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At 8:00pm eastern time, Donald Trump received a one-two punch in the gut from Alaska, where Senator Lisa Murkowski won re-election and Representative Mary Peltola beat former governor Sarah Palin for the second time in a year.
Ms Murkowski was one of seven Republicans who voted to convict the former president for his actions in the January 6 riot. Senators Richard Burr of North Carolina and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania resigned, giving the former president sought to replace them with loyalists.
He managed to pull it off in North Carolina, backing now-senator-elect Ted Budd, who as a congressman voted to object to the 2020 presidential election results. Yet Mr Budd mostly won by running as a replacement-level Republican who neither made waves nor distinguished himself as Mr Trump’s nemesis; thanks in part to that tactful positioning, Mitch McConnell’s Senate Leadership Fund poured millions of dollars into the Tar Heel State.
In Pennsylvania, Mr Trump’s choice, Mehmet Oz lost to John Fetterman, a man he seemed to truly loathe, accusing him of using heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and fentanyl. But that couldn’t change the fact that many Pennsylvanians just didn’t like Dr Oz, and he lost by a bigger margin in the Keystone State than Mr Trump did in 2020, underperforming in counties that Mr Trump won.
And in Alaska, Mr Trump endorsed Republican Kelly Tshibaka to challenge Ms Murkowski under the state’s new ranked-choice system. And now, just as he is trying to rally the party behind another presidential run, Ms Murkowski’s victory adds another defeat to the Trump ledger.
Ms Murkowski didn’t run an explicitly anti-Trump campaign the way, say, Representative Liz Cheney did in her losing primary in Wyoming. In fact when I asked her about Mr Trump calling her “worse than a RINO” in Alaska, she said “He seems to be worried about me.”
In Alaska, Mr Trump maybe should have known better than to pick a fight with Ms Murkowski, who in 2010 won the first successful write-in campaign in 56 years. Ms Murkowski ran a hyper-local campaign and framed intra-party opposition as the interference of “lower 48 outsiders”.
The Senate Leadership Fund poured about $6.4m into the race, angeringsome conservatives who complained that the same favor wasn’t extended to Blake Masters in Arizona. But Mr McConnell doesn’t like to lose – and it should be noted that one internal survey reportedly found that Peter Thiel’s protege and Trump’s endorsee in the Grand Canyon State polled lower than infamous Alabama Senate nominee Roy Moore did after allegations of sexual misconduct with teenage girls.
As if that weren’t enough, Mr Trump also lost out at the congressional level when Ms Peltola trounced Ms Palin to win a full term.
Mr Trump endorsed Ms Palin partly to return an old favor: she endorsed his 2016 presidential run when every other living former Republican nominee for president and vice president stayed as far away from him as possible. But in the end, this was the second time she lost the district to Ms Peltola after the special election for the seat in August.
Republicans had two problems: One, Ms Palin and fellow Republican Nick Begich III shared a visceral mutual hatred. Having both refused to clear the way for the other to win, they spent much of the election attacking one another, likely making it harder for their respective supporters to stomach ranking the other candidate on a ballot.
Conversely, despite being from different parties, Ms Palin and Ms Peltola seem to genuinely like each other. As my colleague Richard Hall found when he interviewed Peltola in August, the two women knew each other when Ms Palin was governor and Ms Peltola served in the legislature, and were pregnant at the same time. Ms Palin said she would rank her Democratic rival second – and as reported by friend of the newsletter Grace Segers of The New Republic, she told a gathering of Alaska Natives “Doggone it…I have nothing to gripe about”.
Viewed from Mar-a-Lago, it all looks rather different. The losses are just Mr Trump’s latest after a disastrous cycle in which many of his preferred gubernatorial nominees flamed out – and they’re more fodder for Republicans making the case that it’s time to move on from him.