At RNC gathering, rift emerges between Trump’s interests and the GOP’s

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SALT LAKE CITY — None of the officials assembled here for the Republican National Committee’s winter meetings are writing off former President Donald Trump. They all recognize his singular hold over the party’s electoral base.

But a distinct chasm is emerging between Trump’s obsessions and the issues many GOP operatives consider crucial to winning the midterm elections in November. Republican candidates need to make voters' concerns a central focus, as opposed to Trump’s day-to-day attacks, RNC members suggested this week.

Few will put it quite so bluntly; they are loath to antagonize Trump and possibly drive off his hard-core followers. Yet in interviews, party officials showed little appetite for organizing the GOP around Trump’s grievances.

A winning message would emphasize inflation and parental rights, they said — not the 2020 election, which Trump falsely insists he won. Strengthening the party would require opening it up to new voters — not punishing Republicans who have disagreed with Trump, they added.

The sentiments echo those of local GOP leaders, who said late last year that they were ready to move beyond the 2020 election, even if Trump wasn’t. They wanted to put issues like border security, the Afghanistan troop withdrawal and education front and center.

A goal of the RNC winter meetings, members said, was for Republicans to project “unity.” Yet Trump remains a source of division that has spilled into the party’s gathering. One of his allies, RNC member David Bossie of Maryland, submitted a symbolic resolution that would call upon congressional Republicans to expel Reps. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., and Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., from the House GOP conference. Both voted last year to impeach Trump.

The resolution was watered down to a censure Thursday amid criticism from some members that it undercut efforts to show the party tolerated dissenting views.

"The Republican National Committee hereby formally censures Representatives Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois and shall immediately cease any and all support of them as members of the Republican Party for their behavior, which has been destructive to the institution of the U.S. House of Representatives, the Republican Party and our republic, and is inconsistent with the position of the conference," read the resolution, which was obtained by NBC News.

That version passed the RNC subcommittee on resolutions unanimously Thursday evening. Whether the full RNC will approve it at its general meeting Friday is unclear, and a source familiar with the process said there could still be additional changes.

"I believe if you’re trying to build a big church, as I’m trying to build in Illinois, you don’t excommunicate people who are alleged to have sinned," state GOP Chairman Don Tracy said Wednesday. "Politics is about addition, not subtraction."

The model campaign that Republican donors and strategists here are studying and hoping to re-create in their own states is that of Republican Glenn Youngkin, a political novice who won the Virginia governor’s race last year over former Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

"The most important thing that struck me was [Youngkin] talked to the voters about what they wanted to talk about," said Michael Whatley, the chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party.

By keeping Trump at a distance and emphasizing local issues, Youngkin prevailed in a state that President Joe Biden won by 10 percentage points. His "hyperlocal focus on what Virginia voters were concerned about and talking about in their own homes — that’s the model that our candidates need to implement and we’re focused on trying to implement, as well," said Caleb Heimlich, the Washington state Republican chairman.

William Palatucci, an RNC member from New Jersey, said there are things Trump could do to help the party heading into the midterms but things he shouldn't do, as well.

Trump "needs to figure out a way to be constructive and not destructive: Help the party raise money; stay out of primaries unless there’s a really good reason," Palatucci said. "Picking fights with really good candidates is not a good idea!"

Trump remains the party’s most popular figure, and since he left office he has looked and sounded as though he will run again in 2024. But even if he goes through with it, RNC members would prefer the primary to be an open competition rather than a coronation, they said.

"We’re probably going to have more of a traditional primary for the presidential, which means three or four candidates who are in [and] have solid platforms," said Paul Farrow, the chairman of the Wisconsin GOP. "If the president decides to run again, I think he’ll be formidable. ... We’ll see if we got some new individuals that are out there that have some good platforms that they can work on."

Whatever Trump decides, he’ll have huge sway over the shape of the GOP field. He would scare off some hopefuls if he jumps in and create opportunities for a slew of candidates if he opts out.

"The race in ’24 will very much hinge on whatever President Trump decides to do," Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said in an interview last week. "And I expect that everyone else will react accordingly when he does make that decision."

Some RNC members said they’d like former Vice President Mike Pence to enter the race no matter what Trump chooses to do. Trump is angry with Pence for refusing to throw out the 2020 election results ahead of the Jan. 6, 2021, riot. He put out a statement this week calling for the House committee investigating the attack on the Capitol to go after Pence. That upset some RNC members, who said they resented that kind of treatment of a stalwart conservative.

Trump’s statement "diminishes him further," a member said, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid a backlash from Trump loyalists. "It is beyond what we would call Midwestern common courtesy. None of us understand it. Pence is a conservative Republican. If anyone is a RINO [Republican in Name Only], it’s Donald Trump. Think about it."

Since RNC members began arriving here this week, Trump has been pumping out statements that deviate from the forward-looking, issue-focused message a number of members have embraced. He has gloated over Jeff Zucker’s abrupt resignation as president of CNN, a network he belittled throughout his presidency, and he questioned why the Jan. 6 committee wasn't examining "Large-scale proof of fraud," even though none exists.

"The voters, for the most part, are aspirational and want to see candidates who are going to talk about tomorrow, not yesterday," said a state party chairman who requested anonymity to speak candidly. "I think the more you try to look backwards, the less likely you’re going to succeed in this business going forward."

None of which is to say the 2020 election was off-limits. Multiple RNC members were seen carrying conservative author Mollie Hemingway’s new book, "Rigged: How the Media, Big Tech, and the Democrats Seized Our Elections," around the lobby of the Grand America Hotel, where she spoke at an unofficial event Wednesday. In her telling, the 2020 election wasn’t stolen; instead, it unfairly advantaged Democrats because of enhanced efforts to turn out Democratic voters and pandemic-inspired changes to election laws allowing for more mail-in balloting.

One way RNC members have sought to appease Trump loyalists is to call for changes in election laws and improvements in "ballot integrity" without embracing conspiracy theories that the election was stolen. Their goal is to keep the Trump vote intact without driving away constituencies Republicans need to win elections, like suburban women — a balancing act GOP leaders everywhere are struggling to pull off.

"The focus is really what are the lessons you learn from 2020? And then how do you apply them to protect ’22? And ’24?" Whatley said of changes to election rules. "For us right now, the economy really, really matters. Inflation really, really matters. High gasoline prices really matter. What’s happening in Russia right now. Our withdrawal from Afghanistan. You look at all of these different issues that have arisen over the course of last year, that’s what people are talking about today."

While Trump isn’t going away, there are still unmistakable signs that his influence within the party is waning. An NBC News poll released last month found that only 36 percent of Republican-leaning voters said they were more supporters of the former president than of the GOP — down by 18 points from the eve of the 2020 election.

"We have some very die-hard Trump supporters in the party on one extreme, and on the other extreme, we have some people that are strong Republicans except they don’t like Donald Trump," said Tracy, the Illinois state chairman. "I think most people are more in the middle."