No ‘mass exodus,’ but GOP sees Trump grip loosening

Donald Trump’s vise-like grip on the GOP is showing signs of easing, even as the former president looks to maintain his party boss status ahead of the 2022 midterm elections and a potential 2024 White House bid.

While the former president’s influence over the Republican Party and its voters remains unmatched, party strategists and operatives have begun to wonder if that will last — and if so, for how long — pointing to growing differences between Trump and other Republicans over the direction of the GOP.

“There’s … been a few people out there predicting this mass exodus from Trump. This isn’t that,” one veteran Republican consultant said. “But the truth is, he’s just less of a factor than he was two years ago or four years ago. There’s more leeway to go your own direction.”

That reality, the consultant said, is playing out in Republican primaries across the country. In the race for Georgia governor, incumbent Brian Kemp is outraising his Trump-endorsed primary opponent, former Sen. David Perdue, despite the former president’s vow to oust him this year.

Meanwhile, in Senate races in Alabama, North Carolina and Alaska, Trump’s preferred candidates haven’t yet managed to run away with the GOP nomination and are locked in tough primary battles that will ultimately be seen as a test of the former president’s sway.

“I think even a couple of years ago, it would have been a lot riskier to stay in a primary against one of his candidates,” the consultant said. “I’m not saying his endorsement doesn’t matter. There’s just a path forward without it.”

Trump has sought to assert his dominance within the GOP, releasing a statement on Sunday pushing back against the notion that his power is waning. He insisted that his endorsement remains more powerful now than it was in 2020, the last time he was on the ballot, and blamed the media for downplaying his political strength.

“There are plenty of existing politicians who wouldn’t be in power now were it not for my Endorsement (like the Old Crow!),” he added, using his nickname for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). “The Fake News does everything within their power to diminish and belittle but the people know, and the politicians seeking the Endorsement really know!”

While Trump remains deeply popular among Republican voters, there are some signs that his base of hardcore supporters may be shrinking.

An NBC News poll released last month found that a majority of Republicans — 56 percent — see themselves as more supportive of the GOP than Trump. Meanwhile, 36 said that they see themselves as more supportive of Trump himself than the party.

By comparison, a similar poll from 2020 found that 54 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents saw themselves as being more supportive of Trump than the party as a whole, while 38 percent said they were more supportive of the GOP than the former president.

And while early polling shows Trump as the favorite to clinch the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, there are signs that other would-be candidates still have a fighting chance.

A Harvard CAPS-Harris Poll survey fielded last month found Trump as the clear favorite for the GOP nod, garnering 57 percent support. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former Vice President Mike Pence were deadlocked for second place at 12 percent and 11 percent respectively.

But without Trump on the ticket, DeSantis scored 30 percent support, suggesting that he may still have a lane in the 2024 race, especially if Trump forgoes another campaign.

Indeed, Trump does face some clear challenges in his quest to maintain his grip on the GOP. Once an avid Twitter user, he has been banned from some of the world’s most widely used social media sites, depriving him of a platform that helped fuel his political rise.

At the same time, Trump’s still-intense focus on his baseless claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen has driven a wedge between him and some Republican leaders, who are eager to move on ahead of the 2022 midterms.

The rift within the GOP was on full display earlier this month when the Republican National Committee (RNC) voted to censure Reps. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) for their roles on the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.

The censure vote was seen as a show of loyalty to Trump, who has singled out both Cheney and Kinzinger for criticism. But it also drew widespread condemnation from many in the party, particularly Senate Republicans, who saw the move as a divisive and unnecessary distraction from their efforts to flip control of Congress.

Doug Heye, a GOP strategist and former communications director for the RNC, said the vote underscores the conflicting priorities of Trump and other Republican leaders, who want to keep the focus of the midterm elections on the issues like the economy and the coronavirus pandemic.

“That flies in the face of someone who always tries to make himself the story,” Heye said. “That’s part of the political yin and yang that the Republican Party finds itself in right now. Certainly, there’s a strong difference in opinion.”

Trump’s allies were quick to downplay the notion that his influence within the GOP is diminishing, with one former campaign aide pointing to early polling showing Trump as the clear favorite to win the 2024 presidential nomination.

“The fact that he’s been kicked off of Twitter, that he doesn’t get the wall-to-wall coverage that he used to get, and yet he still has this level of support — there’s no good-faith argument that he’s weaker now than he used to be,” the aide said. “He’s exactly where he should be right now.”

Other Republicans were more circumspect in their assessment of Trump’s standing within the party. Matt Terrill, a Republican strategist, noted that Trump has frequently found himself at odds with other GOP leaders.

“If you want to see where you’re going in the future, go back and look at history. Look at Donald Trump being on the political stage,” Terrill said. “You’ve always had prominent Republican leaders push back on him or publicly disagree with him or take that approach. But what you’ve often seen is, by and large, they’ve stood by him.”

“It’s about unity,” he added. “While the Republican Party right now is largely united around Donald Trump, the question is will it stay that way?”

Tags Adam Kinzinger Brian Kemp David Perdue Donald Trump Liz Cheney Mike Pence Mitch McConnell Ron DeSantis Trump 2024

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