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Republicans on forming a third party: Don't count on it

Don’t hold your breath on Republicans angered with former President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump vows 'No more money for RINOS,' instead encouraging donations to his PAC Federal judge rules 'QAnon shaman' too dangerous to be released from jail Pelosi says Capitol riot was one of the most difficult moments of her career MORE breaking away to form a new party.

Interviews with more than half a dozen Republican strategists, operatives and former officials conducted ahead of this weekend’s impeachment trial vote show there is a deep reluctance among even Trump’s most ardent critics to formally break away from the GOP.

Republicans were badly divided over Saturday’s vote, with seven GOP senators ultimately voting to convict Trump. Afterward, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump ramps up battle with Republican leadership RNC fires back at Trump, says it 'has every right' to use his name in fundraising appeals Blunt retirement shakes up Missouri Senate race MORE (R-Ky.) unloaded on the former president, saying Trump was morally responsible for inciting the insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6 while explaining that he voted to acquit because Trump is no longer in office.

McConnell’s remarks were the clearest signal yet that he wants to steer the party away from Trump, even as other Republicans say the former president should continue to be the leading voice in the party.

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Divisions within the GOP have been apparent for years. But Republicans who spoke to The Hill expressed skepticism that they would lead to the formation of a third party, even after a meeting last week between dozens of high-profile conservatives that raised the possibility.

A number of these sources said that a third party would amount to little more than a spectacle and threaten conservatives’ hopes of recapturing the House, Senate and White House in the years ahead. And even those open to the idea acknowledge the challenges.

“I’ll be the first to say that our electoral system is stacked against third parties,” said Miles Taylor, the former chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security under Trump, who was among those who took part in the meeting. “If that’s the route we decide to go, we are very clear-eyed about the fact that there’s a graveyard of third parties out there.”

The meeting last week saw a group of more than 120 Republican former officials, operatives and activists convene on Zoom to discuss the possibility of organizing a center-right party — or at least a new faction within the GOP — to compete with what they see as an increasingly extreme Republican Party.

More than 40 percent of those on the call backed the idea of a breakaway party, organizers said. A slightly larger plurality favored a faction within the GOP, similar to the Tea Party movement that emerged in the party more than a decade ago.

The discussions are ongoing, several people on the call said, and they are planning to hold more meetings in the weeks and months ahead. Taylor, who anonymously penned an op-ed in The New York Times and later wrote a book criticizing Trump and his administration, did not rule out the notion of starting a third party and described last week’s meeting as a “temperature-taking discussion” among its participants.

“Even if a lot of folks in the Republican Party still support Donald Trump, it’s clear that the brand has taken an enormous reputational hit,” Taylor said. “We feel like there’s definitely an opportunity here to recapture folks who felt disaffected by the way 2020 went.”

For now, the idea of a third-party movement has failed to gain traction with a wide swath of the Republican Party. Rep. Adam KinzingerAdam Daniel KinzingerMarjorie Taylor Greene's delay tactics frustrate GOP Republicans, please save your party House GOP campaign chief: Not helpful for Trump to meddle in primaries MORE (R-Ill.), who was among the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump last month, told Reuters this week that he would not support such an effort.

Another Republican who backed impeachment, Rep. Liz CheneyElizabeth (Liz) Lynn CheneyGOP senator defends Cheney, Murkowski after Trump rebuke Marjorie Taylor Greene's delay tactics frustrate GOP Paul Ryan to host fundraiser for Cheney amid GOP tensions MORE (Wyo.), also opposes “any effort to split the party,” her spokesperson said in a statement.

One former GOP official expressed support for a breakaway party “in theory” but acknowledged that it’s unlikely to materialize, saying that there are too many systemic hurdles for such an effort to be viable.

“When it’s said and done, a two-party system is simply what the history of this country has been,” the official said. “We like a system where parties have a broader tent. That’s not to say we can’t hope that the Republican Party makes some changes in the next two, four, six years.”

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Chuck Clay, a former Georgia state senator and GOP chairman, said that creating a new party would only hurt conservatives by fracturing the voter base.

“Really the choices are, OK, am I going to let the Democrats win?” he said. “Oh, spare me. That’s not going to happen. Or are we going to find a way to supplant the Democrats in two years or four years?”

“People have very legitimate concerns,” he added. “I just hope they don’t turn that into a rancor and bitterness and blame their home team.”

The rumblings of a third-party movement aren’t coming only from those in the GOP’s center-right wing.

Trump reportedly floated the idea of forming a new “Patriot Party” last month as he prepared to leave the White House. But GOP leaders have largely written off the idea, and Trump’s campaign took steps to distance itself from a newly created “Patriot Party PAC.”

Still, the talk of a third-party movement underscores the divisions in the GOP that have been exacerbated in the weeks since Jan. 6, when a mob of the former president’s supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in an effort to disrupt the congressional certification of President BidenJoe BidenCNN: Bidens' dogs removed from the White House Federal judge rules 'QAnon shaman' too dangerous to be released from jail Pelosi says Capitol riot was one of the most difficult moments of her career MORE’s Electoral College victory.

Trump’s role in inciting the riots was at the center of the Senate impeachment trial that finished on Saturday.

House impeachment managers rested their case on Thursday after delivering an emotional plea for senators to convict Trump of fomenting violence against members of Congress.

Ultimately, the Senate handed Trump his second impeachment acquittal on Saturday. But the seven Republicans who joined their Democratic colleagues in voting to find him guilty made it the most bipartisan impeachment in U.S. history. And McConnell, in his blistering remarks following the trial, suggested that Trump could face criminal prosecution for his role in the insurrection.

The trial's outcome suggests divisions will continue to roil the party as it looks ahead to 2022 and beyond.

Evan McMullin, a Republican-turned-independent who co-hosted last week’s Zoom call, said in comments to The Hill prior to the vote that the unwillingness of some GOP senators to hold Trump to account “is just the latest indication that the Republican Party is rotten to the core.”

McMullin, who mounted an independent bid for the White House in 2016, dismissed concerns that a center-right insurgency in the GOP could damage conservatives’ goals of recapturing power in Washington. He said that the current direction of the Republican Party has left traditional conservatives and centrist voters with no other recourse.

“There just isn’t a choice,” McMullin said. “People will say if you do this, you’ll divide the Republican Party and the Republican Party will suffer politically. But the Republican Party doesn’t represent us now.”

Even with his acquittal, the Capitol riots have likely taken a political toll on Trump.

Some Republican senators believe the impeachment trial has effectively thwarted any chance that the former president has at a political comeback in the 2024 presidential contest.

At the same time, some of those who once worked for Trump have sought to distance themselves from him.

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Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki HaleyNikki HaleyTrump was unhinged and unchanged at CPAC The Memo: Is Trump mounting a comeback — or finally fading? Haley praises Trump CPAC speech after breaking with him over Capitol riot MORE, who is seen as a prospective 2024 presidential candidate, issued an extraordinary rebuke of Trump in an interview with Politico published on Friday, saying that the former president had misled Republicans and that it had been a mistake to follow him.

“We need to acknowledge he let us down,” Haley said. “He went down a path he shouldn’t have, and we shouldn’t have followed him, and we shouldn’t have listened to him. And we can’t let that ever happen again.”

Still, there’s little reason to believe the former president and his brand of ultraconservative populism is going away anytime soon.

Trump took a victory lap following his acquittal vote, saying that his political movement “has only just begun.”

“In the months ahead, I have much to share with you, and I look forward to continuing our incredible journey together to achieve American greatness for all of our people,” he said in a statement Saturday.

Meanwhile, a CBS-YouGov poll released this week found that 73 percent of GOP voters believe that it is at least “somewhat important” to remain loyal to Trump. Furthermore, about one-third of Republicans said they would join a new political party if Trump forms one. Another 37 percent said they might join.

Trump allies waved off the possibility of a new center-right movement forming either separate from the GOP or within the party itself, arguing that such an effort is out of touch with the conservative grassroots.

“It’s beyond a stupid fantasy,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist and staunch Trump supporter. “If the goal is to win back the party and the base, destroying the base and giving the Democrats power isn’t going to make them friends.”

“The grassroots is what has influence over the party and the grassroots loves Trump,” he added.