Mr. Trump remains the central figure in the G.O.P. Party elites try to ignore him as he spends many days fighting Republicans rather than Democrats and plotting his revenge against the 10 Republican House members who voted for his second impeachment, the seven Republican senators who voted to convict him and the 13 House Republicans who voted for the bipartisan infrastructure bill. Mr. Trump targets his enemies with primary challenges, calls for “audits” and “decertification” of the 2020 presidential results and howls at Mitch McConnell for not being “tough.” His imitators within the party are a font of endless infighting and controversy, and they undermine the authority of the House Republican leader, Kevin McCarthy. Mr. Trump would have it no other way.
The former president was content to keep a distance in this year’s races for governor. He won’t be so quiet next year — especially if he concludes that a successful midterm is a key step to his restoration to power in 2024. A more visible and vocal Trump has the potential to help Republicans in solid red states but doom them in purple or blue ones. Yet control of the Senate hinges on the results in Nevada, Arizona, Georgia, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire — states Mr. Trump lost in 2020.
Mr. Youngkin showed that a positive message attuned to middle-class priorities repels Democratic attacks. If Republicans campaign on a unified message that applies conservative principles to inflation, the border, crime, education and health care, they might be able to avoid being tagged as the party of extremism, conspiracy and loyalty to Mr. Trump. Their problem is they have no such message.
Mr. McConnell has reportedly told Senate Republicans that they won’t release an agenda before the midterms. He’s worried that specific proposals are nothing but fodder for Democratic attacks. What should worry him more are rudderless Republican candidates who allow their Democratic opponents to define them negatively — and then, if they still win, take office in January 2023 with no idea what to do.
In an ideal world, more Republicans would think seriously about how best to provide individuals and families with the resources necessary to flourish in today’s America. They would spend less time attacking one another and more time offering constructive approaches to inflation and dangerous streets. They would experiment with a ranked-choice primary system that played a role in Mr. Youngkin’s nomination in Virginia and in the law-and-order Democrat Eric Adams’s win in New York City’s mayor’s race. Interested Republicans would declare today that Mr. Trump won’t deter them from seeking the presidency — reminding him that renomination is not guaranteed.
But that’s not the world we live in. Republicans appear either unwilling or unable to treat the former president as a figure from the past whose behavior has done the party more harm than good. They take false comfort in the idea that midterm elections are “thermostatic,” the inevitable repudiation, climatic in nature, of the governing party. They assume they will win next year without doing anything of significance. And they may be right.
Matthew Continetti is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of the forthcoming “The Right: The Hundred Year War for American Conservatism.”