“Less than 24 hours before he surrenders to authorities for the fourth time in five months, Donald Trump and his team tried to send a signal on Wednesday night: No one has a chance to beat him in the GOP primary,” the Washington Post reports.
“As eight other Republicans battled onstage in the party’s first debate here, Trump instead stayed at his New Jersey golf club and said he was too far ahead to worry about debating. His team also tried to project an aura of invincibility, flooding the debate venue with advisers and allies.”
Said Trump, to Tucker Carlson: “I’m leading by 50 and 60 points, and some of them are at 1 and zero and 2 percent, and I’m saying, do I sit there for an hour or two hours, whatever it’s going to be, and get harassed by people that shouldn’t even be running for president?”
Amy Walter: Trump wins first Republican debate.
Nate Silver: “I have a confession: I haven’t yet watched last night’s Republican debate. But I think I can make this prediction regardless. In fact, maybe it doesn’t matter that I haven’t watched, because I’m not sure my subjective impressions would help all that much — it’s not as though what I’m looking for in a presidential candidate maps very well to the median Iowa caucusgoer.”
“The prediction, stated with say 85% confidence, is that Vivek Ramaswamy will rise in the polls over the next month or so.”
“This prediction comes from some fairly basic mechanics that you’ll often see in multi-candidate primaries, predictable enough mechanics that they almost seem like gravitational forces.”
It’s easy to dismiss a Republican debate featuring seven candidates polling in the single digits and another who has been rapidly heading in their direction.
The guy who didn’t show up is polling over 50% nationally, leads in all the early states and remains the overwhelming favorite to win the GOP nomination.
But the debate probably still matters.
That’s because the candidate who wasn’t in the room is fighting 91 criminal charges across four jurisdictions. He has dozens of co-conspirators who could easily flip on him. And some lawyers still think he might be ruled constitutionally ineligible to run.
Last night’s debate might shake up this lower tier of possible challengers at least a little. Based on their performances, Vivek Ramaswamy and Nikki Haley might see bumps in their support. Ron DeSantis might keep fading into oblivion.
It’s still possible — even likely — that this debate will be soon forgotten.
But with the frontrunner in such deep legal trouble, it makes a lot of sense for Republicans to be thinking about a Plan B.
The most generous analysis — the kind you might hope to see in mainstream media coverage — would focus on a Republican Party in disarray on a level conservatives have long falsely accused Democrats of but which no party has exhibited to this degree since before WWII. By comparison, the Democrats of 1968 look like they were cast for that iconic Coke commercial of the era. The Republican field sans Trump couldn’t agree on Trump, the Constitution, Jan. 6, Ukraine, climate change, or — unbelievably — abortion. Kumbaya.
And yet that still doesn’t fully capture the dysfunction and self-delusion that the GOP exhibited last night. It’s not riven by factionalism or dueling power bases vying for supremacy. Chris Christie, Asa Hutchison, and Doug Burgum represent no one and had no place being on the debate stage. Mike Pence, Nikki Haley, and Tim Scott represent the last vestiges of the former GOP, and their anemic response to Trump even now exemplifies how the Republican Party got itself into this mess to begin with. Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy are explicit about wanting to be the next Trump and are soulless enough to pull it off but lack his skills and appeal. Ramaswamy was particularly horrifying to watch, a know-nothing who will say anything and do so convincingly.
If this debate had an iconic moment it was the halting raising of hands captured in the photo above when the candidates were asked if they would support Trump as GOP nominee even if he were a convicted felon by then. All but Christie and Hutchison were down for Trump 2.0.
No winners in this debate. Just losers.
Natalie Allison: “He took all the hits — seriously, almost all of them — but Vivek Ramaswamy got all he could have wanted out of tonight: attention and the opportunity to reinforce the idea the party’s establishment is out to get him. If you were a Republican who still hadn’t seen a clip of Ramaswamy on social media or TV, you learned who he was tonight. And the fact all knives were out for him shows that the other candidates see him not just as an annoyance, but as a threat right now as they’re trying to break through themselves.”
Aaron Blake: “But Ramaswamy was unfazed through just about all of it. And over and over again, he benefited from being pitted against the two most unpopular candidates in the field.”
“Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel said the discussion about abortion during Wednesday’s Republican debate was part of an important path forward for the party,” Politico reports.
Said McDaniel: “I was very pleased to see them talk about abortion. Democrats used that in 2022… If our candidates aren’t able to fend a response and put out a response, we’re not going to win. They’re going to do it again in 2024. And I thought all of them did a really good job on that.”
I too am pleased.
Donald Trump put out of new ad highlighting a recent comment by Gov. Ron DeSantis calling Trump supporters “listless vessels.”
Aaron Blake: “It could scarcely have turned out better for the absentee front-runner. He decided to skip the debate because it wasn’t worth his time — what with his nearly 40-point lead in the polls. And the candidates who want to beat him spent much of the debate pretending he wasn’t even in the race.”
“Over nearly the whole first hour of the two-hour debate, Trump was invoked substantially only by one candidate, former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, who lumped him in with other Republicans onstage whom she accused of spending irresponsibly.”
“The risk for Trump in not showing up was that he wouldn’t be able to defend himself. He didn’t have to.”
Steve Benen: “How does a candidate who wasn’t there manage to win a debate? The GOP contenders helped answer the question last night in dramatic fashion.”
Washington Post: “A memo from a super PAC supporting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis that leaked last week advised DeSantis — who has the second-highest support behind Trump in almost all polls — on how to handle the expected attacks from his rivals during the debate.”
“But those attacks mostly never came. At times, he seemed like almost a non-factor in the debate — a dynamic that underscored how far he’s fallen since he was seen as the biggest threat to Trump following his overwhelming 2022 reelection victory in Florida.”
New York Times: “Rivals mostly ignored him, despite his status as the polling leader on the stage. It was a surprising turn of events that allowed Mr. DeSantis to make his own points without interruption or interrogation.”
“We have to face the fact that Trump is the most disliked politician in America. We can’t win a general election that way.”— Nikki Haley, quoted by the Wall Street Journal at last night’s GOP debate, in one of the few attacks of the night against Donald Trump.And yet she said she would vote for him even if he’s convicted in his criminal trials.
Molly Ball: “For long stretches of the debate, it was possible to imagine an alternate universe, where these were the only candidates vying to take on President Biden and the past eight years never happened. But as DeSantis tried to pivot to a topic he deemed more important, Baier brought him back to reality: ‘President Trump,’ he noted, ‘is beating you by 30 or 40 points in many polls.’”
“It was an unusual litmus test for a Republican primary debate, one that quickly descended into personal attacks and obfuscation: The candidates were asked whether humans had contributed to climate change,” the New York Times reports.
“There is no scientific dispute that the answer is yes, but hardly any of the Republican candidates gave a straight answer.”
COLORADO 3RD DISTRICT. Democrat Adam Frisch has publicized an internal from Keating Research that shows him edging out far-right Rep. Lauren Boebert 50-48 less than a year after she only fended him off by 546 votes; the memo notes that Keating’s October 2022 survey showed Boebert ahead 47-45 at a time when almost everyone expected her to win easily. The sample favors Donald Trump 49-44, which would mark a small drop from his 53-45 margin in 2020. The memo does not mention Grand Junction Mayor Anna Stout, who joined the Democratic primary last month.
CALIFORNIA 27TH DISTRICT. Former Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides on Thursday publicized an endorsement from 30th District Rep. Adam Schiff, a Senate candidate who represents a neighboring seat in Los Angeles County.
Whitesides is competing with his fellow Democrat, Los Angeles County Probation Oversight Commissioner Franky Carrillo, in the top-two primary to face GOP incumbent Mike Garcia, but there’s a huge resource disparity between the two challengers. Whitesides, who self-funded a little more than half of his campaign during the first half of the year, finished June with a $1.21 million to $13,000 cash on hand edge over Carrillo. Garcia, meanwhile had $1.18 million banked to defend this 55-43 Biden constituency.
ALABAMA FUTURE CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT. The conservative site 1819 News notes that Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed, a Democrat who is up for reelection on Tuesday, has declined to rule out running for the House once the state finally has a new map. “If this new congressional district comes about, will you promise the citizens of Montgomery, should you be reelected, you won’t try running for that position?” radio host Kevin Elkins asked last month, to which the mayor responded, “I don’t know what I’m going to do. For one, I’ve got to win first.”
TEXAS 15TH DISTRICT. 2022 Democratic nominee Michelle Vallejo’s rematch campaign against freshman GOP Rep. Monica De La Cruz has earned an endorsement from 20th District Rep. Joaquin Castro, a prominent Texas Democrat who serves a nearby constituency. Vallejo remains the only notable candidate in the race to win back this 51-48 Trump seat in the Rio Grande Valley that De La Cruz flipped last year.
CALIFORNIA 49TH DISTRICT. Marine veteran Kate Monroe announced Tuesday that she was joining the top-two primary to face Democratic Rep. Mike Levin, with the Republican telling Fox News, “We’re facing a lot of the woke ideology.” That style of hard-right rhetoric may not play well should she make it to the general election, though: Joe Biden carried this seat, which includes coastal communities north of San Diego, 55-43.
MINNESOTA 1ST DISTRICT. Democratic state Sen. Nick Frentz tells Axios that he’s interested in challenging Republican Rep. Brad Finstad in what would be a difficult race for this 54-44 Trump seat in southern Minnesota, and he added that he has no timeline to decide. This area was swingy turf well into the 2010s, but it moved sharply to the right during the Trump era and has remained tough turf for Democrats.
Finstad himself last year won the August special election to succeed the late Jim Hagedorn just 51-47 against Democrat Jeff Ettinger, but he triumphed 54-42 in their rematch a few months later. (The special was conducted using the old congressional map, but the 1st didn’t change much following redistricting.) Democratic Gov. Tim Walz, who represented previous versions of this seat for 12 years, also lost the constituency 52-45 against Republican Scott Jensen even as the governor was winning statewide by that same margin.
TEXAS 23RD DISTRICT. Punchbowl News’ Mica Soellner reports that several members of the hardline Freedom Caucus are “plotting behind the scenes” to deny renomination to GOP Rep. Tony Gonzales, but they’ve yet to consolidate behind any of his challengers. The state party censured the incumbent in March for defying the party line on multiple occasions, but he’s remained defiant in a gerrymandered seat that spans from the San Antonio suburbs to El Paso and backed Donald Trump 53-46.
Pennsylvania Rep. Scott Perry, who runs the Freedom Caucus, met with former ICE official Victor Avila in May, while 22nd District Rep. Troy Nehls later hosted an event that Avila addressed. But Avila, who finished a distant fifth place in last year’s primary for land commissioner, has yet to earn endorsements from either representative, and he finished June with less than $20,000 available.
Soellner also writes that gun maker Brandon Herrera, who has 2.8 million subscribers on his “The AK Guy” YouTube channel, also had some favorable contact with Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz as he wages his own bid to beat Gonzales. Gaetz last week used his guest-host slot on Newsmax to interview Herrera and call this contest “America’s most exciting congressional Republican primary election.” Herrera entered the race in July after the new fundraising quarter began.
The field also includes Medina County GOP chair Julie Clark, who kicked off her bid in March. Clark self-funded over $300,000 through June but raised little from donors, and she had only $3,000 left at the end of the last quarter. Arizona Rep. Andy Biggs, says Soellner, has met with Clark as well as Avila. A runoff would take place if no one earned a majority of the vote in next March’s primary, a scenario that Gonzales and his $1.6 million war chest would like to avert.
Gonzales defied his party’s base by confirming Joe Biden’s victory in the hours after the Jan. 6 attack and later supporting gun safety legislation after the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde happened in his district. He responded to the censure vote in March in Spanish with what the Houston Chronicle calls “some words for the group that are probably too coarse for a family newspaper.”