The Memo: What now for anti-Trump Republicans?
Republicans opposed to former President Trump are not going to win the war for the soul of the party anytime soon — if ever.
Rep. Liz Cheney’s (R-Wyo.) ouster from House leadership, via an overwhelming voice vote Wednesday, makes that clear.
Cheney and others of her ilk are not giving up. The question is what kind of impact they can have in their rhetorical guerrilla war against the former president and the GOP leaders whom they brand as his enablers.
For now, many are dispirited by Cheney’s fall and what it says about the party writ large.
“The outlook is grim,” said Olivia Troye, who broke with Trumpism after having served as a staffer to then-Vice President Mike Pence. Troye is now the director of the Republican Accountability Project.
Referring to pro-Trump elected officials, Troye added: “What we are seeing is, there is nothing they won’t do to remain in power, even if it brings danger to this country.”
Cheney is not going to slink away. In an interview with Savannah Guthrie of NBC’s “Today” broadcast on Thursday morning, she promised to fight vigorously to retain her congressional seat and held the door open for a 2024 presidential campaign.
Cheney also reiterated her criticisms of Trump and his supporters within the GOP, saying the former president has established “a cult of personality” over the party.
Former Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), a friend of Cheney’s who served two terms in a liberal-leaning district, said that she was more optimistic than some anti-Trump figures. She suggested that there has been a degree of erosion in Trump’s support.
“People realize this is getting ridiculous,” Comstock said. “How much do you want to really associate yourself with fools like Marjorie Greene?”
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) is one of Trump’s most fervent backers in Congress, a onetime promotor of the QAnon conspiracy theory who has expressed approval on social media for the assassination of political opponents. She is currently in the news for verbally accosting Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) at the Capitol.
Still, the notion of a Cheney presidential bid seems quixotic at best. According to The Economist’s Interactive Poll Tracker, just 18 percent of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents have a favorable view of Cheney, while 61 percent hold an unfavorable view.
Trump remains by some distance the most popular Republican in the nation with his party base — even though he is unpopular with the public at large.
Even some Trump opponents are less than bullish about a Cheney 2024 bid.
In that camp is Lucy Caldwell, who was the campaign manager for former Rep. Joe Walsh’s (R-Ill.) bid for the 2020 GOP nomination, a quest that was largely symbolic and went nowhere fast.
“The idea that she is going to become this ‘courage is contagious’ North Star for all these would-be brave Republicans is just ludicrous,” Caldwell said. “They are going to look at the example of Liz Cheney and think, ‘Gosh, I’m glad I’m not in her position.’ And who are things going well for? Elise Stefanik, who has made just the opposite calculation.”
Stefanik, a New York congresswoman and erstwhile moderate turned Trump loyalist, is the leading contender to replace Cheney as the third-ranked Republican in the House.
A new effort to roll back Trump’s control of the GOP was launched Thursday, when 150 conservatives signed onto an effort calling itself “A Call for American Renewal.”
Comstock, Caldwell and Troye are all signatories, as are former governors Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey, Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania and Bill Weld of Massachusetts. So too are former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele and former Reps. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) and Reid Ribble (R-Wis.).
The group voices some lofty-sounding principles but it also opens the door to a third party.
“We believe in pushing for the Republican Party to rededicate itself to its founding ideals — or else hasten the creation of an alternative,” its website states.
The merits of a third-party are questionable, however, even from the perspective of Trump’s most ardent GOP critics.
For a start, no one realistically believes its candidates could win.
The anti-Trump Republican constituency is way too small to put someone across the finish line on its own. And Democrats are not going to abandon their party’s candidates to back conservatives with whom they disagree on everything bar dislike of Trump.
“There aren’t enough dissatisfied, anti-Trump Republicans to mount credible challenges,” Washington Post columnist David Olsen wrote this week. “Ambitious Republican politicians and large donors want to be winners, not spoilers.”
Olsen also raised the concern that third-party candidates could wind up inadvertently helping their enemies. The fear is that an anti-Trump third party would in fact draw its support from people whose antipathy for the former president is so great that they would otherwise support Democrats.
Caldwell recalled having to grapple with similar calculations when people suggested Walsh run for president as an independent.
“Where do those people go? If those people are, right now, pro-Biden ex-Republicans, how do the numbers shake out in a hypothetical three-way race?” she said. “If a bunch of people are suddenly saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t stand Trump and I am going to vote for you’ but they are otherwise going to vote for Joe Biden, what is the outcome here?”
Some of the anti-Trump figures believe their best hope is a victory over the long-term — that is, a scenario in which pro-Trump candidates go down to stinging defeats in national races, and the party ultimately changes direction.
Comstock, the former congresswoman, said, “I don’t want it to take losing. I want it to be a situation where we wake up and snap out of it before Trump takes everyone over a cliff.”
She asserted that the Trumpian path provided no real roadmap to a governing majority, noting that the former president lost the popular vote in both 2016 and 2020.
The pro-Trump factions “are gleeful to kick out people from the party, whether it’s Liz Cheney or me or someone else. But it’s not like you are bringing anyone in.”
At this point, it’s far from clear there is a road back for anti-Trump Republicans. If one exists, it is winding and steep.
Meanwhile, the battle is personal, as it always is with Trump.
On Wednesday, the former president in a statement took aim at a number of his GOP critics, including Comstock, whom he branded “crazy.”
Asked about this, she replied: “A guy who is talking to himself in the mirror down at Mar-a-Lago who still thinks he’s president?”
She added: “It’s amusing. The Mar-a-Lago blogger is, I think, losing his grasp on reality.”
Whether that’s true or not, Trump hasn’t lost his grasp on his party.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.
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