Republicans urge Trump to avoid fanning flames of GOP civil war and unite party for 2022

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Adam Wollner
·7 min read
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As former President Donald Trump is set to reassert himself as the leader of his party this weekend, Republicans are pushing him to opt for a message of unity over further dividing an already fractured GOP.

Whether or not Republicans are fully comfortable with that role for him, they are hopeful that Trump will be a constructive force in their efforts to wrestle back control of Congress — as long as he can resist the urge to relentlessly attack members of his own party.

GOP officials and strategists across the country will be closely watching Trump’s first major address since leaving office at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Fla., Sunday, looking for signs of whether he is more interested in seeking vengeance against Republicans who have crossed him or helping the party coalesce against their common opponents: President Joe Biden and Democratic leaders in Congress.

They say where Trump, who still holds firm control over the GOP base after his defeat, chooses to place the lion’s share of his focus over the next two years will be a critical factor in determining if the party will win majorities in the U.S. House and Senate in the 2022 midterm elections, or remain shut out of power in Washington.

“The question becomes how much firepower does he train on fellow Republicans versus Democrats?” said Neil Newhouse, a leading GOP pollster. “The more he’s able to get his voters out to support Republicans, the better we do. The more he pushes a grudge against other Republicans, that’s more challenging for the party.”

One person familiar with Trump’s CPAC speech said it will likely touch on the GOP’s internal divisions as well as criticisms of Democrats, but didn’t say how much time would be dedicated to each area.

“Overall it’s going to be: the president is the leader of the Republican Party and his issue set and his agenda are the values that the overwhelming majority of Republican voters share and embrace,” said the source, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly about the speechwriting process. “And he’s going to lay out the working-class vision that Republicans are going to need to seize on to be successful moving forward.”

Midterm elections typically present a favorable political environment for the party that’s out of power, especially in a president’s first term. And with an evenly divided Senate and Democrats holding a narrow 10-seat majority in the House, Republicans believe they are well-positioned heading into 2022.

But former presidents usually don’t remain as involved in party politics as Trump appears poised to be. He has set up a political action committee, pledged to endorse candidates he aligns with in primary elections and left the door open to running for president again in 2024.

And the long-term political ramifications of Trump being impeached, but acquitted, over his role in the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol riot are largely unknown.

While the last four years revealed the limits of Trump’s appeal — suburban, college-educated and female voters abandoned the GOP in droves — they also showed that no other figure is as effective in motivating the party’s base of white working-class, rural and evangelical voters.

Starting with his CPAC speech, Republican operatives say Trump can play an important role in casting the 2022 election as a referendum on Biden’s administration and Democratic control of Congress rather than on the GOP’s loyalty to Trump.

“Trump will continue to cast a long shadow over the party, and Republican candidates are going to have to be able to adapt to be viable,” said Ken Spain, a former National Republican Congressional Committee aide. “It could lead to historic gains, but it could also lead to historic division.”

The Brewing GOP Civil War

The divide over Trump among Republican leaders has been on full display in the lead up to CPAC. Asked at a press conference on Wednesday whether Trump should speak at the conference, House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy of California said he should. But Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump last month, bluntly disagreed.

“I don’t believe that he should be playing a role in the future of the party or the country,” Cheney said.

Meanwhile, Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Trump have publicly traded barbs since the impeachment trial and pledged to wade into upcoming Republican primary battles, which could put them further at odds as the election cycle progresses. During an appearance on Fox News Thursday night, McConnell said he would support Trump if he was the GOP presidential nominee in 2024, but that it was a wide open race.

Florida Sen. Rick Scott, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, tried to paper over intraparty divisions in a memo released Tuesday titled: “The GOP Civil War is Cancelled.”

“Some of you voted for President Trump enthusiastically, some with reservations, and some with great reluctance,” Scott wrote in the memo. “It doesn’t matter. We got 74 million votes, and we can easily add to our numbers if we work together.”

Trump relocated to Florida following Biden’s inauguration and has largely stayed out of the limelight, aside from a handful of press releases and cable TV news appearances. Several of his GOP allies, including McCarthy, Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise, the No. 2 House Republican, and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, have visited him to discuss 2022 midterm election strategy. McConnell, however, has said he has not spoken with Trump since mid-December.

Graham said in an interview with Fox News this week that Trump will position himself as an alternative to Biden and deliver a “policy-centric” speech at CPAC that will help unify Republicans.

“If we could get behind President Trump and follow his lead, we will win in 2022,” Graham said. “If we argue with ourselves, we’re going to lose, and there’s no reason to lose.”

Trump’s Party

Polls suggest the GOP’s base is much less divided over Trump’s future role than its leaders. A recent USA Today/Suffolk University survey of Trump voters nationally found that half said the Republican Party should become more loyal to the former president, and that 80% said they would be less likely to vote for a GOP candidate who supported impeaching Trump.

In addition, 46% of those surveyed said they would leave the GOP if Trump decided to create a third party, an idea he briefly toyed with last month.

Many Trump fans are eager to see him take on the Republicans they feel have wronged him. That constituency will be particularly prevalent at CPAC, which attracts the most ardent conservative activists.

“Will it hurt the party? It may cause some bad feelings, but if you did your job up until now we wouldn’t even need to have this conversation,” Edward Muldrow, the chairman of the Gwinnett County Republican Party in Georgia, said of attacking Trump skeptics in the party. “We have to figure out, are they with us or are they against us?”

But for Republicans who are hesitant of further pursuing intraparty battles, they argue the party doesn’t have to look that far back to see how it can backfire.

In the first elections since his own defeat — the twin January Senate runoffs in Georgia — Trump was often more occupied with attacking Republicans he felt didn’t support him strongly enough and spreading unfounded claims of voter fraud than promoting the GOP candidates or targeting their Democratic opponents.

Republicans ended up losing control of both seats in once-red Georgia, handing control of the Senate to the Democrats. Some members of the GOP hope Trump and his allies will learn a lesson from that experience, but they’re not holding their breath.

“It’s Donald Trump,” said Jason Shepherd, the chairman of the Cobb County GOP in Georgia. “There’s not a lot of people willing to make wagers on what he’s going to do or not going to do.”

McClatchy White House correspondent Francesca Chambers contributed reporting.