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On The Trail: The first signs of a post-Trump GOP

For four years, President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says GOP senators have called to congratulate him Biden: Trump attending inauguration is 'of consequence' to the country Biden says family will avoid business conflicts MORE has held an iron grip over the Republican Party, basking in the warm glow of adulation from a base that follows his direction to punish critics and reward allies.

But with polls showing an increasingly perilous path to reelection, there are new signs that his grip is loosening, as some Republicans begin to explore what the future of the Grand Old Party might look like once Trump becomes a lame duck or an ex-president.

In interviews with more than a dozen strategists, party leaders and current and former members of Congress, Republicans said their party is searching for a new direction even before Trump leaves the stage.

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“His weaker poll numbers and off-the-wall tweets plus his flexible, day-to-day ideology empower and in some cases encourage dissent,” said Tom Davis, a former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. “Politics is, above all, a game of survival, and his off-message remarks do not inspire confidence.”

The search for a post-Trump direction is made more complicated by the universal acknowledgment that Trump will never truly be gone, even if he loses in November; his Twitter feed will still drive news coverage, and a potential deal to land a television network could give rise to a political force that would drive the conservative conversation for years to come.

“Trump is not going to go away after he loses the election. He’s going to have a TV network,” said one operative close to Senate Republicans. “He’s going to be a protagonist again. He’s so comfortable in that role.”

Two distinct groups of prominent Republicans are considering ways to move beyond Trump, though the immediacy of their mission varies.

One is a large and growing set of Republicans who are already positioning themselves for the next race for the White House. They are testing new messages, appearing with favored candidates in ideologically divided primaries and staking out territory they hope will give them a springboard in what is certain to be a crowded field of candidates running to be Trump’s successor.

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Sen. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonOvernight Defense: Lawmakers release compromise defense bill in defiance of Trump veto threat | Senate voting next week on blocking UAE arms sale | Report faults lack of training, 'chronic fatigue' in military plane crashes Compromise defense bill excludes competing nuclear testing language Republican senators introduce bill to protect government workers from being targeted at home MORE (R-Ark.) has embraced what Trump portrays as a hard line on China. Sens. Ben SasseBen SasseBiden says GOP senators have called to congratulate him McConnell in tough position as House eyes earmark return Trump transition order follows chorus of GOP criticism MORE (R-Neb.) and Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSenate committee approves nominations of three FEC commissioners Cruz urges Supreme Court to take up Pennsylvania election challenge OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump administration proceeds with rollback of bird protections despite objections | Trump banking proposal on fossil fuels sparks backlash from libertarians | EU 2019 greenhouse gas emissions down 24 percent MORE (R-Texas) are reviving Republican calls for fiscal conservatism; Sasse this past week criticized Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - Dem leaders back smaller COVID-19 relief bill as pandemic escalates Sweeping financial crimes bill to hitch a ride on defense measure On The Money: Funding bill hits snag as shutdown deadline looms | Pelosi, Schumer endorse 8 billion plan as basis for stimulus talks | Poll: Most Americans support raising taxes on those making at least 0K MORE, while Cruz has clashed with fellow GOP senators over pandemic relief spending.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) is on a media blitz promoting himself as a return to good-governance Republicanism. Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), a businessman who has a relationship with Trump that pre-dates either man’s time in politics, has already run television ads in Iowa.

Cruz and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki HaleyNimrata (Nikki) HaleyKatko fends off Democratic opponent in New York race Potential 2024 Republicans flock to Georgia amid Senate runoffs The Memo: GOP mulls its future after Trump MORE (R), who later served as Trump’s U.N. ambassador, are among those who have been fundraising aggressively for fellow Republican candidates. Vice President Pence has maintained a scaled back but still regular travel schedule, even in the midst of the pandemic.

“What we’re seeing now is a significant amount of trial balloons being floated. Everyone knows the Republican Party requires a pivot in messaging and a better ability to connect with a broader set of voters. The question is what that messaging and who that messenger looks like,” said Brent Buchanan, an Alabama-based Republican pollster.

The other group seeking to distinguish itself is the set of congressional Republicans, especially incumbents up for reelection this year in a political climate that is shaping up to be a Democratic landslide.

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Those lawmakers are considering ways to distance themselves from Trump without angering the still-substantial base that’s fiercely loyal to the president. Many are spotlighting their legislative accomplishments; Sen. Cory GardnerCory GardnerMark Kelly to be sworn in as senator on Wednesday Hillicon Valley: Trump fires top federal cybersecurity official, GOP senators push back | Apple to pay 3 million to resolve fight over batteries | Los Angeles Police ban use of third-party facial recognition software Senate passes bill to secure internet-connected devices against cyber vulnerabilities MORE (R-Colo.) is running advertisements touting a public lands bill that won support from environmental groups, and Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsBiden says GOP senators have called to congratulate him GOP blocks effort to make payroll tax deferral optional for federal workers COVID-19 relief picks up steam as McConnell, Pelosi hold talks MORE (R-Maine) has aired spots promoting the local impact of funding from the record $2.2 trillion CARES Act that provided coronavirus relief.

“They’re basically thinking of their own political future, and nothing creates independence more than the perception of a politically damaged incumbent,” said John Couvillon, a Louisiana-based pollster.

Others, like Sens. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisRep. Mark Walker announces Senate bid in North Carolina Grassley returns to Capitol after having coronavirus McConnell halts in-person Republican lunches amid COVID-19 surge MORE (R-N.C.), Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstWaPo reporter says GOP has less incentive to go big on COVID-19 relief GOP chairman: Defense bill to include renaming Confederate bases, but not Section 230 repeal Iowa losses underscore Democrats' struggles with attracting rural voters MORE (R-Iowa), Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyGabby Giffords congratulates Mark Kelly with throwback photo of her own swearing-in Mark Kelly sworn in to Senate seat Sen.-elect Mark Kelly visits John McCain's grave ahead of swearing-in MORE (R-Ariz.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.), find themselves more tightly tied to Trump. All four represent swing states in November; GOP strategists said Trump almost certainly needs to win their states for the senators to win in November. In 2016, for the first time since direct election of senators began 100 years ago, no state with a Senate contest split the vote between the presidential election and the Senate race.

Trump’s tweet Thursday floating the idea of delaying November’s election — something a sitting president is uniquely powerless to actually achieve — was the rare moment in which the two groups found common cause to criticize the president. Virtually every Republican elected official, from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBiden backs 0B compromise coronavirus stimulus bill US records over 14 million coronavirus cases On The Money: COVID-19 relief picks up steam as McConnell, Pelosi hold talks | Slowing job growth raises fears of double-dip recession | Biden officially announces Brian Deese as top economic adviser MORE (Ky.) to rank-and-file members of the House, dismissed the concept of postponing the election as impossible and out of the question.

The very reason Trump would want to delay an election in which he appears headed for defeat is the same reason Republicans feel emboldened to push him away: His power lies in his poll numbers, and his poll numbers are sagging.

“Trump has ruled the party by fear more than love, creating mostly transactional relationships whose durability depends on perceptions of his power,” said Bruce Mehlman, a well-connected GOP lobbyist.

Republicans seeking reelection are also frustrated that they still do not fully know what Trump has in mind for a second term. His scattershot approach to a coherent message, knocked askew almost daily by the latest Twitter broadside or new surges in the number of coronavirus cases across the country, has left the party without a platform on which to run.

“The coronavirus has upended his reelection game plan of prosperity and he has not figured out a Plan B. His leadership has not inspired confidence, even with his base,” Davis said. “That leaves a vacuum, and power abhors a vacuum.”

The next phase of the Republican Party will be inescapably shaped by Trump’s time in office, and the course corrections Republican voters want to make once he is done being a candidate. How much power Trump himself has to guide that new direction will depend on how willing and able those lined up to succeed him are to accept, or reject, the grip he maintains.

On The Trail is a reported column by Reid Wilson, primarily focused on the 2020 elections.