Trump has Republicans in a now-familiar place: On edge, awaiting his next move

Trump has Republicans in a now-familiar place: On edge, awaiting his next move
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  • Donald Trump
    Donald Trump
    45th President of the United States

Republicans are watching with trepidation former President Donald Trump’s accelerated political activity ahead of next year’s midterm elections.

Many continue to view Trump as the unquestioned leader of the party, and it is difficult to call his recent flurry of interviews and communications a comeback when he never really left.

“Former presidents tend to just fade away, but not 45,” said Republican strategist Bradley Blakeman, who worked for former President George W. Bush. “[Trump] enjoys the tug and tussle even when he is not on the ballot.”

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GOP insiders would love to see Trump help turn out the base next year and would like even better to retain his competitiveness in the Rust Belt — the key to his Electoral College upset in 2016 and maintaining some suspense about President Joe Biden’s win last year — in 2024.

But even some who are sympathetic to Trump worry that he hasn’t gotten over his 2020 loss, continuing to claim that the election was stolen from him, and is too focused on intraparty grievances to remain an effective Republican leader going forward.

“I think there is a lot of anxiety about Trump's recent uptick in endorsements and public statements,” said a veteran Republican operative in Washington, D.C., who requested anonymity in order to shield clients from Trump’s wrath. “His favorability continues to tank nationally, and even Republicans are beginning to speak up about how he should just slowly fade away.”

One Republican who has never been shy about speaking out against Trump is Mark Sanford, the former two-term governor of South Carolina who left office amid scandal only to enjoy an improbable political comeback with a return to Washington as a congressman. But Sanford’s second act came to an end when Trump retaliated with an endorsement that cost him the primary — and Republicans that Charleston-area district for a single term.

“I'd say the Republican Party of late has lost its way,” he said. “Inasmuch as parties are supposed to be receptacles of ideas, what I’ve seen is a morphing into a cult of personality.”

Sanford has written a new book titled Two Roads Diverged, in which he argues that the Republican Party still has a second chance even if his is over, and while his moral revulsion at Trump is evident, he acknowledges that many of the former president’s most ardent supporters viewed him as “political chemotherapy” treating a deeply ill system.

Many Republican campaign professionals regard Trump as an incisive critic of Biden and believe that even attacks that largely fell flat last year — “Sleepy Joe,” for instance — have since been borne out by experience. There is a reason, they say, that ambitious political figures such as Govs. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas are borrowing his issues and, to a lesser extent, his combative style. Deployed properly, Trump can be an asset in the GOP bid to erase narrow Democratic majorities and retake control of Congress.

“He can be helpful in the midterms, but not everywhere,” Blakeman said. “He needs to target his involvement where it helps and avoid races where he can hurt.” And it is in Trump’s political self-interest to maximize his effectiveness.

“By involving himself now, he earns support and power for 2024 should he be a candidate or just seeking to influence who will be,” he added. “Trump still hungers to stay relevant, and he is setting his table for 2022 and beyond.”

The downsides are evident as well, however. Trump’s desire to re-litigate 2020 not only distracts from the message against Biden and liberal Democrats. Republicans believe it has damaged turnout in races ranging from the Georgia Senate runoffs to the California recall election because a critical mass of rank-and-file conservatives are discouraged from participating in contests they perceive to be rigged against them.

Trump continues to be a liability in the suburbs. He wants to be heavily involved in Republican primaries, but as much to ensure personal loyalty as political viability. “1 down, 9 to go!” he cheered when Ohio Republican Rep. Anthony Gonzalez declined to seek another term, a reference to the 10 House Republicans who voted for his impeachment after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, formerly a member of the House Republican leadership team, is likely next up on the target list.

“There is an initial treating of you like you have a terminal illness,” Sanford said of losing your seat in this fashion. He recalled running into former Sen. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who bowed out like Gonzalez rather than meet Sanford’s fate in a primary. “[Flake] looked like he had seen a ghost.”

Some Republicans fear there will be more ghosts that come back to haunt the party. “The general mood of the GOP is that while [Trump] still has some influence in the primaries with his endorsements, it hurts our candidates in the general election,” said the veteran operative. “In fact, I don't believe we take back the Senate if his endorsed candidates to date win their primaries. Two of them have spousal abuse issues, for goodness' sake.”

The GOP is not of one mind on Trump, who remains its most popular individual leader in the polls.

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“There are two factions, maybe even three, within the national Republican Party,” said GOP strategist Jon Gilmore. “The first are the diehard Trump supporters who want to see him nominated in ’24. The second are Republicans who voted for the president but don’t want to see him run again, and the third fall into the ‘Never Trump’ camp.”

“With those three factions, you will see different responses,” Gilmore continued. “We, as a party, have to move on from losses and look to new national leaders for the future to nominate for president in ’24.”

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Tags: News, White House, Campaigns, Donald Trump, 2022 Elections, 2024 Elections, Republican Party, GOP

Original Author: W. James Antle III

Original Location: Trump has Republicans in a now-familiar place: On edge, awaiting his next move

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