Former President and current presidential candidate Donald Trump opened 2023 by offering his explanation for why Republicans won fewer seats than expected in November's midterm elections. As Leah noted yesterday, Trump began his 'Truth' Social message with "it's not my fault," then proceeded to lay blame at the feet of pro-life voters and the Supreme Court's Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade. Here's the post itself, followed by commentary:
After ignoring my question on whether he’d back a national abortion ban last night, today Trump says the “abortion issue” was handled poorly by Republicans — and comes out against the “No Exceptions” pro-life crowd: pic.twitter.com/uybQmjwDG9— Shelby Talcott (@ShelbyTalcott) January 1, 2023
This post triggered serious backlash among many pro-life leaders. Ben Domenech -- hardly a 'Never Trumper' or moderate -- tore into this framing, marveling that it's "hard to express how many false things" Trump asserted:
Second, Trump claims the pro-life position moved large numbers of voters against Republicans. Yet the most pro-life R incumbent candidates all won! DeSantis, Kemp, Abbott, DeWine, go down the list. And all the Senate candidates who won were super pro-life too. Oops!— Ben Domenech (@bdomenech) January 1, 2023
Fourth, "Mitch's stupid $" is probably the reason JD Vance won and if Trump had spent any of his money in Arizona Blake and Lake could've won too. Not great!— Ben Domenech (@bdomenech) January 1, 2023
Finally, think how stupid it is for Trump to run left on the pro-life issue. This is the biggest win of his presidency. Huge vested goodwill from pro-lifers. And what does he do? Call them quislings and say they're too radical! Very dumb.— Ben Domenech (@bdomenech) January 1, 2023
I am perfectly willing to grant the proposition that 'the abortion issue' hurt Republicans in some races around the country. it probably motivated various blocs of voters to turn out in a cycle that historically may have been weaker for an unpopular incumbent party, and certain independents may have decided not to vote red for the same reason. A deep dive into a number of House and statewide races would likely demonstrate that the reversal of Roe had at least some impact. I'm also willing to concede that Republicans need to be savvier, more strategic and better disciplined in responding to Democratic attacks, parroted by the pro-abortion media, on this issue. Part of this entails not adopting maximalist stances that turn off large swaths of voters (as Domenech points out, Republicans didn't embrace the fringe position Trump attributes to them), and parrying inaccurate criticisms into accurate counter-attacks about the Democratic Party's obscene abortion radicalism.
In short, I'm not arguing that abortion had no deleterious effect on some GOP campaigns, or that the party writ large has been effective in engaging in this debate. But for the reasons enumerated above, I think it's clear that Trump is playing into and amplifying a lazy media/progressive trope with his blame-casting analysis, in a half-baked effort to deflect his own undeniable and quantifiable culpability in his party's underperformance. The re-elected Republican governors mentioned by Domenech weren't just nominally pro-life; each one signed significant abortion restrictions into law post-Dobbs, taking sustained incoming fire from Democrats and their journalistic comrades. Ron DeSantis achieved the most impressive victory margin in modern Florida history after signing a popular law barring most abortions after 15 weeks (he has indicated he's willing to go further in the upcoming legislative session). Brian Kemp, Greg Abbott, and Mike DeWine each signed 'heartbeat' bills restricting most abortions after six weeks in Georgia, Texas and Ohio, respectively. Kemp won re-election by eight points, a major improvement over his narrow 2018 margin. Abbott defeated a well-known and heavily-funded opponent by 11 points. DeWine's 26-point victory was fully 22 percentage points better than his 2018 margin.
The examples don't stop there. In Oklahoma, Democrats were bullish about the vulnerability of Gov. Kevin Stitt, who'd signed a near total abortion ban (with very limited exceptions) into law. Six of the seven final public polls in the race, from September and October, either showed Stitt trailing or leading in the low single digits. He won by nearly 14 points. In Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a six-week 'heartbeat' law in 2018 and has been pushing the courts to reverse a judicial ruling striking it down, now that Dobbs is the law of the land. A few months after that bill signing, Reynolds won her race by three points. Four years later, on the heels of the Dobbs controversy, she won re-election by 18 points. Another pro-life governor, South Dakota's Kristi Noem, has fought aggressively on the issue in her state. Four years ago, she prevailed in a relative squeaker, winning by just over three points. In 2022, amid a national battle over abortion, she expanded her margin to 27 points. Nationally, House Republicans -- representing the pro-life party -- won the combined 'popular' vote by an outright majority, beating House Democratic candidate's combined haul by more than three million votes.
My point is not that all of these electoral outcomes prove that Republicans' various abortion views and legislative efforts are surefire winners in the realm of public opinion, or were a key determinative factor in the electoral victories mentioned. My point is that in the very first national election after the fall of Roe, every single Republican incumbent governor and Senator won, as did nearly every GOP House incumbent. A number of these candidates had not shied away from the issue at all. They won, often resoundingly, even in a number of races in which Democrats' approach involved flogging abortion as a central messaging strategy. Most pro-lifers would have happily traded electoral losses (and certainly less-than-stellar electoral wins) for a long-sought and legally-correct reversal of Roe. But the evidence suggests that Trump was a much more harmful factor than abortion, in assessing the party's 2022 under-performance:
Mr. Trump appears to be a significant reason for that showing, based on an analysis of the results by House district. His preferred candidates underperformed last week, helping Democrats hold the Senate and helping keep the race for House control close. Overall, his preferred primary candidates underperformed other G.O.P. candidates by about five percentage points...A penalty of five points is a big number in today’s polarized era...The analysis is based on an unusual measure: The Cook Political Report’s primary scoreboard. The Cook report scored each contested Republican primary as a victory for either the “traditional” wing of the Republican Party or for the “MAGA” wing of the party. With the benefit of the final results, we can gauge how well the MAGA candidates fared compared with other Republicans. The five-point penalty measure controls for how the district voted in 2020 and whether the district was an open seat or held by a Democratic or Republican incumbent. Here’s another way to think about it: Non-MAGA Republicans in 2022 ran six points better than Mr. Trump did in 2020; the MAGA Republicans barely fared better than him at all.
Trump cannot stand the thought that many conservative voters may be ready to move on from him, and he knows that the 2022 midterm outcomes could be a political problem for him. So he's pointing fingers at everything and everyone else, including passionate pro-lifers and "Mitch stupid $'s," which were deployed much more generously in support of Trump-backed Senate nominees than Trump's political war chest was. I'll leave you with Justice Elena Kagan, one of the Dobbs dissenters, inadvertently making the case against Roe: