A Trump Victim Tells All

Rodney Davis
Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images
Tara Palmeri
August 8, 2022

Last Wednesday, I caught up with Rep. Rodney Davis after a big election night in Republican politics—one in which a single Eric was named victor in Missouri, Trump-backed candidates Blake Masters and Kari Lake won their primaries in Arizona, and ultra-conservative Kansas saw unprecedented turnout in support of abortion rights. Davis, who has been representing Illinois’s 13th congressional district since 2012, has been named one of the top 10 most bipartisan Republicans in Congress. And while Davis did not vote to impeach Donald Trump after January 6, he did vote to certify the election. 

He has the certification vote tally framed on his wall, but it may have proved to be the bullet of his political suicide in the modern G.O.P. Despite being redistricted into an even more entrenched MAGA constituency, he didn’t reach out to Mar-a-Lago for an endorsement. In the end, he was a sitting duck in a primary that pitted him against another incumbent, the Trump-endorsed Rep. Mary Miller, who referred to Roe’s overturning as a “historic victory for white life” during a rally appearance with Trump (her team insisted she meant “the right to life”) and quoted Hitler during a rally in Washington. In the primary, Miller won by 15 points.

Now that he’s exiting office, Davis was at liberty to voice some of the quieter, uncomfortable conversations taking place inside the Republican Party: issues that most elected officials would not go near, at least not ahead of their own elections. The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Tara Palmeri: Should Republicans be worried about the high turnout in Kansas to reject that amendment on abortion?

Rep. Rodney Davis: Obviously, that’s something to consider since the turnout was that high in Kansas. That’s something that could clearly motivate voters, which means that we Republicans have to take the election cycle very, very seriously. The trends are in our favor, but we can’t allow certain issues to overcome our initial advantages right now and the incompetence of the Biden administration. 

How do you address the fact that moderate or liberal voters are coming out in higher-than-expected numbers over this issue?

It was a specific constitutional question, which obviously drove voters in Kansas. But is there going to be a question like that on every ballot in every state? No. There’s not. When you’re looking at the turnout in Kansas versus the voter turnout in Missouri—which was lucky to get maybe 25 percent turnout last night, or Illinois, where it was 21.7 percent in June—shows me that [abortion isn’t going to be as big of an issue] when you look ahead to the general, when there’s not going to be that question on every state’s ballot. 

Should the party still be worried? 

Yes, if it was that lopsided [in Kansas], that’s something that every Republican has to be concerned about, especially if it’s used as a motivator to get Democrats excited to vote in this election.

What do you think of Trump’s dual endorsement in Missouri? 

I thought it was Apprentice-like. I guess I should have changed my name to Eric, and I guess I would have gotten a dual endorsement in my race. Look, Eric Schmitt didn’t need the endorsement, and now Eric Schmitt has put himself in a position where he has to answer why he said he will not support Mitch McConnell, who I think is going to go down as one of the best legislators ever to walk the halls of the U.S. Senate and Congress. You don’t make decisions like that before you get there, before you understand what the process is, before you understand what the competition is. And that to me, that was the biggest mistake I saw Eric Schmitt make. I think he was going to win anyway and I don’t think he had to put himself out. 

Don’t you think it’s increasingly standard for candidates to trash Mitch McConnell to prove their anti-establishment cred? I heard that Trump was holding back from endorsing Schmitt because he was told that he was close to McConnell. 

There’s a difference in Missouri. Just this past week you had three top candidates all say they would not support Mitch McConnell. It tells me that they were all talking to people that were associated with Mar-a-lago about an endorsement, and trying their best to get the ultra-MAGA crowd. Schmitt did not have to do that to win, but he did it and he boxed himself in. I think it’s a bad decision. 

Do you think McConnell’s leadership is threatened by all of these candidates? 

No, I think there’s political expediency by all of the candidates.

Do you think they’ll end up in the back of the class because of it? 

There’s not enough people in the Senate to keep punishing people. Otherwise Rand Paul would have been irrelevant for years. It’s one of those things where I was cautioned when I got to D.C. to “never say never”—because you don’t know what your final choices are going to be. 

Do you think that the dual endorsement hurts the value of Trump’s endorsement? 

One hundred percent. It’s just gamesmanship that he thinks is cute but it has real consequences on the long-term viability of what he can do in the future when it comes to endorsements. 

Do you think he does this again? 

The odds are no. But everyone’s going to ask, are you going to do this again?

If Trump announces that he’s running for reelection in September, how will that impact the midterms? 

It depends on how he does it, and what he says when he does it, and which candidates are willing to take him on. I think it will have more of a general election turnout on both sides, because there are a lot of people who go vote because President Trump tells them to. We had record turnout in the midterms in 2018—President Trump’s midterm—and we had record turnout in 2020. I think having Trump announce before the midterms would only accelerate that turnout issue and that it would be extremely high. 

Do you think Joe Biden will run for reelection? 

No. We have Jerry Nadler and Carolyn Maloney not answering whether or not they will support him or whether or not he’s running. That tells me something. Leading up to the midterms, in 2018, every single time I was ever asked if I supported President Trump, and if I thought he was going to run for re-election, “Yes and yes.”

Who do you think in the Republican Party is the best candidate to take on Joe Biden? 

I was always good at predicting presidential candidates until I got elected to congress. As a prognosticator, you have to ask who is willing to stand up if the former president announces that he’s running again. I think that’s a much more limited pool. 

DeSantis would stand up to him, no? 

I don’t think anyone has asked Ron if he’s willing to do it, but if so, I think Ron would be a very formidable candidate. Ron and I got elected in 2012 together. I got one more spot in seniority over him in our freshman class because my name starts with DA and his name starts with DE. But even then, a guy like Ron has really done a phenomenal job in the state of Florida. He’s somebody who I enjoyed working with and becoming friends with when I served with him. If he chose to run, he’d be a very formidable candidate. And I think some others who have run before, I don’t think they’ll run again just judging from the comments they made since the 2016 election, especially Ted Cruz. I don’t think Ted can find an avenue to run if the former president decides to run. 

He came out of the election mortally wounded. Is there a fear that DeSantis, a young politician with so much promise, could come out of this wounded by Trump?

I think Ron DeSantis has the ability to mortally wound his opponents. He’s a good debater, he’s a smart guy. He was a very effective legislator when he served in Congress with me. In the end, not the most gregarious guy in the world. His leadership abilities have been honed as governor and I think he’s done a phenomenal job. It’s laughable to me that anyone thinks J.B. Pritzker can run for president. I’d love to see a Pritzker-DeSantis head-to-head matchup because Ron would eat him alive. 

There are a lot of Republicans like Glenn Youngkin or Mike Pence who could take on any Democrat in 2024. I think it’s going to be ripe for Republican pickup in 2024 and I think we have a shot to grow our majority in the House. I think we have a shot to get a veto-proof majority in the Senate in 2024. That’s why we have to win Arizona, we have to win Georgia, we’ve got to be all-hands-on-deck to win as many seats as possible this time so we can pick up the seats in 2024 to get to 60.  

A lot of people in the party are concerned about Trump’s candidate selection in some of these key Senate races. They worry that these candidates had appeal in a primary but maybe not in the general.

Herschel Walker will be the next senator from Georgia and the same thing with J.D. Vance. Ohio has gone so far to the red team. There’s no chance Eric Schmitt doesn’t win in Missouri. I would be more concerned about the Senate race in Arizona, based on the demographics, but Blake Masters is going to be a great Republican leader. 

Do you think it will be more like R+1 for the Senate rather than +3 or +4? 

Go ask Joni Ernst what the polling looked like before she won in a landslide. Conversely, look at me. My polling said I was going to win. 

Do you think Trump’s power has actually grown since he left office? 

You know who is to blame for creating the perception that President Trump is gaining power in the Republican Party? The Democrats. It’s the Democrats who are funding the pro-Trump candidates. They say all of us who voted against impeachment are killing democracy, [meanwhile] they spent money to help defeat Rep. Peter Meijer in his Michigan primary because they knew Peter would win the general election in a swing district and this pro-Trump candidate, John Gibbs, would not. 

Any Democrat who talks about democracy being under attack is the biggest hypocrite in politics. As much as Republicans get called out for hypocrisy if people don’t call the Democrats for hypocrisy, too, then there’s not going to be any standards whatsoever in politics. It’s frustrating to hear this sanctimonious discussion. In Illinois, for a prime example, our governor, J.B. Pritzker was the largest contributor to the Republican candidate who won the nomination just a few weeks ago. I still think the Republican can win, but if J.B. Pritzker spent millions to make sure that Darren Bailey was the nominee for Governor, you’d think he’d be up by more than seven points. [One recent poll showed Pritzker up by nine points.] 

Did you try to get Trump’s endorsement? 

I didn’t go to Mar-a-Lago. I never asked for an endorsement.