Dozens of races across the country remained unresolved as of midday Wednesday, yet Republicans were already engaging in that age-old post-election game among members of the side that underperformed: Who’s to blame?
And in many conversations among players late Tuesday and early Wednesday, a clear target was emerging: Donald Trump, who inserted himself into dozens of races and even said on the eve of the election that he deserved the credit if his party did well, but not the blame if they didn’t.
“The election was a lot closer than it should have been because Trump endorsed some candidates in Republican primaries who were inexperienced, first time-candidates not ready for a very intense, high-profile Senate race,” says Whit Ayres, a Republican strategist and pollster.
Trump spent Wednesday morning at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla., making angry calls to friends and advisors about why the decisive wave of GOP victories that he and so many others had predicted failed to materialize, with the former President blaming others for the endorsement decisions he had made, according to a former Trump White House official still in touch with Trump’s inner circle. Trump said in those conversations that candidates that lost should have more fully embraced his lie about winning the 2020 election, singling out TV doctor Mehmet Oz’s defeat to John Fetterman in the Pennsylvania Senate race as an especially frustrating outcome, said the former official, who noted that Trump was also fuming that the Rupert Murdoch-owned New York Post printed the headline “DeFuture” to describe Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, whose landslide reelection victory on Tuesday topped Trump’s 2020 margins in the state.
Read more: How John Fetterman Beat Dr. Oz in Pennsylvania
By the afternoon, Trump had simmered down a bit, writing on his social media platform Truth Social that the election results were “somewhat disappointing,” but saying that from “my personal standpoint it was a very big victory” tallying his own count of wins and losses for candidates he endorsed—“219 WINs and 16 losses in the General.”
Those losses, however, included some of the most expensive and hard-fought races of the midterms, ones in which Trump all but determined the Republican nominee with his endorsement. Many of Trump’s own supporters criticized his involvement in midterm races.
While the former President sulked, Republicans took stock of what impact his candidate picks and election denials had on the outcome, which wasn’t the clear rebuke to Joe Biden’s presidency they had expected. Instead, Republicans are looking at the prospect of controlling the House by a razor-thin margin, if they flip it at all, which would make the prospective speaker Kevin McCarthy beholden to fringe members of the Republican caucus. Control of the Senate remains too close to call.
Matt Langston, a general consultant in Austin, Texas, at Engage Right, a conservative strategy firm, pushed back on the notion that Trump’s involvement in the midterms was a mistake, saying such an assessment couldn’t be determined until the final partisan make-up of the next Congress was known.
“The takeaway of last night was either a referendum on Trump or a referendum on Biden—that answer is not clear just yet,” Langston tells TIME.
Biden, for his part, thinks the answer is not in doubt.
“Democrats had a strong night,” he said Wednesday afternoon, speaking to reporters in the State Dining room of the White House. Biden said that “while the press and the pundits were predicting a red wave. It didn’t happen.”
The results, although incomplete, were seen inside the White House as a vindication of Biden’s measured approach to leadership and his warnings about the dangers that election deniers present to American democracy. “With their votes, the American people have spoken once again and proved that democracy is who we are,” Biden said.
Ayres agrees that a major drag on Republican candidates was Trump’s denial of the 2020 results and his efforts to overturn the election certification on Jan. 6. “It turns out that trying to overturn an election is not widely popular with American voters,” he says. Ayres pointed to election denier and former TV news anchor Kari Lake’s campaign for Arizona governor against Democrat Katie Hobbs, which as of late Wednesday remained neck-and-neck as ballots were still being counted. “Kari Lake is a very polished, very effective candidate,” Ayres said. “Katie Hobbs is a very unpolished, ineffective candidate. And yet that appears to be something close to a dead heat, because of Kari Lake’s election denialism.”
Read more: How Kari Lake Went From Local Anchor to New Face of the MAGA Right
What Trump does in the coming weeks could once again impact which party controls the Senate, or at least, by what margin. In the Georgia match-up between Trump-backed candidate Hershel Walker and Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock, neither candidate broke 50 percent of the vote, sending the race to a Dec. 6 runoff. Trump is widely expected to declare his candidacy for President on Tuesday, Nov. 15, at his Florida club. The night before the midterms, Trump told a rally in Dayton, Ohio he’d be making a “very big announcement” that day.
But having a blitz of headlines about Trump’s campaign for President may not be what Republicans need in their bid to control the Senate. Some Trump allies, such as former White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEneny and Trump’s former senior advisor Jason Miller, said they had advised the former President to delay major announcements until after the Georgia runoff was decided.
Langston suggested that the outcome of the midterms might actually make Trump more likely to pull the trigger and announce . “History has taught us that you are dealing with a candidate and a team of advisers that, the more of an uphill climb it seems, the harder they fight,” he says.
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