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Wishful thinking? Two newspapers declare Trump’s influence waning in midterms

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Everyone in politics repeats it as a kind of mantra: Donald Trump is the most powerful force in the Republican Party.

That’s unquestionably and undeniably true.

But now some major media outlets are pushing a new conventional wisdom, that Trump’s grip is slipping.

FILE: Former U.S. President Donald Trump prepares to speak at the Rally To Protect Our Elections conference on July 24, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. 

FILE: Former U.S. President Donald Trump prepares to speak at the Rally To Protect Our Elections conference on July 24, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona.  (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

When the New York Times and Washington Post deliver substantial pieces making the same point on the same day, you know something’s brewing.

My take is that there’s a fair amount of wishful thinking in this analysis.

But the stories make the increasingly obvious point that there is a fierce internal battle rupturing the Republicans, with opposing wings led by Trump and Mitch McConnell. That was clear when the Senate GOP leader ripped the RNC for censuring Trump antagonists Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, and reprised his past criticism of Trump for inciting an “insurrection” on Jan. 6. The former president struck back against the man he calls Old Crow by saying that McConnell “does not speak for the Republican Party, and does not represent the views of the vast majority of its voters.” Last year he dismissed the senator as a “dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack.”

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The peg for both stories is the dueling recruitment efforts for the midterms, with Trump trying to elect loyalists–and knock off detractors in primaries–while McConnell seeks out establishment types who he believes can win in November.

As the Washington Post puts it, “Trump and his endorsees now find themselves fighting against some elected GOP leaders, donors and party officers intent on navigating the party slowly away from him and his false election claims. Among voters, polls have shown Republican-leaning independents turning from Trump.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., speaks at a news conference at the U.S. Capitol Building on Dec. 16, 2021, in Washington. 

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., speaks at a news conference at the U.S. Capitol Building on Dec. 16, 2021, in Washington.  (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

The New York Times take: “As Mr. Trump works to retain his hold on the Republican Party, elevating a slate of friendly candidates in midterm elections, Mr. McConnell and his allies are quietly, desperately maneuvering to try to thwart him.” 

McConnell’s message, delivered to Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey in trying to entice him to run for the Senate: “Mr. Trump is losing political altitude and need not be feared in a primary.”

Neither side is trouncing the other. Trump is backing fewer hard-right candidates than initially expected. And McConnell’s courtship efforts are being spurned in some cases, such as by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who just passed on a Senate run.

Fascinating tidbit from the Times: George W. Bush asked Ducey to run for the Senate as well, although the governor, whose state narrowly went for Joe Biden, seems disinclined to do it.

But there’s a larger question that will truly test Trump’s clout. In a nutshell, the ex-president wants to make this election in large measure about 2020; the McConnell forces want to run on 2022 issues.

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The daily Trumpian barrage about the “rigged” election has become a litmus test. Republicans who don’t embrace the unproven allegations are branded as disloyal, with Trump even calling his pal Lindsey Graham a “RINO” for breaking with him on the idea of pardoning the Jan. 6 defendants. 

McConnell, and some other Beltway Republicans, want to run against Biden on such issues as inflation, schools, and mask mandates. Privately, the Times says, McConnell is “blunt” about the damage he says Trump has caused the party and vows not to let “goofballs” win GOP primaries only to be clobbered in the fall.

FILE: President Donald Trump arrives on the South Lawn of the White House, in Washington, Dec. 31, 2020. 

FILE: President Donald Trump arrives on the South Lawn of the White House, in Washington, Dec. 31, 2020.  (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

The Times links to a Pew poll from September in which 44% of Republicans say they want Trump to run again and 22% would prefer another candidate. But those numbers would change if Trump ran and most likely captured the nomination.

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The day after the midterms, the media and political wizards will declare that Trump has remade the party in his mold or that his influence is waning. For now, though, the idea that he’s seriously slipping is magical thinking.

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