On The Trail: The first signs of a post-Trump GOP
For four years, President Trump 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.
“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.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) has embraced what Trump portrays as a hard line on China. Sens. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) are reviving Republican calls for fiscal conservatism; Sasse this past week criticized Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, 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 Haley (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.
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 Gardner (R-Colo.) is running advertisements touting a public lands bill that won support from environmental groups, and Sen. Susan Collins (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 Tillis (R-N.C.), Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), Martha McSally (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 McConnell (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.