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Mr. Bush offered Republicans a way out of their 1990s dilemma. Decades later, America and the Republicans have changed, but the party’s problems — among them, the perception that it is beholden to extremists — have not.
Republicans have taken the popular vote in a presidential election just once in 34 years. The last time they won independent voters at the national level was 2016, and it was a plurality (48 percent). They went from losing moderate voters by nine points in 2016 to 15 points in 2022. Their narrow margin in the suburbs, where most voters reside, has remained nearly unchanged since 2016. To win a national majority, Republicans must rack up big margins among independents and suburbanites and narrow their differences with moderates.
After Tuesday, it is obvious to all but his most blinkered fans that Mr. Trump has made the task more difficult.
Republican success at the state level shows what is possible. Mr. DeSantis has garnered the most attention, but he is far from alone in offering a popular model of conservative governance. From Mike DeWine of Ohio (who won re-election by over 25 points), Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, Greg Abbott of Texas and Brian Kemp of Georgia to the departing Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and Larry Hogan of Maryland, Republican governors have broadened the party’s appeal by meeting voters where they are — seizing the common-sense mainstream and addressing public concerns calmly and effectively and often without the sort of backlash Mr. Trump has inspired.
Doug Ducey of Arizona, who is also stepping down, recently signed the most expansive school choice bill ever. Glenn Youngkin’s win in last year’s Virginia governor’s race, Mr. Kemp’s re-election after standing up to Mr. Trump in 2020 and the almost 10-point swing toward Mr. DeSantis in Florida from 2018 to 2022 show that a different version of the G.O.P. is waiting in the wings — a party that can rise above the self-imposed limits of Mr. Trump’s coalition without giving much up. Republican governors run the gamut from abortion-rights moderates to anti-abortion MAGA culture warriors. What makes Mr. Kemp, Mr. Youngkin and Mr. DeSantis unique is their ability to exploit the weaknesses of the cultural left without frightening the center of the electorate.
Still, Mr. Trump, who is widely expected to announce for president soon, is the undisputed front-runner for the 2024 Republican nomination. He has a sizable lead over Mr. DeSantis in national polls. What’s more, Mr. Trump says he is willing to use the same scorched-earth personal attacks against potential rivals that he deployed in 2016.
If Mr. DeSantis enters the presidential stakes, then, he will have to win over conservative media and wrest control of the G.O.P. from Mr. Trump. It might even come at the risk of driving Mr. Trump to start an independent candidacy.