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With midterm losses, Trump's climb to the presidency could be steeper than he'd like

Former President Donald Trump waves after announcing he is running for president for the third time, on Nov. 15, 2022.
Andrew Harnik
Former President Donald Trump waves after announcing he is running for president for the third time, on Nov. 15, 2022.

Updated November 15, 2022 at 9:41 PM ET

Donald Trump, who tried to overthrow the results of the 2020 presidential election and inspired a deadly riot at the Capitol in a desperate attempt to keep himself in power, announced he is running again for president in 2024.

"I am announcing my candidacy for president of the United States," Trump, 76, said flanked by massive American flags, at his Mar-a-Lago club and home in Palm Beach, Fla.

The announcement — and official filing — comes just a week after the 2022 midterm elections, which saw a lackluster performance from Trump-backed Republican candidates in key Senate races and competitive House elections. As a result, Democrats were able to retain control of the Senate.

"America's comeback starts right now," Trump said, claiming, "Your country is being destroyed before your eyes."

The dark vision hearkened back to Trump's inauguration speech of a country suffering "American carnage" and in need of him to fix it.

Trump running sets up a potential rematch against President Joe Biden, who will turn 80 on Sunday and says he intends to run for reelection in 2024.

Exit polls showed inflation to be the top issue with midterm election voters overall. They said they trusted Republicans more on the issue than Democrats by a wide margin. And the electorate was nearly three-quarters white, reversing a decades-long trend of a decline in white voters as a share of the midterm electorate.

And yet, Republicans underachieved — and fingers are being pointed in Trump's direction, even from within his own party.

Anger over the Supreme Court's ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, which made abortion legal in this country, buoyed Democrats in these elections. But voters also sent a message that they didn't want extremes, rejecting Trump candidates up and down the ballot who peddled his baseless election lies.

Republicans lost in competitive Senate races in purple states, like Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Arizona and Nevada. Democrats could further expand their majority with a runoff election three weeks from now in Georgia, with yet another Trump endorsee, who has struggled mightily.

For the House, Republicans are on the precipice of control, but by a far smaller majority than they were hoping for, likely hampering their ability to pass legislation next year.

Of the 64 House race contests the Cook Political Report rated as toss ups or leaning toward one party or the other, Trump endorsed in 21. Only seven have won. It was even worse for Trump candidates in the most competitive races. Of the three dozen toss-up races, Trump backed nine candidates. Only one has won.

And yet, Trump is launching another run for president and falsely claiming his candidates did well, despite the evidence that his brand and his style of politics have proven radioactive in competitive states and districts for multiple election cycles in a row now.

Trump's move shows a degree of vulnerability — an effort to freeze out the GOP presidential field and force Republican elected officials to get off the sidelines and endorse him.

He also doesn't want to give any oxygen to any potential rivals, who may be sensing a chance, especially someone like Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.

What about "DeFuture"?

Many in the party have begun to openly question whether it's a good idea to continue to hitch their wagon to the former president, especially with DeSantis waiting in the wings.

DeSantis easily won reelection as Florida's governor last week. He's a staunch conservative and landed in controversy for flying migrants from Texas to Martha's Vineyard and other liberal cities and enclaves, but is widely seen as a more disciplined version of Trump.

The Rupert Murdoch-owned New York Post, which turned on Trump during the Jan. 6 congressional committee hearings' revelations, dubbed DeSantis "DeFuture" — and Trump "Trumpty Dumpty," who "couldn't build a wall" and "had a great fall."

Some conservative groups also released polling — very soon after the midterm results — showing DeSantis beating Trump in early presidential primary states and places like Texas.

The message was clear — it's time for someone else.

But Trump's hold on the GOP base can't be underestimated. There have been other moments when the "fever" might break, but never has — not with criticizing the late-Republican Sen. John McCain's status as a war hero, not the Access Hollywood tape in which he bragged about assaulting women, not the two dozen women who accused him of sexual misconduct or assault, not even the Jan. 6 insurrection.

But this latest setback may be threatening the thing Republican officials care about most — winning.

Their resolve will be tested, as the party is in for a reckoning over the next two years.

Trump seems uncowed and ready for the fight

He recently nicknamed DeSantis Ron "DeSanctimonious" and touted polling, prior to Election Day, that he said showed him well ahead in a hypothetical GOP presidential primary.

He has taken to his own social media platform — which he formed when he was booted from mainstream platforms like Twitter and Facebook for spreading misinformation and inciting the insurrection — to blast the naysayers, the media and to spread unfounded election conspiracies.

Expect more of the same from candidate Trump once again.

But it's hard for his party to escape the reality that Trump's brand simply hasn't played well in purple states from the beginning of his time on the national stage, especially now that they've suffered because of it.

He may have won the presidential election in 2016, but several swing states were very close, and he wound up losing the popular vote by 3 million votes.

In the 2018 midterms, his party lost 40 House seats and control of the chamber.

After four years of his presidency that saw majorities of voters disapproving of the job he was doing consistently and mishandling the coronavirus pandemic, Trump lost his reelection bid in 2020.

Several swing states were close, but he lost the popular vote by an even wider 7 million votes.

Instead of conceding, and with no other off ramp to explain away his loss, Trump retrenched and cried fraud.

After recounts, audits and dozens of court cases, Biden's election was upheld, over and over again. Yet Trump continued on with lies and inspired rank-and-file Republicans to turn toward dangerous conspiracies that have eroded their faith in the electoral system.

Courts have proven the 2020 election was fair and that there was very little fraud, certainly not enough to overturn the results anywhere.

Despite that, Trump made his false narrative of a stolen election something of a litmus test for those he would endorse in these midterms. They bought in, were boosted in primaries and many lost in the general election, giving seats to Democrats that might have been won by non-election-denying Republicans.

Broadly unpopular — except with the Republican base

A majority of Americans continue to say they have an unfavorable opinion of the former president. But, at least before the midterm elections, he was by far the most popular and powerful figure within the Republican Party.

He continues to be the favorite for the GOP presidential nomination despite recent losses. It will take a lot to defeat him — time, money and fighting against, yes, the GOP establishment in many ways. The Republican National Committee and many state parties are now filled now with Trump acolytes.

Trump's grip on the party had seemed to be loosening — at least marginally — this past summer because of the Jan. 6 hearings and just sheer time and distance removed from power. But the FBI's search of Trump's Florida home ironically seemed to tighten his grip, as GOP base voters saw Trump as a victim.

And the former president has perpetually used victimhood, especially white victimhood and grievance, as fuel to his political fire.

There are plenty of others waiting in the wings

It's not just DeSantis who could challenge Trump for the nomination. And it's unclear if DeSantis will. He's only 44 years old and will likely tread carefully to not upset the base of loyal — and he perhaps hopes formerly loyal — supporters of Trump.

Other Republicans have also been circling, positioning themselves and taking steps for a 2024 presidential run of their own, like Trump's former vice president, Mike Pence, former Trump United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem.

Trump's unorthodox move to officially get in now is an effort to blunt those efforts, clear the field and refocus the attention on him, especially as he faces multiple civil and criminal investigations in multiple states. Trump also faces criminal investigations into his finances, including his tax filings and how the Trump Organization has been run, and he is fighting multiple lawsuits.

A Trump vs. Biden rematch?

Trump's announcement comes as Biden is facing several political challenges. Biden's popularity has suffered, as inflation has continued to rise, gas prices went up and variants of the coronavirus pandemic have continued to pop up.

The president's approval ratings took a dive in the summer and fall of 2021 after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, initiated under the Trump administration, was widely panned for its chaotic execution under Biden.

While Trump faltered against Biden largely because he lost significant backing from the large swath of suburban and independent voters across the country, he retains significant support among Republican voters.

Biden, on the other hand, has struggled to keep his base fired up. In this age of extreme polarization, maintaining popularity with a president's own party and winning over the narrow slice of remaining swing voters in the country is the pathway to election.

As president, Trump often inflamed cultural grievance

Trump's victory in 2016 was one of the most stunning results in American history. He became an unpopular president, who made more than 30,000 false or misleading claimswhile in office, was impeached twice and who Americans saw as mishandling the coronavirus pandemic.

That helped lead to Trump losing his reelection bid to Biden. But now with Biden's popularity waning and the economy at an uncertain moment, Trump sees an opportunity to rise to power again.

During his time as president, Trump weaponized white cultural grievance, right-wing nationalism and, ironically, considering his status as an Ivy League-educated billionaire, an anti-elitist economic populism.

The foundation of Trump's 2016 candidacy and ensuing presidency was nativism — he campaigned on building a wall to keep Spanish-speaking immigrants out of the United States; in his early days in office, he banned people from some mostly Muslim countries from coming to the country; he inflamed racial tensions like when he said there were "very fine people" on both sides of a white nationalist protest in Charlottesville, Va., where a counter-protester was killed; and he regularly exaggerated dangers to trigger anger and fear in many Americans.

"[T]he crime, and the gangs, and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential," Trump said during his 2017 inaugural address, despite the country having seen an overall downward trend in violent crime.

"This American carnage stops right here and stops right now," Trump said in the enduring line from his first speech as president.

With violent crime up in big cities, Republicans have used the issue in these midterm elections to motivate their voters — and it will undoubtedly be a plank Trump uses again.

Trump pushed policies conservatives favored

Trump removes his mask upon his return to the White House from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Oct. 05, 2020. Trump spent three days hospitalized for COVID-19.
Win McNamee / Getty Images
Getty Images
Trump removes his mask upon his return to the White House from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Oct. 5, 2020. Trump spent three days hospitalized for COVID-19.

Many Republicans would say privately, including on Capitol Hill, that they did not like Trump personally, but were still supporting him — despite the chaos they often saw during his presidency.

This confounded many on the left, but the reason for it was that Trump was pushing many policies conservatives agreed with.

He enacted tax cuts that mostly benefited the wealthy and corporations, installed three conservative-leaning justices on the Supreme Court and oversaw a time of economic growth — until the coronavirus pandemic swept through the world.

The appointment of those justices has borne fruit for conservatives, 50 years in the ripening. The court outright overturned Roe v. Wade, sending abortion policy back to the states and shutting off access to abortion for millions of women in this country. The court has also upheld the rights of gun owners and appears poised to further enshrine conservative social structures in coming terms that would have effects for generations to come.

Continuing lies about losing the election

After losing reelection, Trump refused to concede and did not go along with the American tradition of a peaceful transfer of power, departing Washington hours before Biden's inauguration. He remained dug in and invented fraud claims, saying the "real insurrection" came on Election Day in an effort to downplay the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol inspired in part by his own words at a rally hours earlier.

In private, he unsuccessfully pressured state and federal officials to take unprecedented and even illegal actions to overturn his defeat.

It gave him an exit ramp without ever having to admit defeat. Despite audits and reviews in many states, there has been zero evidence of widespread fraud.

Still, Trump continues the lie.

The depth of Trump's efforts have been detailed in the several Jan. 6 committee hearings, which have featured testimony from multiple witnesses who served in Trump's White House, worked on his campaign to elect him, and top DOJ and state election officials.

Trump's lies about fraud in the last election have helped erode faith in the electoral system among many in the GOP base.
Jeff Kowalsky / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Trump's lies about fraud in the last election have helped erode faith in the electoral system among many in the GOP base.

Even considering his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection, most Republican officials, fearing his hold on the GOP base and potential retaliation, declined to stick to criticism of the 45th president. Those who did, like Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, faced his wrath from Trump-backed primary challengers. Cheney lost her reelection bid, as did other Republicans, who voted for his impeachment. In fact, just two of the 10 Trump House Republican impeachers remained on the ballot.

Jaime Herrera Beutler, who voted for Trump's impeachment, was ousted in a GOP primary, and, ironically, a Democrat won the seat for the 3rd Congressional District in Washington state.

Trump has the money to run again — amassing hundreds of millions of dollars through his political operations.

His formal announcement for president means he will consolidate Republican resources, as the former real-estate developer and reality TV star gets to reprise familiar ground — that of the outsider throwing stones, rather than the insider president responsible for the country's security and prosperity.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.