The Memo

The Memo: Never Trumpers sink into gloom as Gonzalez bows out

The gloom among "Never Trump" Republicans is deepening this weekend, following Thursday's announcement from Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio) that he will not seek reelection.

Gonzalez is one of only 10 House Republicans who voted for former President Trump's impeachment earlier this year. He was set to face a primary challenge from Max Miller, a former Trump aide who had received the former president's endorsement.

As Gonzalez prepared to head for the political exit, he lambasted Trump as a "cancer" on the nation in an interview with The New York Times.

Trump, in turn, gloated about his critic's demise, issuing two statements in as many hours.

He first branded Gonzalez a "RINO" (Republican in name only) and said the Ohioan had suffered "a tremendous loss of popularity" following his impeachment vote. The second email statement read, in full, "1 down, 9 to go!"

The danger, from the perspective of Trump's critics, is that the former president might be right. The few remaining Republicans in his firing line for showing insufficient loyalty could well be cut down.

Trump's most high-profile congressional foe, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), faces a tough primary battle. Trump has recently backed attorney Harriet Hageman, one of several pro-Trump Republicans vying to oust Cheney.

Similar dynamics face other Republicans who voted to impeach. Trump has endorsed a primary challenger to Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.). Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), a vocal Trump critic, will also face a fierce fight if he is to retain his seat.

Former Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), who lost her seat in the increasingly Democratic northern suburbs of Virginia in 2018, complained that the move toward Trumpian candidates will cost the GOP dearly.

"Trump doesn't care whether Republicans win. It's not about Republicans winning," she said. "Trumpism is about revenge."

Comstock cited California Gov. Gavin Newsom's (D) easy win in a recall election Tuesday as proof of where that strategy would ultimately lead.

Newsom won in part because the Republican most likely to replace him was right-wing radio host Larry Elder, who has a history of inflammatory comments about gender, climate change and a number of other issues.

"Look what happened in California - how did Trumpism fare?" Comstock asked. "Having ridiculous candidates like Larry Elder - having unserious people - is not a strategy for long-term gain for the party."

Comstock, unlike some Trump critics, remains a Republican. She believes the former president's approach will have a limited shelf life as its electoral implications become clear.

But others are not so sure - especially as they grapple with their disappointment over Gonzalez's announcement. The second-term congressman, who is Cuban American and a former college football star, would have had a bright future in a less Trump-dominated party.

But his impeachment vote has instead been cast as disloyalty among the Republican faithful - a charge that can bring real danger in its wake.

Gonzalez spoke in his New York Times interview of flying into the airport in Cleveland with his family to be met by two uniformed police officers assigned to offer him extra security after his vote to impeach.

Former Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), who retired toward the end of his seventh term in 2018, told this column that the treatment of Gonzalez was "disturbing."

"The guy who called out the insurrection, and the president's appalling behavior at that time, is the one being sent out to pasture," Dent lamented. "Once again we are punishing the firefighter rather than the arsonist."

The Never Trump voices are, of course, a minority within a party whose voters still overwhelmingly see the former president as their leader. If Trump runs again in 2024, he would be the clear favorite to win the GOP nomination - even as he remains very unpopular in the nation at large.

Occasional chinks in Trump's political armor among Republicans - like a loss for Susan Wright, the candidate he backed in a special election in Texas in July - have not translated into any broader weakening of his power.

That leaves his GOP critics unsure of the best road forward from here.

Olivia Troye, a ex-adviser to former Vice President Mike Pence who went public with her criticisms of the Trump administration shortly before the 2020 election, said she "can't blame" Gonzalez for his decision, given the pressures on him and other dissenters.

She added, "I hope that people will rally around Liz Cheney, Adam Kinzinger, Jaime Herrera Beutler and the rest of the nine. They are facing a very rough time, and they did make a sacrifice - they chose our country and our Constitution over their party and the madman."

But Lucy Caldwell, a strategist who served as campaign manager for former Rep. Joe Walsh's (R-Ill.) quixotic 2020 primary challenge to Trump, said there were now people within the Never Trump camp who believed the GOP was beyond redemption.

"It's terrible for the Republican Party to have a person be drummed out because he did not sufficiently pass the litmus test," said Caldwell. "It's absolute fealty that is required. It's terrible - but it's also exactly what we have been saying is going to happen."

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

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