Republicans start pushing Trump into backseat amid mixed election
Former President Donald Trump dances during his speech Friday at the Faith and Freedom “Road to Majority” conference at Nashville’s Gaylord Opryland Convention Center. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Former President Donald Trump announced a third run for the White House Tuesday night, even as Republicans nationwide are making it clear he no longer pulls the party’s strings.
In the wake of a mixed showing for the GOP in last week’s election, Trump lost a bit of his luster.
For example, state Rep. Jason Zachary, a Knoxville Republican, tweeted he is thankful for Trump’s efforts during his presidency yet noting that two years of boastful tweets are “not the path forward for victory in 2024.”
“The GOP does need a bold, decisive, proven, unifying conservative leaders. That man is now @RonDeSantisFl,” Zachary tweeted.
His message came in response to Trump’s tweet that with the election in Florida finished, it should be noted that in 2020 he received 1.1 million more Florida votes than DeSantis, “5.7 million to 4.6 million? Just Asking?”
DeSantis captured the Florida gubernatorial race and is expected to make a run for the presidency, setting up a tense showdown with Trump.
The campaign is expected to pit Republicans against each other in what could become a blood-letting.
State Sen. Mark Pody likes Trump and DeSantis, and while acknowledging the election didn’t turn out quite the way Republicans wanted, he contends that in retrospect taking back the U.S. House would be considered a victory.
“I really love Trump’s policies, but sometimes I wish we could just take his Twitter away,” Pody says. “I think there’s a lot of people that feel that way, that his policies and what he stands for and what he can get done is great, but sometimes his comments don’t need to be where we’re building our party. They seem to be tearing our party down rather than building each other up.”
Pody, a Lebanon Republican who now represents a portion of Davidson County under the new redistricting plan, paid for a bus of Tennesseans to travel to Trump’s Jan. 6 rally, which evolved into a full-blown storming of the U.S. Capitol.
While Trump had a strong record of endorsing victorious candidates last week, Republicans were disappointed they didn’t do better, failing to win the U.S. Senate and losing some important governorships.
And even though Republicans are on the verge of taking back the House, some key super PACs are putting out surveys showing DeSantis leaving Trump in his wake as they prepare for the 2024 presidential election.
MTSU political science professor Kent Syler isn’t counting Trump out, saying he has “more lives than a cat,” but he points out that the former president could be starting to grate on some Republicans, though he remains strong in Tennessee.
“I think he is in some real trouble right now. … There’s definitely some Trump fatigue among some Republicans,” says Syler, former chief of staff for longtime Democratic U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon. “The mid-term losses, a lot of that fell at his feet, even with some of his strongest supporters.”
Coming off mid-term losses in 2018, 2020 and a mixed showing in 2020, Republicans are trying to find someone who can win the presidential race in 2024, much as Democrats want to maintain control of the White House with President Joe Biden.
With confidence in Trump shaken, DeSantis brings the same policies but “without the baggage,” Syler says.
There’s an old saying that politics should be like “elevator music,” always playing in the background as people go about their lives, he adds.
“Trump has been like a six-year Metallica concert,” Syler notes. “It just wears people down. There really hasn’t been much of a second act either.”
From removing key advisers, including those in military posts, to two impeachments, one for soliciting foreign interference in the 2020 election, to false claims of a stolen election to the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol, Trump’s last few years have been full of turmoil. And the end isn’t quite in sight, with a spirited primary predicted between the former president, DeSantis and others likely to enter the fray.
Republican Lt. Gov. Randy McNally believes that while Tennessee maintained a bright red tint, the GOP ran into problems elsewhere with many predicting Republicans would take the House and Senate amid inflation and rising interest rates.
“Nationally the party needs to be a little bit more focused, maybe more inclusive for both sides, the moderates, the more conservatives, they need to get together and elect good Republicans,” McNally says. “And quality candidates. … That was not a problem we had in the (state) Senate or House elections.”
In Tennessee, Republicans won 75 House seats to Democrats’ 24, as Republican Ed Butler defeated longtime Democratic Rep. John Mark Windle of Livingston, who became an independent last spring. It represented a gain of one from the last legislative session.
Republican activist Elaine Davis defeated Democrat Greg Kaplan, a University of Tennessee professor, to take the District 18 slot opened by Republican Rep. Eddie Mannis of Knoxville, who left the Legislature after one term.
Democrats, however, held on to the District 67 seat in Clarksville where Ronnie Glynn defeated Tommy Vallejos and captured the post vacated by Democrat Jason Hodges.
Likewise, Democrat Caleb Hemmer, who worked under Gov. Phil Bredesen, knocked off Republican Michelle Foreman in District 59, a new seat in upscale southern Davidson County drawn favorably for Republicans.
Republicans targeted Rep. Gloria Johnson, a Knoxville Democrat frequently critical of their policies, by drawing her home into the same district as Democratic Rep. Sam McKenzie. She moved into the new District 90 and wound up defeating Republican David Poczobut.
Johnson believes voters responded favorably to her “positive” campaign, in contrast with the “negative” campaign bolstered by big spending for mailers, radio and TV ads and digital pieces.
“No one in the district wanted to hear that,” Johnson says. “They didn’t talk about what they brought to the table and didn’t show up to forums and weren’t willing to have a conversation in front of the voters.”
Johnson says most of her campaign time was spent knocking on doors and making phone calls to talk to voters.
Jobs, women’s bodily autonomy, public education over charter schools, Medicaid expansion and problems within the Department of Children’s Services were among the main topics people talked about at their homes, according to Johnson.
Those are likely to get attention in the 2023 legislative session as well as the 2024 presidential election. But Johnson is horrified at the prospect of DeSantis potentially taking up the Republican mantle for Trump.
“They’re the same people. It’s not like we’ve switched ideologically. They’re both terrible people with terrible policies for American families,” Johnson says. “They all support the violence and the hate and the bigotry.”
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