When he launched a bid for a North Carolina swing seat this year, 27-year old Republican Bo Hines had no political record, had already run in two different districts in the state, and faced five legitimate GOP primary opponents, most of whom were actually from the district they were running to represent.
Besides an impossibly square jaw, the former college football player brought little to the table—until, that is, he got the most coveted prize for a Republican politician in 2022.
Weeks before the primary election, former President Donald Trump gave Hines his “Complete and Total Endorsement,” calling him a “proven winner both on and off the field” who would “help win a huge Republican majority in the House of Representatives.”
Ultimately, Trump’s backing may have been decisive in Hines’ primary win. In a crowded field, he took 32 percent of the vote, with his closest rivals at 28 and 17 percent, respectively. Despite his MAGA politics and liabilities as a candidate, Hines was expected to ride a red wave and bring the GOP one seat closer to a House majority.
Instead, he lost to Democrat Wiley Nickel by 2 points on Tuesday.
Hines was just one example of a nationwide phenomenon in this week’s midterm elections. In some of the most competitive races for Congress and statehouses, several Republicans who Trump boosted through the primaries flopped in the general election.
Adding to the sting, the races they lost could prove decisive for Democrats holding the Senate majority and Republicans winning only the narrowest House majority.
But perhaps even more damning for Trump than his candidates losing was that some of the brightest spots for the GOP came in races where Trump didn’t endorse at all.
As Republicans begin to broadly blame Trump for their weak midterm performance, a now-familiar question has come up: Is this, at last, the final straw that causes the GOP to break with Trump?
Some on Capitol Hill think so.
“When candidates stink of Trump, voters throw them in the trash in these districts, and these candidates reeked of him,” a House GOP aide told The Daily Beast. “This has to be the final death knell for the brainless idea that Trump and his brand does anything for us except make us lose. If we don’t learn it now, then we never will.”
Ken Spain, a longtime GOP strategist, said Republicans are at an inflection point right now. As an epic and unprecedented round of finger-pointing begins among GOP power players, Spain said the biggest question will be whether the people who are swayed by a Trump endorsement—the voters—will reconsider their views on the ex-president.
“I don’t know if there’s enough exhaustion on the Republican side to throw him totally overboard,” Spain said.
Trump himself, of course, has defiantly resisted any accountability for his role in the midterm disappointment, from his support of subpar candidates to his constant toying with a 2024 comeback bid. On social media, Trump proclaimed it a “GREAT EVENING.”
The former president can take solace that his handpicked Senate candidates in Ohio and North Carolina won after being strongly favored. But as long as the midterm losses mount for the GOP, so will the opportunities to blame Trump.
In a pair of must-win Senate races—Pennsylvania and Arizona—GOP candidates Mehmet Oz and Blake Masters could thank Trump for their primary wins. But the Trump nods only papered over their weaknesses as candidates. (While Arizona has not been called, Kelly maintained a roughly 100,000-vote lead as of Thursday night, with Masters running out of room to make up the difference.)
Many hardcore conservatives never fully trusted Oz, while Masters struggled to translate his hard-edged, apocalyptic primary campaign—and his weak fundraising ability—to a highly competitive general election. Both losses are key to Democrats holding the Senate.
In several nationally watched governor’s races, Trump lifted candidates through primaries who then mounted exceptionally weak challenges to vulnerable Democratic governors.
In Michigan, Trump gave a late boost to right-wing media personality Tudor Dixon, who won her primary over several viable contenders. After raising very little money and running a bare-bones campaign, Dixon suffered a blowout: a 10-point loss to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
It was a similar story in Pennsylvania, where Trump backed the far-right election denier Doug Mastriano in the GOP primary for governor. Mastriano ran a puzzling campaign that catered to the hardcore MAGA base, and by the time Mastriano began running TV ads, his Democratic opponent, Josh Shapiro, had already spent $19 million on TV. Mastriano lost by more than 11 points on Tuesday.
In at least five battleground House races where Trump’s endorsement was key, Republicans have lost, or are favored to lose, to Democrats.
In northeast Ohio, for instance, former Trump campaign staffer Madison Gesiotto Gilbert got the ex-president’s backing and earned first place in a primary field. The district, which Trump won in 2016, was expected to be one of the most favorable toss-up races for the GOP. Outside groups spent heavily against the Democratic candidate, Emilia Sykes. But Sykes beat Gilbert by 6 points.
Trump’s vendetta against Republicans who voted to impeach him, or even criticize him, after Jan. 6 resulted in him boosting candidates who went on to squander very winnable races for the GOP.
In Michigan, Trump marked Rep. Peter Meijer, one of the 10 GOP votes to impeach him, for defeat, backing the far-right activist John Gibbs. With help from Democrats, who spent money of their own to boost a candidate they viewed as too extreme to be elected, Gibbs won the primary. On Tuesday, Gibbs lost by 13 points to Democrat Hillary Scholten, costing the GOP a district that they have held for decades.
Broadly, some of Republicans’ biggest disappointments on the House map came from candidates who ran staunchly Trump-aligned and MAGA-flavored campaigns, even if they did not rely on his endorsement to win a primary.
In New Hampshire, former Trump White House staffer Karoline Leavitt lost to Rep. Chris Pappas (D), one of the GOP’s top targets. In Ohio, longtime Rep. Marcy Kaptur had a tough path to re-election after being given a new district that Trump won by 4 points in 2020. But her opponent was J.R. Majewski, a QAnon-curious Republican whose local claim to fame was creating a giant image of Trump on his lawn. He lost GOP support after news reports revealed he lied about serving in the military, and lost to Kaptur by 14 points on Tuesday.
As retiring Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA)—set to be replaced by Fetterman—put it, “it seems that the more ultra-MAGA a candidate was, the more that candidate underperformed.”
In at least one district, Republican leaders maneuvered to keep Trump out of a competitive primary. Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) repeatedly appealed to Trump to not endorse in the primary for a battleground district based in Tucson, The Washington Post reported. Republican voters ultimately nominated Juan Ciscomani, who immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico and is on track to win the race.
Elsewhere, GOP voters chose more moderate candidates after Trump didn’t get involved in primaries. Victories by some of those Republicans, like Jen Kiggans in Virginia, could be a big reason why they take the House majority.
As the dust settles from Tuesday, Republican operatives and officials may look hard at those wins, as they study how the 2022 election turned into a disappointment for them.
“It should have been a wave election,” said Spain, the longtime GOP strategist. “Instead, the race became a choice election between an unpopular president and an even more unpopular Trump.”