Trump Lost the Midterms. DeSantis Won.

If the Florida governor ever intends to wrest control of the GOP from Trump, now is his moment.

A photo of Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis
Doug Mills / New York Times / Redux

Updated at 12:12 p.m. ET on November 9, 2022

The next big question in American politics: Is Florida’s reelected governor, Ron DeSantis, a leader or a follower, a man or a mouse?

DeSantis had a big night yesterday. Now he’s preparing to seek the Republican nomination for president. Ex-President Donald Trump stands in his way, testing the slogans and insults he’ll use against DeSantis—hoping that the angry sounds will intimidate DeSantis into abandoning the impending contest before it starts.

Other Republicans had a bad night yesterday. Their disappointment was very much Trump’s fault. Trump stuck them with bad candidates and bad issues: his own grievances about the election of 2020. That record should weaken Trump’s standing. But the weakening only matters if somebody uses it.

For seven years, Donald Trump’s superpower has been the abjectness of his fellow Republicans. He would abuse and insult them; they might fight back for a round or two—but then crumple.

Trump led his party from loss to loss.

He lost the popular vote in 2016. He lost the House in 2018. He lost the popular vote and the Electoral College in 2020. He lost the Senate in 2021.

Since 2000, there have been six presidential elections, and thus 12 presidential nominations by the two major parties. In his share of votes cast, Trump finished tenth and 11th out of the 12: behind Mitt Romney, behind John Kerry, behind Al Gore.

And yet, despite all this loserdom, his party whimpered and submitted. Elected officials and big donors would tell reporters off the record how much they despised Trump and wished him gone. But when it came time to act, they cowered and cringed. Like Homer Simpson in his run for sanitation commissioner of Springfield, Republicans’ motto was “Can’t someone else do it?”

Nobody else did it. Want Trump gone? Somebody has to contest and beat him.

Trump had another night of defeats last night, perhaps his most spectacular yet. He pushed his party to nominate weirdos and crackpots. He trapped a supposedly pro-life party into rallying to a candidate credibly alleged to have pressured two different women into unwanted abortions. Trump raised money for candidates and hoarded the money in his own PAC accounts. Anytime Republicans got a chance to talk about the future, he dragged them into battles over his past misconduct, everything from his part in January 6 to alleged real-estate fraud to walking off with presidential documents and storing them illegally at Mar a Lago. He insisted that the 2022 election be a referendum on his personal grievances and delusions.

Last night, voters got their chance to render a verdict. And whatever else they meant to say, they clearly communicated that they were sick of Trump and his antics. With few exceptions, from New Hampshire to Arizona, Trump-endorsed candidates slumped. Candidates who topped Trump’s enemies list—such as Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Georgia Governor Brian Kemp—won handily.

Republicans paid a heavy price for extremism, for obnoxious personal behavior, for election denial, for democracy subversion. They will continue to pay it unless one of them acts. That means recovering some strength of character. It means taking the fight to Trump, and beating him on his own ground.

Trump converted Republican politics into a theater of domination. Ideology, policy, character—none of that mattered anymore. Trump’s internal opponents would denounce him as “not a true conservative” only to discover that Republicans did not care. They cared about strength, and they recognized that Trump’s internal opponents were weak. Hollowed out by years of truckling to Republican donors, they had only a big void where their backbone was supposed to be.

Trump counts on running in 2024 more or less unopposed. He’s trying to frighten strong alternatives out of the race, leaving him the reality-TV blood sport of chewing up weaker alternatives as he chewed up the alternatives in 2016.

If DeSantis is in the game now, he has to play now.

That doesn’t have to mean fighting Trump the way Liz Cheney or Evan McMullin have fought him. Many might wish that rank-and-file Republicans felt more shame and regret for January 6 than they do. But they don’t. They do want to win—and they can be convinced that Trump is out of date, out of touch, and out of shape. Somebody who seeks to replace Trump atop the Republican Party cannot pretend Trump is not there. Trump is a huge personality who makes every contest a battle of personalities. Refusing to engage is not an option, because he will engage whether his target likes it or not. There’s no choice except to engage in turn.

So: man or mouse? DeSantis’s answer will shape the future not only of the Republican Party but of America.

This article originally stated that Homer Simpson ran for mayor of Springfield. In fact, he ran for the office of sanitation commissioner.