WASHINGTON – Donald Trump's hold on the Republican Party may or may not be slipping – but it is being tested.
In the past week alone, prominent Republicans – including Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell and Trump's own former vice president, Mike Pence – have pushed back on the ex-president, especially after allies persuaded the party organization to censure two GOP lawmakers over a Jan. 6 investigation.
Recent polls show a softening of Trump's numbers, though he remains the top-rated Republican and is certainly the most well-funded.
The result could split the Republican party, with ever more fervent Trump followers on one side and those disenchanted by the former president on the other, complicating GOP efforts to take back control of Congress and pass their own policy priorities.
"Every day, thousands of Trump supporters decide to move on," pollster Frank Luntz said. "But every day, the remaining Trump backers increase their intensity."
That intensity, he said, will keep Trump on top of the GOP – "for now."
Republican in-fighting: GOP split between Trump, Mitch McConnell
More McConnell vs. Trump: McConnell calls Jan. 6 a 'violent insurrection,' hits RNC for censure of Cheney, Kinzinger
Trump allies scoff at the notion that he is somehow losing his lead position in the Republican Party.
Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich called it "wishful" and "unsubstantiated" thinking from "the same people who have gotten it wrong about President Trump for years."
Noting that Trump's organization raised $52 million over the last six months from 1.6 million donors, Budowich said "candidates, party leaders, and donors continue to flock to Mar-a-Lago to seek President Trump’s support."
Still, there are tremors in Trump's political universe.
The Republican National Committee's decision to censure Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger – the only two Republicans on a special House Jan. 6 committee probing the attack – triggered the sharpest rebukes yet from Republicans over Trump-style politics.
Along with that censure, the RNC also described Jan. 6 as "legitimate political discourse," setting off further words of disagreement within the party.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and other Republicans said the censure further divided the party ahead of a challenging set of elections. They said intraparty disputes over Jan. 6 distract Republicans from their main campaign message of attacking the Biden administration and the Democratic Congress.
Most Republicans didn't mention Trump by name, but the former president has long targeted Cheney, Kinzinger and other Republicans who supported his impeachment over the Jan. 6 insurrection.
While they were at it, Republicans took aim at a part of the censure resolution that said Cheney and Kinzinger were engaged in a "Democrat-led persecution of ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse," a frequent Trump talking point.
Authors of the resolution said the reference was to bystanders ensnared in the Jan. 6 investigations, but many Republicans said there was nothing "legitimate" about the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol building.
While Trump and allies have tried to downplay the violence of Jan. 6, McConnell made clear his own feelings Tuesday: "It was a violent insurrection for the purpose of trying to prevent the peaceful transfer of power after a legitimately certified election from one administration to the next."
In a statement late Wednesday, Trump blasted “Old Crow Mitch McConnell” for criticizing the RNC over the censure of Cheney and Kinzinger, which he called “a good and very appropriate thing to do as it pertains to our great Republican Party!"
On the same day that the RNC censured the Trump critics, former Vice President Mike Pence weighed in with his most negative assessment yet of Trump.
During a speech in Florida, Pence said Trump is erroneous in claiming that the then-vice president could have set aside electoral votes from states that Biden won, essentially reversing the election results.
“President Trump is wrong,” Pence said. “I had no right to overturn the election.”
In various states, a few Republicans have pushed back on some of Trump's endorsed candidates.
After Trump endorsed former State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus for a congressional seat in Tennessee, even some longtime supporters criticized the choice. They said the ex-president should have gone with another pro-Trump candidate, Robby Starbuck.
“Nope. Trump has this completely wrong,” tweeted long-time Trump backer Candace Owens about the Tennessee race.
Recent polling data has encouraged critics of Trump's influence within the GOP.
For example, a full 44% of Republicans said they do not want Trump to run for president again, according to an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll.
An NBC News poll in January said 56% of Republicans identify themselves as supporters of the Republican Party, while 36% said they consider themselves Trump supporters first. During Trump's presidency, more Republicans consistently described themselves as Trump supporters than party people.
A recent survey by Echelon Insights showed growing Republican ambivalence about Trump's remaining political ambitions.
For sure, 54% of Republicans hailed Trump's presidency and believe he "should remain the leader of the Republican Party," according to Echelon Insights. But 22% said that while they believe Trump was a great president, "it is time for the Republican Party to find a new leader;" and another 18% said Trump “was not a great president and the Republican Party would be better off without his influence.”
If Trump is losing power within the Republican Party, it will be a slow and uneven process over many months, analysts said.
A Marquette Law School Poll in late January said that Trump has a favorability rating among Republicans of 74% – but a smaller percentage of 63% want him to run for president again. The other 37% – more than a third party – do not want Trump to seek the presidency in 2024.
"More than a third of the party is not anxious for a rerun of Trump," said Charles Franklin, the political scientist who directs the Marquette poll.
At this point, Franklin said, Trump remains highly regarded within the party: "There is some loosening of the grip, but it's the nature of these things to exaggerate how much looser."
Endorsements and elections
Trump's political demise has been predicted many times since he launched his first presidential campaign in 2015, so caution is always warranted.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, often mentioned as a potential Republican opponent of Trump in 2024, told Fox News that Democrats and the media are driving stories about Trump-GOP divisions.
DeSantis, whose polls numbers are rising in hypothetical 2024 match-ups against Trump, praised the former president (and Florida resident) and called him an asset to the party.
Trump "wants to see Republicans doing well," DeSantis told Fox.
Nonetheless, a lot of Republicans are interested in the idea of a DeSantis challenge to Trump. A USA Today/Suffolk poll put DeSantis within striking distance of Trump in a hypothetical Florida primary in 2024. Trump's lead over DeSantis in that poll was within the poll's margin of error.
Republican strategist Liz Mair cited the surge in support for DeSantis as evidence of possible Trump slippage that can only encourage challengers.
"We’re not far off some real ugliness, in my opinion," Mair said. "And it could make 2016 look like a friendly backyard football game by comparison.”
Trump and the midterms
If he is to hold power, Trump's candidates need to do well in this year's mid-term elections.
Among the higher profile races, Trump is backing a Republican primary challenger to Cheney, Wyoming attorney Harriet Hageman. (Kinzinger is not seeking re-election in Illinois because of redistricting).
In the Georgia gubernatorial race, Trump is backing former U.S. Sen. David Perdue in a primary against incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp, who is under attack by Trump for not helping overturn his election loss in the state to Biden.
The Trump effect will be felt as far away as Alaska. Trump has enthusiastically endorsed Kelly Tshibaka, who is running against incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski, one of the seven GOP senators who voted to convict Trump of impeachment charges.
Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow in governance studies with the Brookings Institution, said some of Trump's candidates "are often in for a fight with other Republicans" – one of what she called "three cracks in what Trump would like to believe is monolithic control over the Republican Party."
In a Brookings report, Kamarck said the other signs are that "the hard-core Trump base appears to be shrinking" and "heavy hitters are stepping up to challenge Trump’s version of the election, which has become his dominant message."
Alyssa Farah Griffin, a White House communications director under Trump, said this year's Republican primaries and general elections will determine the extent of Trump's control of the GOP. She noted that Pence and McConnell are also campaigning for various Republican candidates.
"If Pence/ McConnell are the biggest king makers who help moderates hold seats and protect incumbents Trump is going after, things could shift," Farah Griffin said.
And Trump faces the prospect of more political pushback in future months - especially if he has problems with the legal system. He is under investigation in New York City over past business practices and in Atlanta over his pressure on Georgia election officials to "find" more votes and overturn his loss of the Peach State to President Joe Biden.
Mair said she has always believed that Republicans would eventually tire of Trump, and look for someone new.
"The question," she said, "is whether anyone else will emerge who is also interesting."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Republicans push back against Trump on Jan. 6, 2020 elections