Palm Beach, Florida
CNN
 — 

Donald Trump wanted to catapult himself into a third presidential campaign with a wave of Republican midterm gains behind him. Instead, he emerges from Tuesday’s underwhelming election night facing questions about his political future and with the momentum behind Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, potentially his potential chief nemesis in a 2024 primary.

With key races still too early to call in Arizona and Nevada, and with Georgia heading to a Senate runoff, Trump entered Wednesday with few victories to tout and the possibility that they might soon be overshadowed by further losses. His chosen candidates for open Senate seats in Ohio and North Carolina prevailed, as did incumbent Republican Sen. Ron Johnson in Wisconsin. But he lost a critical Senate contest in Pennsylvania, where Mehmet Oz, whom he backed in the primary despite widespread concerns about his electability, was defeated by Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman. In Michigan, Trump’s candidate in the governor’s race failed to unseat Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. And while Republicans still appear to be on track to capture a House majority, it is likely to be far slimmer than initially thought.

“As powerful as Trump is in the Republican Party, we learned that he cannot anoint anyone a winner. You still need candidates who have the fundamentals,” said Bryan Lanza, a longtime Trump adviser.

Others were more blunt in their assessment of Tuesday’s known outcomes.

Rep. Troy Nehls, a Texas Republican who won reelection and was endorsed by Trump, appeared to cast the former president as a drag on other GOP candidates in a radio interview Wednesday.

“There’s just a lot of negative attitudes about Trump,” Nehls said.

In the early hours of Wednesday morning, a current Trump adviser, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution, conceded that Trump “is in a tough spot coming out of tonight.”

“Two narratives are going to take hold over the next week and neither one is going to be easy to dispel,” the adviser said.

Acutely aware of his unprecedented involvement in Republican primaries earlier this year, this adviser and other Trump allies said they expect the former president will be blamed for elevating flawed candidates in some of the party’s most important contests – especially Oz, a daytime talk show host who had barely resided in Pennsylvania before launching his Senate campaign there.

Trump’s disappointment was palpable inside the gilded ballroom at his Mar-a-Lago estate, where he gathered with dozens of aides, allies and donors to watch returns on Tuesday evening. When he returned to the party halfway through the night following a private dinner, his mood had visibly shifted.

“Interesting evening,” he shouted to reporters before taking the stage for brief and unenthused remarks.

As the crowd dwindled, Trump sat at a table in front of a television tuned to Fox News with just a handful of advisers. Meanwhile, several guests whose names appeared on a VIP list that one Trump adviser circulated to reporters were nowhere to be found, including some who apparently decided to skip the event – surfacing as television pundits throughout the night from studios elsewhere in the country.

The end result was the exact scenario Trump’s advisers had hoped to avoid: an election where his top recruits fizzled or flopped and his primary Republican rival soared to new stardom.

Sources familiar with the matter said Trump left the party at the end of the night in a sour mood and resentful of the attention on DeSantis, who won reelection with a monstrous margin of victory and became the first Republican governor to carry Miami-Dade County, a densely populated and diverse area, for the first time in two decades. Just hours before the Florida governor’s victory, Trump had trashed DeSantis in comments to reporters aboard his 757 plane, threatening to dish unflattering information about him and suggesting he could have been more “gracious” for Trump’s endorsement in his 2018 bid for the governor’s mansion.

“It wasn’t a great night for Trump and makes 2024 more competitive,” said one Republican operative.

By Wednesday morning, Trump was in touch with allies in early 2024 voting states as he worked to develop a message that could carry him forward, according to two people briefed on those talks. In Iowa, Trump plans to tout Republican Brenna Bird’s defeat of incumbent Democratic Attorney General Tom Miller even though he didn’t endorse Bird until November 5, three days before her election.

As he works to plot his next steps, one of the biggest questions he is grappling with is how to approach DeSantis, sources said.

Before his resounding success on Tuesday, the Florida governor “was already having a moment but the spotlight just quadrupled in intensity,” said one Trump adviser.

“We’ve got to figure out how to get it back before next Tuesday,” the Trump adviser added, referring to the “big announcement” Trump has teased for November 15, when he is expected to formally declare his third campaign for the White House. DeSantis’ strength was reflected in CNN exit polls on Tuesday, which showed the Republican governor exceeding President Joe Biden’s 2020 margin of victory among Latino voters in Florida and maintaining a small edge among independents, which Biden carried in the state by 11 points two years ago.

Both data points could prove compelling GOP primary between DeSantis and Trump, who made inroads with Black and Hispanic voters in some 2020 states but not to the degree of the Florida Republican.

Two people close to the former president said he backed himself into a corner by publicly setting a date for his expected campaign announcement before the outcome of the midterm elections was known, something he did at an Ohio campaign rally on election eve to compromise with allies who did not want him to use the event as the launch site for his campaign.

“He has to [announce],” said a source close to Trump, adding that it is too late for him to back out. “It would be embarrassing.”

Another Trump ally noted it would be “less embarrassing to delay than to get out there to a bunch of silence.”

Some in Trump’s circle hoped a runoff in Georgia could help the former President delay the announcement and save face.

Trump adviser Jason Miller said that Herschel Walker – who will face Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock in a December 6 runoff, CNN projected Wednesday – should be the priority.

“I’ll be advising him to delay it until after the Georgia runoff, assuming that’s where the race is still trending,” Miller said.

Others expect that advice will fall on deaf ears. One source noted that Trump had so far been resistant to arguments that he should postpone his announcement and as of Wednesday morning, it was still unclear to some of the former president’s closest aides how he would handle his 2024 ambitions. Would he proceed defiantly – launching a campaign with disregard for the potential obstacles that lie ahead – or entertain a rare recalculation?

“I could see him claiming that Republicans didn’t turn out in droves because he wasn’t on the ballot and blaming everyone but himself,” said one of his advisers.

For Trump, Tuesday’s underwhelming results followed months of intense engagement in a midterm cycle that marked a notable departure from the post-presidential activities of his modern predecessors. As early as last summer, he began working to recruit candidates for key Senate contests who would advance his false claims about the 2020 election.

“He wanted to be seen as a legendary kingmaker,” said a former Trump campaign official.

By this spring, Trump was directly meddling in contested primaries – endorsing candidates he deemed to be the most MAGA, criticizing their opponents in statements and Truth Social posts, and patently ignoring advice from some of his advisers to remain on the sidelines until the general election began. Trump often argued that his involvement would pay dividends in the end, not only ushering in majorities in both congressional chambers but ensuring elected officials loyal to him – not the party – were installed in Washington and key governor’s mansions.

In many cases, even candidates that Trump didn’t endorse emblazoned their campaign websites with his image or familiar phrases like “America First” or “MAGA fighter.” Throughout the cycle, GOP contenders regularly trekked to Mar-a-Lago to seek his support. Others shelled out thousands of dollars to host fundraising events at the waterfront property, hoping the former president would take note of their devotion and reward them with an endorsement.

Trump ended the cycle by spending more than $16 million through his MAGA Inc. super PAC in the final weeks to boost many of his hand-picked candidates and link his top Democratic targets to Biden, who has grappled with sinking favorability during his first two years in office. Hours before results began pouring in on Tuesday, Trump’s team circulated a memo touting his “unprecedented success in 2022” that quantified his campaign trail appearances and assistance to Republican candidates.

“President Donald J. Trump has endorsed over 330 candidates this election cycle,” the memo read, adding that Trump has “raised nearly $350 million” for GOP candidates and the party overall since leaving office.

With votes still being tabulated in some states, it is unclear just how many of the hundreds of candidates who earned Trump’s endorsement prevailed on Tuesday. What is clear is that Trump allies entered Tuesday night believing it would be an undeniable success for the 45th president.

As he gathered with other Trump campaign alums at Mar-a-Lago on Tuesday, Miller described the former president as a “juggernaut” at the beginning of the evening.

“It will be a much different-looking party now because of the Trump MAGA movement,” Miller had predicted.

Asked about the 330 endorsements that could make or break his political future, Trump himself began the night suggesting that he should emerge on the other side of the midterms unblemished, telling NewsNation hours before polls closed, “I think if they win, I should get all the credit. If they lose, I should not be blamed at all.”

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