought re-election, and slipped further behind in 2022, falling to 49 seats.

In the House, Republicans lost their majority in Mr. Trump’s first mid-term election in 2018 and then regained the majority last year — albeit by a far slimmer margin than analysts had projected.

The GOP also lost some 200 seats in state legislatures between 2017 and 2021, and the party saw seven governorships flip from Republicans to Democrats.

In 2022, even without Mr. Trump in the White House, some party operatives blamed him for Republicans’ subpar showing, saying he found a way to turn what should have been a referendum on President Biden into a choice between Biden and Trump politics.

Mr. Trump, for his part, blamed abortion politics and a complacent GOP electorship for the party’s struggles in 2022.

Mr. Trump’s team says if he gets another chance at the White House, he’s well-positioned to reinvigorate Republicans by continuing a realignment that’s seen lower-income and less-educated voters drift into Republicans’ orbit, even as college-educated and higher-income voters flee.

“President Trump is the undisputed leader of the party, which has now become the party of working-class men and women,” said Trump campaign spokesman Steven Steven Cheung. “In just his first term, he led the economy to record highs, nominated three Supreme Court justices that overturned Roe v. Wade, made the United States respected on the world stage, secured the border, and built the America First movement from the ground up.”

Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist, went further, saying Mr. Trump may be the only person who can lead the Republican Party to triumph over a Washington establishment bent on derailing the GOP.

“We are at the point where the next commander in chief can not learn on the fly because you have to fix the mechanics in Washington to elevate the party brand,” Mr. O’Connell said. “We need someone who has the experience to go into Washington DC to clean it out.”

Jim Merrill, a veteran New Hampshire-based GOP strategist, acknowledged Mr. Trump’s ability to find voters who haven’t backed Republicans.

“I think with Trump the one good thing he has shown in his years in public life has been his ability to bring non-traditional voters, or not your typical Republicans, out and get them involved in the process,” he said.

But he said it’s an “open question” whether those voters are loyal Republicans, or merely loyal to Mr. Trump.

“I do think Ron DeSantis comes at it first from a Republican Party first perspective, whereas Donald Trump comes at it from a Donald Trump first perspective, which isn’t always good for the party,” he said.

David Kochul, an Iowa-based GOP strategist, put it more bluntly: “I can’t see how an unpopular one-term president in his late seventies can be good for the long-term health of a political party.”

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at