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EBERHART: There Are No Participation Trophies in Politics

It’s a tough time to be a member of the Grand Old Party. The White House and congressional pickup opportunities in 2024 for Republicans are the best they’ve been in years. But the party continues to struggle to coalesce around a viable path back to power, and former president Donald Trump’s third bid for the White House is casting a dark shadow over GOP electoral chances.

Trump fatigue among traditional Republicans is real and could be a drag on down-ballot candidates and on the top of the ticket. Just as real is the former president’s ardent support among the populist wing of the GOP base. Trump’s determination to remain atop the Republican Party puts primary voters in a tough spot.

Trump is far more popular with the base than with general election voters. So, while there’s no arguing that he could win the nomination, he faces far longer odds of winning the general election. So far, winning doesn’t seem to be the base’s priority. That’s bad news for Republicans who want to see President Biden move out of the White House.

It’s also bad news for anyone who doesn’t want to see a repeat of 2020, which saw Republican candidates lose winnable Senate races in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Arizona, New Hampshire and New Mexico.

Whomever the GOP nominates in the presidential contest will have an outsized influence over who runs in those down-ballot races — and how they perform. Republicans have watched the Senate majority — not to mention several House races and governorships — slip through their fingers the past two cycles thanks to flawed candidates. They can’t afford to let that happen again.

The point of belonging to a political party is building a big-enough coalition to win elections and implementing your principles through policy. What’s the point of having a party if electability isn’t the ultimate goal?

The future Senate contests represent Republicans’ best chance of winning and holding the chamber for the subsequent three election cycles.

The Senate field is decidedly tilted in Republicans’ favor this time around. Of the 34 Senate seats on the ballot, two-thirds are held by Democrats or independents who caucus with Democrats. No fewer than nine races in 2024 offer pickup opportunities for Republicans. That includes Montana, West Virginia and Ohio — states Trump carried in 2016 and 2020 — and six more states that Biden won by a slim margin.

In Arizona — a state Biden carried by less than half a point — Kyrsten Sinema is ending her first term as a newly minted independent with zero certainty that Democrats will support her re-election campaign.

Meanwhile, there are no Republican incumbents up for re-election in states won by Biden, and the GOP is defending only two seats in states that Trump won by a single-digit margin. Both of those — Texas and Florida — remain Republican strongholds that are unlikely to flip to Democrats.

Republicans need only two seats to capture the Senate majority, but there’s more at stake here than just one cycle. If the GOP plays its cards right, it can run the table and win enough seats to secure the majority in the chamber for the next decade or longer. It’s an opportunity that won’t soon come again, as the Senate map is far less friendly to Republicans in 2026 and 2028.

To seize this opportunity, Republicans must shake their obsession with losing and find candidates who appeal to grassroots and independent voters. Winning the primary isn’t good enough. Second place is the same as last; no one is handing out “participation” trophies.

The GOP also needs a candidate at the top of the ticket who has long coattails and can carry those down-ballot candidates across the finish line.

There’s a path back to power for Republicans if they can put party above the wishes and vendettas of any candidate. But the all-important swing voter in battleground states isn’t interested in relitigating the past. They want candidates who can move the country forward. GOP voters must decide if they will join them or remain stuck in the past.

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