Trump troubles, McConnell absence create GOP leadership vacuum
Former President Trump’s mounting legal troubles and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) extended absence from the Capitol have created a momentary leadership vacuum atop the Republican Party, which is struggling to find its direction ahead of the 2024 election.
Republican lawmakers are divided over the question of whether Trump or Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is the GOP’s leader, and they have different views on whether the center of power in Congress resides more with McConnell or Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).
“In terms of the future of the party, it’s a jump ball right now,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
The GOP is searching for its identity after the transformation it underwent during the Trump era. It also finds itself divided over major issues, such as whether to advocate for reforms to entitlement programs or to continue its embrace of a muscular and outward-facing national security policy.
Many Senate Republicans want to move past Trump, whose daily dramas they see as a drag on the GOP brand and detrimental to their candidates. Trump has more influence in the House, something apparent as House Republicans attacked Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg (D) last week.
Even GOP senators acknowledge that Trump still has huge support among the party’s voters, despite facing multiple investigations and possibly multiple indictments — though his popularity has slipped some since losing the 2020 election.
“In terms of the connection with the American public, with the Republican Party voter, clearly Donald Trump has an enormous impact and DeSantis is trying to pull some of that away,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), an outspoken Trump critic.
Romney argued that the party that doesn’t control the White House often has a scrambled leadership picture.
“Anytime you don’t have the White House, the leadership is going to be more diverse. Particularly when you have a presidential contest going on you have different voices being heard, and they’re not all the same,” he said. “You’re searching, if you will, for that unifying theme. I think that will happen when we have a nominee.”
Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) says she sees DeSantis, not Trump, as the party’s political leader.
But she thinks McCarthy will emerge as the party’s most prominent leader in Washington as he battles with President Biden over attaching fiscal reforms to debt-limit legislation. Then, she says, the nation’s focus will shift to the campaign trail.
“Everybody knows that the debt-ceiling negotiations are on him,” she said of McCarthy. “I think that for the next few months that his profile will be high and then as the presidential campaign emerges, those candidates will be in the driver’s seat.
She said the leadership of the party is now largely “between DeSantis and Kevin.”
Graham, a Trump ally, sees the party leadership split between Trump and McCarthy.
“I think Trump is still the largest force in the Republican Party. I think Kevin McCarthy institutionally is in charge of one of the [congressional] bodies and I think the Republican Party’s center of gravity is in the House in terms of having legislative power,” he said.
One Republican senator allied with McConnell said the Senate GOP leader’s job is much more secure than McCarthy’s, noting that it took 15 ballots for McCarthy to get elected Speaker.
The senator said that McConnell may ultimately have more room to negotiate a deal with Biden to avoid a national default because McCarthy has to be so careful not to anger members of the House Freedom Caucus to keep the Speakership.
Many Republican lawmakers had high hopes that DeSantis would dethrone Trump as the party leader after he won a resounding reelection victory in Florida.
But DeSantis lags Trump by large margins in various polls, and his performance on the national spotlight in recent weeks has gotten mixed reviews.
Some Republicans are second guessing DeSantis for getting drawn into a war of words with Trump, whom they see as the most skilled trash talker in politics.
A second GOP senator, who requested anonymity to talk about DeSantis’s decision to trade shots with Trump, said it appeared to be a change of strategy.
“It looked to me like his strategy was to wait until May or June, aggressively be governor … but now he appears to be abandoning that,” the lawmaker said.
The senator said DeSantis also “flip-flopped” on the importance of the war in Ukraine by back-peddling from his earlier comments downplaying the conflict as a “territorial dispute” and not a “vital interest” for the U.S.
Sen. Tommy Tuberville (Ala.), one of the few Senate Republicans who has endorsed Trump’s 2024 presidential bid, said DeSantis has yet to show how he handles the pressure on the national stage.
“He’s not running for governor. This is running for president of the United States and leader of the free world. Everything you say is going to be blown up,” he said.
McConnell’s absence from the Capitol after tripping and suffering a concussion on March 8 has added to the sense of uncertainty over the party’s direction.
The 81-year-old leader embodies the traditional pro-defense, pro-corporate and pro-trade values of the GOP that have receded with rise of Trump’s brand of conservative populism.
“In terms of members of the Republican Party, voters who identify themselves as Republicans, it’s clear that Donald Trump is the closest thing there is to a leader because he has such support. In terms of elected Republicans, I do think people look to McConnell more than anybody else,” said Al Cross, a professor of journalism at the University of Kentucky and a longtime commentator on Kentucky politics.
Cross said elected Republicans look to McConnell as their leader because he has a “proven” track record handling tough political problems, such as the expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts at the end of 2010 and 2012 and the aftermath of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
He noted that elected Republicans admire McConnell’s message discipline and his ability to plan out strategy well in advance.
“He observes the old maxim, ‘You never get in trouble for something you didn’t say,’ and his colleagues in the Senate elected him time and again because they know he’s a good leader,” he said.
Sen. Sen Susan Collins (R-Maine), who is one of McConnell’s closest friends in the Senate, said “we certainly miss him” but she predicted “I’m positive he’ll be back.”
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), another McConnell ally, said the leader’s absence has been “a bump in the road.”
“We’re still taking direction from Mitch McConnell,” he said. “He’s still involved.”
Asked who’s leading the Republican Party nationwide, Wicker replied: “The leader of the Republican Party in this end of the building is Mitch McConnell.”
Updated at 7:03 a.m.
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