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PHOENIX — As the country’s Republican governors met this week, there was an unmistakable air of celebration in the conference rooms and cocktail parties marking their annual postelection conference. Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin of Virginia was swarmed with well wishers and favor seekers who believed his victory in a liberal-leaning state offered the party a road map for next year’s midterm elections.
Out of earshot of the reporters and donors congregating amid the palm trees and cactuses of the Arizona Biltmore resort, however, a more sober, less triumphant and all-too-familiar conversation was taking place among the governors: What could be done about Donald Trump?
In a private meeting of the Republican Governors Association’s executive committee, Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland brought up Trump’s campaign of retribution against incumbent Republicans he dislikes — an effort that appears to be escalating, as the former president pushes former Sen. David Perdue of Georgia to challenge Gov. Brian Kemp.
“It’s outrageous, unacceptable and bad for the party,” Hogan said in an interview about the former president’s intervention, which he termed “Trump cancel culture.” And it’s happening, he added, “with House members, governors and senators.”
Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona, chairman of the association, assured his fellow governors that the RGA would support Republican incumbents, according to several governors in the room.
One year after his defeat, Trump is not only still looming over the GOP, but also — along with his imitators — posing the biggest threat to what is shaping up to be a fruitful year for Republican candidates. With President Joe Biden’s approval ratings mired below 50% — in some surveys, below 40% — and voters in a sour mood, Republicans are well positioned to make gains in Congress and statehouses across the country.
But there is Trump, threatening primary challenges to some House Republicans in key swing districts, endorsing Senate candidates who make party leaders uneasy and recruiting loyalists to take out Republican governors from Idaho to Georgia.
Youngkin’s success in a campaign in which his Democratic opponent relentlessly linked him to Trump has emboldened the former president to further tighten his grip on the party, one whose base remains deeply loyal to him.
Moving beyond the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach him this year, Trump is now threatening to unseat lawmakers who voted for the bipartisan infrastructure bill. He taunts Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell as an “old crow” on a near-daily basis, while demanding that McConnell be removed from his leadership post. And, most alarming to the clubby cadre of Republican governors, Trump has already endorsed two challengers against incumbent governors and is threatening to unseat others.
“Saving America starts by saving the GOP from RINOs, sellouts and known losers!” Trump said last week, using the acronym for “Republicans in name only.”
As Trump weighs a 2024 comeback, he is plainly determined to ensure that the party he could return to remains every bit as loyal to him as it was when he held office.
“It’s very foreign to the conduct that we’re used to,” said Haley Barbour, the former Mississippi governor, who has worked with every Republican president and former president since Richard Nixon. Trump’s post-presidential predecessors, he said, “were scrupulous about not getting involved in primaries.”
Rep. Tom Emmer, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, accused the news media and Democrats of focusing too much on Trump. Yet it was House Republicans, led by Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who invited the former president to headline the committee’s signature fall fundraiser this month.
Of the Republican incumbents Trump is targeting, Emmer said, “You’re talking about people that have run tough races and been very successful.”
Beyond targeting lawmakers he feels have not proved sufficiently faithful, Trump has also normalized aberrant behavior in Republican ranks and fostered a culture of fear among party officials who want to move on from his presidency or at least police their own members. After just two House Republicans voted to censure Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona for posting an animated video that depicted him killing a Democratic lawmaker, for example, Trump endorsed Gosar’s reelection, affirming his status as a Republican in good standing.
It is the former president’s insistence on playing a haphazard kingmaker, however, that is most troubling to Republican officials and strategists. In Pennsylvania, where the party is perhaps most at risk of losing a Senate seat, Trump endorsed Sean Parnell, a military veteran who has been accused by his ex-wife of spousal and child abuse.
More broadly, Trump is complicating McConnell’s recruitment campaign by making clear his contempt for the sort of center-right Republicans who refuse to echo his lies about last year’s election. Two New England governors, Chris Sununu of New Hampshire and Phil Scott of Vermont, indicated this month that they would not run for the Senate, Hogan appears more intent on pursuing a long-shot presidential campaign, and Ducey continues to insist that he will not challenge first-term Sen. Mark Kelly.
“I’m not running for the United States Senate, and I’m 100% focused on this final year as Arizona’s governor,” Ducey said in Phoenix, while voicing his respect for McConnell, who is wooing him with the ardor and attentiveness of a college football coach pursuing a five-star high school quarterback.
Ducey, who is one of Trump’s most frequent targets for his refusal to overturn Arizona’s vote for Biden, betrayed it-is-what-it-is fatigue with the former president. The governors would “control the controllable,” he said. Attempting to consider Trump’s role, he added, was like “trying to predict what can’t be predicted.”
Most other Republican governors in Phoenix were just as uninterested in discussing Trump, displaying the sort of evasiveness many adopted while he was in office.
Hustling to a panel session, Kemp dismissed a question about a challenge from Perdue by noting that he had already “made statements on that.” Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio, who faces a challenge from former Rep. Jim Renacci, said, “I don’t think the president is going to do that,” when asked about whether Trump would side with Renacci. Gov. Kay Ivey of Alabama, whom Trump blames for not being allowed to hold a July 4 rally on the USS Alabama in Mobile, said she was “going to be fine” in her primary and then jumped in a waiting vehicle.
And on the question of Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, perhaps the former president’s top Senate Republican target, the state’s governor, Mike Dunleavy, twice said only, “I’ll let people know,” when asked if he would support her.
The Republicans most willing to speak frankly about Trump were those open to 2024 presidential runs.
Sununu, the New Hampshire governor and political scion, who this month infuriated Senate Republicans by ridiculing the Senate and declining to challenge Sen. Maggie Hassan, said, “I think Brian Kemp is doing a phenomenal job.”
In an earlier political era, that would have been unremarkable praise for a fellow Republican governor. But in a news conference at the meeting here, not one of four Republicans on the dais was willing to offer such a vote of confidence in the Georgia governor.
Perdue has inched closer to challenging Kemp, saying in a radio interview this week that a lot of Georgians believe that “people in power haven’t fought for them, and caved in to a lot of things back in 2020,” and that he was “concerned about the state of our state.”
As significant for the GOP’s future, Sununu said, “Yeah, sure,” when asked if he was open to a presidential bid, and made clear he would not defer to Trump. “That’s a decision that I’m going to make based on what I can deliver, not based on what anyone else is thinking,” he said.
The only other Republicans who appear at least willing to break with Trump on a case-by-case basis are McConnell and his top lieutenants. While they have rallied to the former football star Herschel Walker, whom Trump pushed to run for the Senate in Georgia, McConnell’s allies have made clear their support for Ducey and have stayed out of Senate races in Pennsylvania and North Carolina, where Trump has intervened.
“At the end of the day, in most of these races, we’re going to have credible, competitive candidates,” said Steven Law, who runs a McConnell-aligned Republican super PAC. “There may be a few places where we need to be engaged to make sure we put our best foot forward.”
Some Republican Senate strategists are having painful flashbacks to the last big GOP wave, in 2010, when Republicans swept more than 60 seats in the House but several weak Republican candidates lost key Senate contests.
“Republicans running bad candidates doesn’t guarantee Democrats will win,” said J.B. Poersch, president of the Senate Majority PAC, the leading Senate super PAC for Democrats. “But it sure does help.”
For now, public surveys and internal party polling show that support for Democrats is eroding — the kind of political climate where even less-than-stellar Republican recruits might win.
Perhaps what is giving Democrats the most solace is the calendar.
“The silver lining is it’s November 2021 and not November 2022,” said John Anzalone, a Democratic pollster who worked on Biden’s campaign last year. He added, “We’re probably at the worst point.”
But Jeff Roe, who was the chief strategist for Youngkin’s campaign, said past presumptions that Republican primary voters would give little consideration to electability may not be accurate after the party fell entirely out of power in 2020.
“Electability used to be fool’s gold in Republican politics,” said Roe, who was Sen. Ted Cruz’s campaign manager in his 2016 bid for president. “Now it’s not. Now it’s a factor. Ideology is not the only measure anymore.”
He added, “The Republican electorate is allowing for imperfect nominees just to make sure we win.”
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