How not to beat Trump

In several recent Republican primaries, Trump’s endorsements of Senate candidates helped. A push from the former president helped Mehmet Oz and JD Vance cross the finish line in Pennsylvania and Ohio, respectively. A Trump endorsement also helped gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake defeat her Republican rivals in Arizona. The question for November is whether these and other Trump-backed candidates can also defeat the Democrats.

But general election victories do not appear to be the priority for Mr. Trump. More important than getting your own people in is getting your enemies out – e.g. men and women as reps. Adam Kinzinger and Liz Cheney. And therein lies a lesson for Republicans who want their party to move past Mr. Trump.

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Unfortunately, too many Trump critics have the same problem as him. They want him gone, no matter the cost. So far they have been conspicuously unsuccessful. So here’s a thought: Why not try to beat Mr. Trump by offering Republicans a better deal?

That’s a good question for the 2024 GOP presidential campaign, which is about to start in earnest. The nagging Republican fear is that even if he doesn’t seek the nomination, or runs and doesn’t win, Mr. Trump still retains enough influence with his voters to sabotage the eventual GOP nominee.

There is no escaping the only answer that has a chance of electing a Republican president. To succeed, a candidate must take the policies that worked under Mr. Trump — tax cuts, deregulation, solid judicial choices, pulling out of the Iran deal — update the agenda for today, then explain to GOP voters why he is a better choice than the former president to get it done.

It is easy to forget that Mr. Trump’s successes were largely born of classic Republican principles. He was also innovative in answering skeptics. When conservatives questioned how he could be trusted to pick good Supreme Court nominees, he reassured them by releasing a slate of solid justices and committing to picking from it.

Alas, too many Republicans think they can simply declare Mr. Trump unclean and cast him out of polite society. It didn’t work in 2016 and it won’t work today.

It won’t work today because Mr. Trump’s fate will not be decided by Republican party elders. That will be decided by Republican voters. And if you ask them why they like Mr. Trump, they are likely to say what Lincoln said of Grant: He fights.

Republican voters are well aware of Mr. Trump’s shortcomings. But they are skeptical of moral condemnations of norms and outrage from people who blinked when our intelligence and law enforcement agencies ran with a Hillary Clinton campaign case falsely accusing Mr. Trump of being a Russian agent.

Trump voters may be prickly, but they’re not stupid. They sense that the attacks on Mr. Trump are ultimately attacks on them. We have this on no less an authority than President Biden, who recently made it explicit when he denounced MAGA Republicanism as “semi-fascism.”

People also forget that among the things that did Mr. Trump for president, his emphasis was on winning. In 2016, he sold himself as the one man who could beat Hillary. And then he did.

For Republicans with presidential ambitions, the lesson is clear: Stay focused on winning. Don’t be driven to answer, even when Mr. Trump offers an insult. Instead, show that you are the one to translate what Republicans want into action. There’s certainly a lot of material to work with: Texas Governor Greg Abbott on the border, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp on job creation, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey on school choice, and many others.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ re-election is giving voters a taste of this. At least for now, he is the Republican alternative to Trump most likely to carry the GOP into 2024. Even Democrats can see that, which is why a New York Times columnist criticized Mr. DeSantis for — of all things – missing mr. Trump’s “soft edges.”

Sir. DeSantis seems to understand that if he allows himself to talk about Mr. Trump, it will immediately drown out anything else he has to say. So he’s campaigning on his agenda, on everything from keeping Florida’s economy open during Covid to crime and education.

It seems to be working. In January, a USA Today-Suffolk University poll showed that Florida Republicans prefer Mr. Trump 47% to 40% over Mr. DeSantis. Today, the same poll has flipped, with Florida’s governor enjoying a 48% to 40% advantage over Mr. Trump.

The most important lesson of the upcoming midterms is that it is not enough for a Republican to win a GOP primary. He must be able to win the general election. In the 2024 presidential race, it will take a GOP nominee who sells Republicans on the idea that he is better than Mr. Trump without offending—and alienating—the Trump voters he needs to win that November.

Write to mcgurn@wsj.com.

Wonder Land: The first Trump presidency began with the Russian collusion. Now we have its offspring – the tale of classified documents that, like its predecessor, is heavy on innuendo and light on facts. Images: Shutterstock/AFP/Getty Images Composition: Mark Kelly

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