The Senate Elections Exposed the MAGA Movement’s Weakness

Two core beliefs define the MAGA movement. The first and most prominent is loyalty to the founder of the MAGA movement, Former President Donald Trump. They are the bedrock loyalists promoting the big lie that he won the 2020 presidential election due to his victory being stolen.

In the House of Representatives, his most adherent loyalists are the self-proclaimed MAGA Squad in the Republican Freedom Caucus. The Washington Post described them as the “Trump loyalists within the Freedom Caucus known as the ‘MAGA Squad,’ including Paul Gosar, Margery Taylor Greene, Matt Gaetz, Madison CawthornLouie GohmertMo BrooksAndy BiggsScott Perry, and  Lauren Boebert.”

The emphasis on personal loyalty to any US President skids off a democratic government’s rails. Allegiance to a leader is the core belief that has sustained authoritarian rule in other countries. I’ve noted before that Trump Disrupts the Distinction Between Personal Loyalty & Constitutional Allegiance.

As Trump runs for President and other Republican presidential candidates emerge, that loyalty may be tested against adherence to the second major characteristic of the MAGA movement: embracing a reactionary vision for America.

Trump, like other prominent reactionary politicians before him, promoted such a vision. However, he has been the most successful since WWII, and conservatives admire his achievement. Nevertheless, many Trump supporters share his affinity for engaging in transactional politics, such as watching the bottom line between the costs and benefits of supporting someone.

If Trump makes his 2024 presidential race too much about his grievances and not enough about pursuing a reactionary utopia, others, like Florida Governor Ron Santis, are preparing to lead the MAGA movement as the Republican presidential candidate.

Trump’s endorsements kept the Senate in Democratic control

Assuming that a Trump endorsement is the most visible, if not the most important, measurement of a MAGA candidate, we should look at who he endorsed in the 2022 Senate and House races. But just counting the number of Trump endorsements is not a measure of the strength or breadth of the movement.

Trump made 495 endorsements for the primary and general elections, but most were for candidates who were safe bets to win. However, Trump did endorse some candidates who challenged non-loyal Trump Republicans and incumbent Democrats.

I used the Cook Political Report to divide states into three significant categories: Toss-up States, Solid and leaning Democratic States, and Solid and Leaning Republican States. Then, according to Ballotpedia, each state shows by what percentage spread they voted for Trump or Biden. The results show that if the establishment Republicans had blocked Trump’s candidates from the general election, they might have gained control of the Senate.

Contested Toss-Up States

Trump endorsed candidates lost in these four high profiles contested Toss-up States. Their independent-oriented voters are like weathervanes pointing to where they swung this November and where they may swing in 2024. Of the four states, only Nevada’s senate incumbent fell below Biden’s win percentage, possibly due to her high unpopularity.

Arizona – Pres 2020 D +0.3%  –  Sen 2022 D + 4.9%

Blake Masters LOST the general election challenging incumbent Sen Mark Kelly, a former Republican and considered a moderate Democrat.

Georgia – Pres 2020 D + 0.2%    –  Sen 2022 D +2.8%

Herschel Walker LOST the general election challenging incumbent Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock, who filled a seat two years ago previously occupied by a Republican.

Nevada – Pres 2020 D + 2.4%   –  Sen 2022 D + 0.9%

Adam Laxalt LOST the general election challenging incumbent Democratic Senator Catherine Cortez-Masto. Laxalt called the 2020 presidential election rigged and, as state attorney general, filed a lawsuit against the Republican Secretary of State challenging the state’s list of registered voters.

Pennsylvania – D 1.2%   –  Sen 2022 D + 40.0%

Mehmet Oz LOST the general election for an open seat against Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman. Oz beat other Republicans in the primary who were not sufficiently loyal to Trump. A Republican previously held the seat.

Solid or Leaning Republican States

In these states, Trump’s candidates beat out establishment-supported Republicans in the primaries and went on to win the general election, except for failing to unseat incumbent Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski who defeated Trump’s Republican challenger to her.

Alaska – Pres 2020 R +10.0%   –  Sen 2022 (Anti-Trump) R + 7.4%

Kelly Tshibaka LOST the general election challenging incumbent Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski. Trump publicly condemned Murkowski as one of seven Republican senators who voted to convict Trump over the January 6 Capitol riot.

Missouri – Pres 2020 R +10.0%    –  Sen 2022 R + 13.4%

Eric Schmitt WON the general election for an open seat defeating Democrat candidate Trudy Busch Valentine after he won a crowded Republican primary. A Republican previously held the seat.

Ohio – Pres 2020 R + 8.1%   –  Sen 2022 R + 6.6%

J.D. Vance WON the general election for an open seat beating Democratic US Representative Tim Ryan. Vance won the Republican primary without solid support from the Republican establishment; after the primary, they heavily contributed to his campaign.

Wisconsin – Pres 2020 D +0.7%  –  Sen 2022 R + 1.0%

Ron Johnson WON the general election to retain his seat in the Senate against Democratic Mandela Barnes, who would have been Wisconsin’s first Black senator. Johnson objected to counting the Electoral College votes from Arizona, which would have delayed or stopped Biden from being certified as winning the presidency.

Solid and leaning Democratic States

In states that went for Biden in 2020, Trump pushed candidates into the primaries that Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnel considered to lack quality. By August, McConnel saw that Trump’s selection of candidates had hindered his plans to win back the Senate and said they might fail. However, in two of these states, the Democratic candidate outperformed Biden’s percentage win. And in the one that didn’t, the candidate did significantly better than expected.

Connecticut – Pres 2020 D + 20.0% –   Sen 2022 D + 15.0%

Leora Levy LOST the general election challenging incumbent Democratic Senator Dick Blumenthal who began the race with polling approval below 50%.

Vermont – Pres 2020 D + D 35.0%.  –   Sen 2022 D + 40.4%

Gerald Malloy LOST the general election for an open seat against a Democrat, US Rep. Peter Welch. Malloy, early in his campaign, said he voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020 and “wished” he had attended the Washington, DC,] January 6, 2021 “Stop the Steal” rally. A Democrat previously held the seat.

New Hampshire – Pres 2020 D + D + 7.3%    Sen 2022 D + 9.2%

Don Bolduc LOST the general election challenging the incumbent Democrat Maggie Hassan after he won the Republican primary against seven contenders. He entered the general election race with a two-point lead but lost the election by nine points. Initially, he was a strong election denier but walked that back as Hassan closed the gap.

The bottom line of this review is that only three of the eleven Trump candidates running in contested races won the general election. They lost all the toss-up and Democratic-dominated states. His candidates only won in the Republican-dominated states. His endorsed candidate lost in Alaska, and the Republican general election winner was an avowed Trump critic.

Independent voters most likely decided the election results in these races. According to Mitch McConnell, that was the “problem” in losing the Senate. Reuters reported him saying that the independents and moderate Republicans “looked at us and concluded: too much chaos, too much negativity. And we turned off a lot of these centrist voters.”

There’s a lesson here both for the Republicans and the Democrats. The Republican Party will have to decide if Trump is the solution or a hindrance to the Republicans winning the presidency and congress in 2024. His grip on the party apparatus remains strong, particularly since his supporters are now running to control the RNC (Republican National Committee).

The Democrats do not face the same problem as Biden. He’s not toxic to members of his party, like Trump. But he has other shortcomings that the Democrats will need to assess. Trump’s endorsed Senate candidates losing within Republican-leaning Republican states suggests that Democrats need to retain independent voters in 2024.

Democrats cannot assume that independents are now liberals. Instead, polling shows that they prefer orderly change, which the far-right Republicans did not provide. The challenge for Democrats to win in 2024 is to approach independent voters by advancing orderly change that adheres to liberal values.

Nick Licata is author of Becoming A Citizen Activist, and has served 5 terms on the Seattle City Council, named progressive municipal official of the year by The Nation, and is founding board chair of Local Progress, a national network of 1,000 progressive municipal officials.