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How Donald Trump’s Control Over the GOP Became a Hostage Situation

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When Donald Trump takes the stage Tuesday evening at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida, and does what everyone expects him to do—officially declare he’s running for President in 2024—he’ll already be the frontrunner for the Republican nomination.

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But the announcement is likely to be less celebratory and more defiant than Trump had envisioned. Like many of his party’s leaders, Trump had expected his event would come in the afterglow of a successful midterm election for his party. Instead, he’s launching his latest presidential bid on the heels of a middling performance for the GOP, one that many strategists say was largely Trump’s fault.

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It leaves Republican leaders in the uncomfortable situation of contending with a presidential candidate increasingly viewed as a liability, despite remaining popular with a large portion of the GOP base

“Trump is the frontrunner heading into 2024 and he may win the primary but he is the worst possible candidate to win a national election,” says Lauren Wright, a political scientist at Princeton University. “In fact, he’s the only candidate Democrats know for sure they can beat.”

Trump’s plans to make another run for President may be the worst-kept secret in the country. Short of a formal announcement, he has effectively been running to regain his old job for more than a year. He’s held boisterous rallies at 30 airports, arenas and fairgrounds over the past 18 months and made repeat trips to crucial presidential election battleground states like Georgia, Ohio and Pennsylvania. At every stop, Trump supporters wear T-shirts, hats, sweatshirts, wave flags and hold signs emblazoned with his name. He’s continued fundraising through his Save America PAC, raising over $100 million and building out a massive contact list of millions of GOP donors and their data that he controls. A USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll from late October found that 56% of Republicans wanted Trump to run again.

The results of the midterms have prompted a rash of hand-wringing among GOP donors and party leaders that Trump has taken the party down a rabbit hole of extremism and election denials that have already cost the party the upper hand in three election cycles. The concern now is that the tighter Trump holds on to his mantle as leader of the party, the more damage he will do.

Trump’s base is the part of the Republican Party that “does the volunteer work, that shows up at conventions, that will vote in primaries and that believes Trump is the messiah,” says Larry Sabato, a 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 his leadership of it, it threatens to alienate those most motivated and active members, hollowing out the party along the way.

“If he can’t have something, he doesn’t want anybody else to have it,” Sabato says. “He would think nothing of destroying the party.”

Read more: Trump Finds Himself at a Crossroads on Multiple Fronts

Trump’s taken a barrage of criticism since last week’s midterms, when Republicans failed to flip the Senate or secure a commanding control of the House that Republicans were predicting. “It’s basically the third election in a row that Donald Trump has cost us the race,” outgoing Maryland Governor Larry Hogan said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “And it’s like, three strikes, you’re out.”

The Republican donor class and GOP moderates have been here before—seemingly poised to ditch Trump, only to learn his massive sway over the Republican base remained 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, as many of Trump’s own campaign staff threw up their hands after footage from “Access Hollywood” leaked showing Trump bragging about groping women. And it happened most recently in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, when the top Republican in the House Kevin McCarthy and other GOP leaders criticized Trump for his role in the deadly riot. But Trump’s political clout has survived each episode.

But there’s growing evidence that Trump’s endorsements and election lies hurt Republicans in the midterms. And there’s increasing angst that Trump’s popularity with a hard core of the GOP base may determine the outcomes of Republican primaries, but doesn’t translate to general election victories. Voters were 45% less likely to vote for a candidate that believes Trump won the 2020 election, a Quinnipiac University poll released Nov. 2 found. Exit polling found that 32% of voters cast their ballot “to oppose Joe Biden,” according to the National Election Pool exit poll, conducted by Edison Research for news networks ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC. But another 28% said their vote was “to oppose Donald Trump,” an unusually high percentage of people motivated by opposition for a politician not in office.

Trump has lashed out at suggestions he should be blamed for his party’s showing in the midterms. “It’s Mitch McConnell’s fault,” he wrote on his social media platform Truth Social on Monday. Trump said that the Senate minority leader didn’t do enough to back the Senate candidates Trump endorsed and should have done more to block Biden’s policies. “He blew the Midterms, and everyone despises him,” Trump wrote.

Trump’s vindictiveness has already begun to alienate a few of his formerly 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 for Trump, she said, was whether he was ever going to get past losing to Joe Biden two years ago. “Is he going to get over the trauma of the election of 2020 and begin to paint a vision for 2024? What is his vision for 2024? Is it, ‘I’m back.’ That’s not a vision to me. It needs to be more than, ‘I’m back.’”

Read more: ‘I Ran Twice, I Won Twice’: Trump Rallies Iowans Ahead of Midterms Warped by His Election Lies

Advisors close to Trump say that Trump’s combative style is exactly what has made him such an effective politician, one who single-handedly transformed the Republican Party. “One thing he gave the party that can never be taken away, is he basically said, ‘It’s ok to fight back. You don’t have to be the punching bag for the media. You don’t have to be the punching bag for the left,’” says Hogan Gidley, a former White House spokesman for Trump who speaks to the former President regularly and plans to attend his announcement in Palm Beach on Tuesday. “There’s a lot of attractive qualities to Donald Trump, a lot of attractive qualities to Donald Trump professionally, and as President, and that’s not going 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 opening for challenges within the Republican Party. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis won reelection by a wide margin last week and is considered perhaps Trump’s most formidable challenger for the party’s nomination. Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is eyeing the White House, as is Virginia Governor Glenn Younkin, former Vice President Mike Pence, and Hogan, the former Maryland Governor. Former South Carolina governor and Trump’s ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, could also jump into a GOP presidential primary for 2024, as could Mike Pompeo, a former CIA director and secretary of state under Trump, and South Carolina Senator Tim Scott.

Trump is also facing investigations into his business practices in New York, his alleged effort to interfere with the 2020 election count in Georgia, his handling of government documents after he left office, and his role in inciting the mob that stormed the Capitol to overturn the election results.

Trump announcing his candidacy for 2024 may spark yet another legal challenge. On Nov. 3, the president of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington wrote Trump a letter saying that the organization would sue in court to block Trump from being a candidate in the next election at all. “We will pursue your disqualification under Section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment based on your engaging in the insurrection that culminated on January 6, 2021,” CREW president Noah Bookbinder wrote.

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