The three factions vying for control of the GOP
By CARL P. LEUBSDORF | The Dallas Morning News (Tribune News Service) | Published: February 22, 2021
Like Julius Caesar’s Gaul, today’s Republican Party is divided into three parts: Never Trumpers, Sometimes Trumpers and Always Trumpers.
The overwhelming GOP vote against impeaching and convicting former President Donald Trump shows the Always Trumpers remain dominant. The Never Trumpers have found the going tough. Now, Sometimes Trumpers are beginning to emerge.
The power struggle among these three factions is already proving to be bitter, epitomized by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s sharp post-impeachment criticism of Donald Trump and the former president’s heated response, and will affect whether Republicans can regain the House and Senate next year and the presidency in 2024.
In the pre-Trump era, a coherent conservative philosophy defined the GOP: smaller government, fiscal responsibility and a robust American presence abroad. Trump demolished those verities, so Republicans now define themselves almost exclusively by their relationship to a single person, Donald Trump.
Most Never Trumpers started spurning him in 2016. Though often key figures within their states, they remain on the outside nationally.
Many are governors from Democratic states like Maryland’s Larry Hogan and Massachusetts’ Charlie Baker or outspoken former operatives and pundits like Bill Kristol and ex-John McCain strategist Steve Schmidt. Their most prominent voice is Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee.
Romney is unique, a conservative senator from a conservative state with national standing. Hogan, who predicted on CNN Sunday that Trump’s domination would diminish over time, has talked of running for president.
But it is hard to see any Never Trumpers playing a significant role in 2024. Parties tend to change direction gradually, not abruptly.
Sometime Trumpers have generally backed Trump publicly, often with private reservations. Now, they want to steer the party’s image away from him, and a crucial factor will be how many prominent Republicans join them.
Two people, with different goals, epitomize this group: McConnell and former South Carolina governor and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley.
The Senate GOP leader, after backing Trump until the final days of his term and voting for acquittal, called him “practically and morally responsible” for the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. (Trump’s response: McConnell is a “dour, sullen and unsmiling political hack.”)
The Kentucky senator fears a party tied too closely to the former president won’t have business community financial support and will have trouble winning 2022 Senate races in states like Georgia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Haley has swung back and forth, expressing 2016 disdain for Trump before backing him, joining his administration before departing early, and supporting him in 2020 before belatedly denouncing his post-Nov. 3 efforts to steal the election and encourage the insurrection that prompted his impeachment.
“I don’t think he’s going to be in the picture,” Haley said in an interview with Politico published last week. “We need to acknowledge he let us down.”
Haley’s strategy — setting a more independent course with an eye on 2024 presidential nomination — is risky, since Republicans overwhelmingly still back Trump. She appears to hope that, come 2024, Republican voters will want a kinder, gentler version of Trumpism.
Her fellow South Carolinian, Sen. Lindsey Graham, occasionally poses as a Sometimes Trumper. On the night of Jan. 6, he proclaimed “enough is enough,” but quickly reverted to form. After the impeachment vote, he called “Trump-plus” the way back for Republicans, on "Fox News Sunday." He also declared that Trump’s daughter-in-law, potential North Carolina Senate candidate Lara Trump, “represents the future of the Republican Party.”
Still, Graham lacks the consistency of Always Trumpers like Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri, White House hopefuls who lashed themselves firmly to the former president’s mast, from challenging Joe Biden’s electoral votes to opposing Trump’s conviction.
They calculate the 2024 GOP will still be Trump-dominated and looking for a Trump 2.0. In almost the same category are Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Marco Rubio of Florida, outspoken Trump advocates who opposed rejecting any electoral votes. Events will show if their momentary independence makes them pariahs to hardcore Trumpers.
Overshadowing everyone is the former president, who appears vindicated and determined to settle scores with his political enemies. Sitting on the massive war chest he accumulated in the name of fighting the 2020 results, he vowed to campaign in GOP primaries against those who opposed him — senators like Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski and governors like Georgia's Brian Kemp — and has not ruled out 2024.
Trump remains formidable. It’s hardly surprising that, of the seven GOP senators who voted for conviction, three just won reelection and two are retiring. The exceptions are Romney and Murkowski, who survived a multicandidate race in Alaska before.
There are two big uncertainties. One is how Trump himself survives an array of legal threats that could yet sideline him politically. As McConnell noted, “President Trump is still liable for everything he did when he was in office.”
His fate could determine the futures of loyalists like former Vice President Mike Pence and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The second is whether Biden can end the COVID-19 pandemic, restore economic growth and reestablish American global leadership. Successful presidents generally win reelection or, like Ronald Reagan, can help elect their chosen successor.
But while the president deals with the mundane task of governing, the GOP world will continue to be fixated and fascinated by the battle among its three factions.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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