The Republican Party is mired in an identity crisis after the dissolution of its November red wave. And while almost everyone with power and influence in the GOP agrees it’s a mess, no one can agree on how to fix it. Or if Donald Trump should be involved.
While there was some cheer for the party on Wednesday with the GOP winning a narrow majority in the House, the combined shockwaves of the broader midterm election disappointment and the former president’s jump into the presidential race of 2024 Tuesday are causing angst and internal recriminations about the way forward.
And the smaller-than-expected House majority after losing the Senate has only fueled the debate over how the GOP can reclaim other centers of power and whether Trump’s influence could doom it from new to low electoral performance.
The already heated 2024 Republican presidential race and the growing prospects of candidates like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis are also fueling GOP leadership speculation. With the party looking for the next big thing, there may be an opening for a new candidate with the charisma and vision to redefine its leadership.
Another potential GOP primary contender, former Vice President Mike Pence, said in a CNN town hall Wednesday that Americans were looking for “new leadership — leadership that will unite our country around our highest ideals, leadership that will reflect the civility and respect that most Americans have for one another.” Pence’s leadership checklist appeared to rule out Trump as he called for forward-looking candidates.
“I think we’re going to have better options than my old running mate,” Pence told CNN’s Jake Tapper.
Meanwhile, leadership fights in both houses of Congress are exposing deep disunity over how to win back independent and swing voters who have often been frightened by Trump’s extremism. Many lawmakers blame Trump for his fixation on the 2020 election and his lies that cheated him out of power for failing to win back the Senate.
But some argue that the party is not Trumpy enough. Allies of the former president, for example, failed Wednesday in an attempt to unseat veteran Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, a longtime Trump antagonist. But if House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy wants to be the next speaker, he can’t afford to alienate Trump acolytes who will wield great power in the new House, meaning at least half of the Capitol will dance to the sleep of the former president.
Outside Congress, there are possible signs of a political realignment as some big outside donors break cover and demand that the party leave Trump behind. And conservative kingpin Rupert Murdoch also appears to be putting his finger on the scales, as his New York Post steps up its mockery of the former president. On Wednesday, the tabloid carried a strapline across the bottom of its front page, reading from its 2024 launch party: “Florida Man Makes Announcement.”
The level of criticism, even ridicule, of Trump after his Mar-a-Lago event lacked the energy of 2016 was unusual and surprising, and could herald a broader shift in attitudes toward the two times republican candidate.
But somehow, we’ve seen this all before. Several times, even after the U.S. Capitol uprising in 2021, the party seemed poised to walk away, before testing the wind on Trump’s dominance of its base and appeasing it once more.
But Scott Jennings, a Republican strategist and CNN political analyst, said Trump’s moderate 2024 pitch on Tuesday didn’t scare off rivals, noting that it was beginning to dawn on many in the party that the former president it was a responsibility.
“A lot of people are looking for something new, or at least a minimum, they’re not quite sure they want to do Donald Trump a third time,” Jennings told CNN’s Erin Burnett.
The new infighting represents the latest battle for the soul of the GOP, which predates Trump, between radical grassroots activists and deeply conservative but more establishment forces. The party is now more populist, working-class and performative, thanks to Trump’s dismantling of its internationalist and corporate legacy.
But the internal estrangement that cost him power in successive elections is intensifying because of Trump’s return to the spotlight and the impact his attempt to destroy democracy in 2021 appears to have had midterm.
For years, the equation in the GOP has been simple. Many Washington officials would be happy to cut ties with Trump, whom they see as unfit for office. But his mystical bond with the party’s voters meant that any politician who wanted a future in the GOP had to kneel before him.
There are some reasons to suspect that could change, especially with the rise of new hardline contenders like DeSantis in the party.
In the old GOP, grassroots voters who wanted a hard line on immigration, attacks on the press, disdain for experts and scientists, and culture war policies could only find them in Trump. But now potential presidential candidates and lawmakers operate by their playbook. It is possible to have Trumpism without Trump himself and the political responsibilities and chaos that comes with it.
Time will tell if this new reality begins to weaken Trump’s power at the grassroots.
There is still no clear evidence that Trump’s base is fracturing. But some big GOP donors are already voting with their wallets.
On Wednesday, for example, Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman, a former Trump booster, distanced himself and his formidable fundraising muscle from the former president over his obsession with 2020 election denial.
“America does best when its leaders are rooted in today and tomorrow, not today and yesterday,” Schwarzman said in a statement sent to CNN. “It’s time for the Republican party to turn to a new generation of leaders, and I intend to support one of them in the presidential primary.” The defection was first reported by Axios.
Another GOP mega-donor, Ken Griffin of Citadel, recently indicated he would support DeSantis, a former Trump protégé, if he runs in 2024. The Club for Growth, an influential conservative group that previously backed Trump, also seems to be making progress. , and is touting his polls showing DeSantis leading the former president in key states.
The drumbeat of big GOP donors against Trump is sharpening the showdown between party bigwigs over party philosophy.
“President Trump has lost three in a row and if we’re going to start winning, we need a new leader,” said Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a former primary rival and friend of Trump’s, received a standing ovation at the Republican Governors Association summit this week when he blamed Trump for the GOP’s disappointing midterm performance.
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a possible 2024 Republican nominee, also appeared to criticize Trump in a tweet. “We need more seriousness, less noise,” Pompeo wrote, dismissing Republicans who “look in the rearview mirror and claim victimhood.”
The schism over Trump posed the most serious challenge to McConnell’s Senate Republican leadership in 15 years. The Kentucky senator was easily re-elected at his conference on Wednesday, but had to endure unprecedented criticism of his management after Florida Sen. Rick Scott’s attempt to take his job.
Scott’s supporters, who ran despite strong criticism of his handling of the GOP’s Senate campaign arm in the midterms, framed their criticism of McConnell in Trumpian tones.
“I ran for Senate because we need OUTSIDERS to take on the DC swamp and get RESULTS,” Indiana Sen. Mike Braun said in a statement. “The most conservative Republicans are sick and tired of the status quo. I’m proud to support my friend and fellow conservative Rick Scott for our leader.”
Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, a possible future Republican presidential nominee who had said he would not support McConnell as leader, has spent the past few days criticizing his party for its failure to win popular majorities, saying the legislatures were his “funeral”.
At times, he appeared to hint at criticism of Trump, though in his comments Wednesday, he went after the Kentucky Republican and confirmed that he voted for Scott.
“I think Senator McConnell’s view is that Trump is largely to blame and that Republicans have an image problem because of Trump. I have to say I disagree with that,” he told Manu Raju from CNN.
McConnell’s allies, however, point out that, in many cases, the candidates he supported in the midterm elections generally outperformed the denialists, extremists and neophytes that Trump launched into his party. Conservative Republicans who proved to be competent stewards and steered clear of the 2020 conspiracies, like the governors. Ohio’s Mike DeWine and Georgia’s Brian Kemp far outpaced fellow Republicans running for the same Senate tickets that were closely tied to Trump. His success underscored how a more mainstream, but still conservative, candidate could thrive at the presidential level in 2024 if he avoided Trump’s extreme behavior and conspiracies.
The new Republican House, which will take over in January, will also have a big influence on the future direction of the GOP and its performance in the 2024 election, which will now become, at least in part, a referendum on its power in the government The new House majority figures are a valuable political weapon for Trump, and their reduced leeway could give his more extreme allies in the chamber more leeway to dictate policy and tactics. And McCarthy needs the former president to convince members of the House Freedom Caucus to support him in his bid for the presidency in the new year and keep him in power. So while the debate over the future of the party rages elsewhere, the House will be pro-Trump.
How this weighs on his party’s prospects with voters will only become clear in another election, in 2024.