The Republican Party “shit the bed so bad” on Tuesday night.
That’s how one longtime GOP strategist who worked on several high-profile 2022 races put it just hours after midnight. The operative wasn’t alone in his misery: A total of 16 Republican strategists, grassroots activists, Donald Trump confidants, and elected officials began venting to Rolling Stone Tuesday night (some completely unprompted) about the party’s disappointment midterm results. The general sentiment: The GOP had historically botched the midterms, had good reason to panic, and should feel humiliated.
“What the fuck is happening???” one veteran Republican consultant asked in the middle of the night. Other notable or recurring messages from the rest of the 16 included “holy shit,” “oh no,” a floating-dumpster-fire GIF, a sardonic “STOP THE COUNT” pronouncement, the “Hellmo” meme, “the blame games for this [are] going to be crazy,” “Not good!,” and “what a disaster.”
The shock and, at times, devastation reflect the missed expectations of the GOP elite, conservative movement leaders, and Trump’s own inner orbit. After months of crowing about the coming midterm “bloodbath,” Republicans watched as several candidates — including some MAGA favorites — were dispatched by their Democratic opponents.
On Wednesday, the balance of power in both chambers of Congress remained up in the air. And across the board, the performance of Trump-backed candidates failed to meet conservative expectations, which had been further inflated by weeks of favorable polling results in the campaigns’ final stretch. Three MAGA candidates for governorships — Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania, Tudor Dixon in Michigan, and Tim Michael in Wisconsin — lost their bid for election. In Georgia, Trump’s pick for Senate, Herschel Walker, is now headed to a runoff with incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock. J.D. Vance scored a narrow victory in his Senate race in Ohio, but ran well behind the 25-point margin of victory secured by GOP Gov. Mike DeWine.
For Trump, the pain was particularly acute in Pennsylvania, where Trump’s team had planned election challenges and a “dress rehearsal” for 2024. In the Senate race, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman managed a narrow victory over celebrity TV doctor Mehmet Oz, whom Trump had supported. And in the governor’s contest — a race with real implications for the 2024 election — Mastriano lost to Democrat Josh Shapiro by double digits.
At Mar-a-Lago, where Trump had hosted what was supposed to be a triumphant watch party on Election Night, the twice-impeached ex-president was seething. According to a source familiar with the matter, Trump was privately ranting about Oz. Among Trump’s many complaints: Oz’s amateurish campaigning and the TV doctor’s inability to win “big” against an opponent who had a stroke.
Trump may have seen some of this coming. Over the summer, he confided in some of those close to him that he was starting to think Oz was going to “fucking lose,” as Rolling Stone reported at the time. In more recent months, Trump (whose own inability to accept his 2020 loss to President Joe Biden led to the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol assault) huddled with various attorneys and right-wing organizations that were laying groundwork for challenging the legitimacy of 2022 elections — especially if there ended up being a tight race in Pennsylvania. At this point, it is unclear to what extent these plans, for Oz or any other candidate, will be executed.
As of early afternoon on Wednesday, it was also unclear whether Trump would publicly accept the disappointing results, or if he would try to regurgitate his “fraud” lies that dominated the aftermath of the 2020 election. “The [former] president is still weighing his options and how all-in he will go on challenging certain races,” says a person with knowledge of the state of play. “Right now, I don’t know. Just know that he is livid today.”
Trump is also focusing on preserving his own standing in the Republican Party. Another person familiar with the situation says the ex-president is now adamantly keeping track of which GOP figures try to blame him during the fallout from the midterms, and which prominent Republicans begin to seriously inch away from him and toward possible 2024 rivals like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
“Democrats overperformed,” says Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a top Trump ally and one of numerous conservative politicians and operatives who predicted a massive “#RedWaveComing.” During a brief phone call with Rolling Stone, Graham also suggested the results will give an unchastened President Biden more confidence in pursuing his policy agenda.
There was no shortage of Republican lawmakers and party stalwarts who wanted to blame Trump for their misfortunes — though few would do so publicly for fear of retribution from Trump, who remains the leader of the GOP and has retained mega-popularity among Republican voters. On Wednesday, Sam Nunberg, a former political advisor to Trump, simply texted Rolling Stone a photo of Trump waving from a car, with the memed caption of: “GET IN LOSER, WE’RE GOING LOSING,” a clear reference to the 2004 Tina Fey-penned film, Mean Girls.
“It was a disaster,” says Ed Rollins, a veteran strategist who’s now with Ready for Ron PAC, but used to lead the pro-Trump Great America PAC. “The Democrats came back and beat us on the ground. We spent hundreds of millions of dollars on ads that didn’t work. We had inflation, we had the after-effects of Covid, we had an unpopular president — and we sat around fighting each other and name-calling … I’ve been in and around politics for 50 years, and this is one that was truly unpredictable and certainly should not have happened the way it did [for us].”
Or, as Dan Eberhart, chief executive at oilfield-services company Canary and a big Republican donor, puts it: “If we can’t win under these circumstances, when can we win?”
“I am gobsmacked. The red wave started and ended in Florida,” Eberhart said Wednesday morning. “The Democrats really beat the spread …The Republicans underestimated the priorities of suburban women in the voting booth. The Dobbs decision [which overturned Roe v. Wade loomed] large last night.”
Asked about what Trump should do following Tuesday’s results, Rollins replied: “If it was up to me, I’d say [to Trump], ‘Thank you very much for your service, you did a lot of good stuff, you brought the Republican Party out of the wilderness — it’s time to stay at Mar-a-Lago and play lots of golf.’ That’s what I would say. Even if he gets into the primary, which he probably will, and even if you gave him the presidency tomorrow, he still has all these legal liabilities. Could he even be a leader and take the country in a direction that we need to go?”
On social media, the anger and frustration with the former president’s brand of politics was palpable. The New York Post, Trump’s second-favorite Murdoch outlet, dedicated their Wednesday morning cover to DeSantis, branding him “DeFuture.”