Uwhen donald trump takes the stage Tuesday night at his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Fla., and does what everyone expects him to do — officially announce that he’s running for president in 2024 — he’ll already be the favorite for the Republican nomination.
But the announcement is likely to be less celebratory and more challenging than Trump envisioned. Like many of his party’s leaders, Trump expected his event to come after his party’s successful midterm elections. Instead, he launched his latest presidential bid after an average performance for the Republican Party, which many strategists said was largely Trump’s fault.
That leaves Republican leaders in the awkward position of contending with a presidential candidate who is increasingly seen as a liability even though he remains popular with much of the GOP base
“Trump is the favorite going into 2024 and can win the primary, but is the worst possible candidate to win a national election,” said Lauren Wright, a political scientist at Princeton University. “In fact, he’s the only candidate that Democrats know for sure they can beat.”
Trump’s plans to run for president again may be the worst-kept secret in the country. In addition to the official announcement, he has practically been applying to get his old job back for more than a year. He has held raucous rallies at 30 airports, arenas and fairgrounds over the past 18 months and made repeat trips to key states such as Georgia, Ohio and Pennsylvania. At each stop, Trump supporters wear T-shirts, hats, sweatshirts, wave flags and hold signs emblazoned with his name. He continued to raise funds through his Save America PAC, raising over $100 million and building a huge contact list of millions of GOP donors and their data, which he controlled. A USA TODAY/Suffolk University survey as of late October found that 56% of Republicans want Trump to run again.
The results of the midterm elections have sparked a wave of discontent among GOP donors and party leaders that Trump has plunged the party down a rabbit hole of extremism and denial of elections that have already cost the party the upper hand in three election cycles. The worry now is that the tighter Trump clings to his mantle as party leader, the more damage he will do.
Trump’s base is the part of the Republican Party that “volunteers, shows up at conventions, that will vote in the primaries and that believes that Trump is the messiah,” said Larry Sabato, political analyst and director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. If Trump ends up going to war with his own party over its leadership, it threatens to alienate these most motivated and active members, emptying the party along the way.
“If he can’t have something, he doesn’t want anyone else to have it,” Sabato says. “He wouldn’t think of destroying the party.”
Trump has come under fire since last week’s midterm elections, when Republicans failed to flip the Senate or secure control of the House as Republicans had predicted. “This is basically the third election in a row where Donald Trump has cost us the race,” outgoing Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “And it’s like, three strikes, you’re out.”
The Republican donor class and moderate Republicans have been here before—seemingly ready to give up on Trump, only to learn that his enormous influence over the Republican base remains as strong as ever. It happened in 2015 when Trump, then a presidential candidate, said he preferred “people who weren’t captured” when talking about Sen. John McCain, who was held as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. It happened again in the fall of 2016, when many of Trump’s team threw up their hands after footage leaked from Access Hollywood showing Trump bragging about groping women. And it happened most recently after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, when the top Republican in the House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy, and other GOP leaders criticized Trump for his role in the deadly riot. But Trump’s political influence has survived every episode.
But there is growing evidence that Trump’s endorsements and campaign lies hurt Republicans in the midterms. And there is growing concern that Trump’s popularity among the GOP hardline may determine the outcome of Republican primaries but not translate into general election victories. Voters 45% less likely to vote for candidate who believes Trump won 2020 election, Quinnipiac University survey released on 2 Nov. found. Exit polling found that 32 percent of voters voted “to oppose Joe Biden,” according to the National Election Pool exit poll conducted by Edison Research for the ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC news networks. But another 28 percent said they were voting “to oppose Donald Trump,” an unusually high percentage of people motivated by opposition to a politician who is not in office.
Trump lashed out at suggestions that he should be blamed for his party’s performance in the midterm elections. “It’s Mitch McConnell’s fault,” he wrote on his social media platform Truth Social on Monday. Trump said the Senate Minority Leader did not do enough to support Trump-backed Senate candidates and should have done more to block Biden’s policies. “He flunked his midterms and everyone despises him,” Trump wrote.
Trump’s vindictiveness has already begun to alienate several of his former ardent supporters. On her streaming show Daily Wire, Conservative TV commentator Candace Owens over the weekend described Trump as in “an angry space where he doesn’t trust anybody, where he doesn’t listen to anybody.”
“I don’t believe that’s leadership,” she added.
Owen’s question to Trump, she said, is whether he will ever get over losing to Joe Biden two years ago. “Will he get over the trauma of the 2020 election and start painting a vision for 2024? What is his vision for 2024? Is it “I’m back”. This is not a vision for me. It has to be more than ‘I’m back.'”
Advisers close to Trump say Trump’s combative style is precisely what has made him such an effective politician who has single-handedly transformed the Republican Party. “One thing he gave the party that can never be taken away is that he actually said, ‘It’s good to fight back. You don’t have to be the media’s punching bag. You don’t have to be the left’s punching bag,” said Hogan Gidley, a former Trump White House spokesman who speaks regularly with the former president and plans to attend his announcement in Palm Beach on Tuesday. “There’s a lot of attractive qualities about Donald Trump, a lot of attractive qualities about Donald Trump professionally and as president, and it’s not going to get anywhere just because a few people say, ‘It’s time to move on.’
The fact that Trump is such a polarizing figure has created an opportunity for challenges within the Republican Party. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis won re-election by a landslide last week and is seen as perhaps Trump’s most formidable challenger for the party’s nomination. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is eyeing the White House, as are Virginia Gov. Glenn Younkin, former Vice President Mike Pence and Hogan, the former Maryland governor. Former South Carolina governor and Trump UN ambassador Nikki Haley could also jump into the 2024 GOP presidential race, as could Mike Pompeo, Trump’s former CIA director and secretary of state, and South Sen. Carolina Tim Scott.
Trump also faces investigations into his business practices in New York, his alleged attempts to interfere in the 2020 election recount in Georgia, his handling of government documents after leaving office and his role in inciting the mob. which stormed the Capitol to overturn election results.
Trump’s 2024 candidacy announcement could trigger another legal challenge. On Nov. 3, the president of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington wrote Trump a letter saying the organization would sue to prevent Trump from ever running in the next election. “We will pursue your disqualification under Section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment based on your participation in the uprising that culminated on January 6, 2021,” CREW President Noah Bookbinder wrote.
More must-reads from TIME