AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. – At a golf-and-beach resort some 700 miles from the chaos of Washington, D.C., Republicans this week began trying to figure out how to move on from Donald Trump’s presidency.
The “Trump factor” will be a big part of that project, for better or worse.
This week’s Capitol Hill insurrection by a pro-Trump mob will loom large over the president’s legacy and will shadow Republicans for years as they try to win back Congress and the White House. At the winter meeting of the Republican National Committee, party members acknowledged that the impact of that event will reverberate.
“We have a lot of work to do, obviously, over the next couple of years,” said Janet R. Fogarty, a Republican National Committee member from Massachusetts.
Back in Washington, several prominent Republicans have already broken with Trump, including two members of his cabinet who resigned and Sen. Lindsey Graham, who on the Senate floor late Wednesday said he and Trump have had “a hell of a journey” but “enough is enough.” Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican, even called for Trump’s removal from office. But some of Trump’s allies have continue to defend him.
In three days of private meetings, barroom bull sessions, and hushed conversations in hallways at the Ritz-Carlton here, Republicans discussed long-term plans to raise money, expand coalitions, recruit new voters, and improve their get-out-the-vote machinery – all complicated by the specter of Trump’s violent exit from the presidency.
“Everybody’s angry, everybody’s upset,” said one RNC member who, like many of his colleagues, spoke on condition of anonymity. “It’s terrible.”
But despite this week’s events, Trump retains strong support within the party establishment, including at the meeting that began Wednesday. Trump did not attend the winter meeting, but phoned in during a Thursday breakfast for about a minute. Attendees said he received enthusiastic applause.
Unanswered questions loom as Trump support fractures
While RNC members expressed support for the outgoing president – they unanimously re-elected Trump-backed Ronna McDaniel as party chairwoman Friday – they also noted the path forward has already been rocky.
Some Republicans who were critical of Trump’s fraudulent protests of Joe Biden’s win are apoplectic over the incursion into the U.S. Capitol. Party members also blamed Trump directly for the loss of the U.S. Senate, as well as the White House.
The party’s future depends in large part on still-unanswerable questions, GOP members said: How much will fallout from the riot sap Trump’s political strength? How outspoken will the ex-president be? And how many Republican voters will take him seriously?
And while Republicans gear up for the 2022 congressional elections, the 2024 Republican presidential primary is frozen in place until Trump answers the most basic question: Will he run again?
“I don’t think we know that yet,” said Jonathan Barnett, an RNC committee member from Arkansas, standing in the ornate lobby of the Ritz-Carlton, the Atlantic Ocean in view. “But we want to keep those 74 million voters. We need them.”
Other Republicans are divided over Trump’s future in the party.
Some have called for Trump’s removal from office, stressing that he encouraged supporters to march to the Capitol, offered a tepid response to the breach of the building, and seemed to sympathize the rioters even after the violence.
Wednesday’s violence touched the Republican Party directly. A pipe bomb was discovered at RNC headquarters and had to be disabled by law enforcement.
They also blame Trump for this week’s defeats in two Senate races in Georgia that cost Republicans control of the chamber. The worry is that the Georgia losses may be a sign of things to come if Trump remains a political force in the party.
Most of the party planning this week took place in secret, with meetings closed to reporters. The only session open to the media included McDaniel’s unanimous reelection.
In her speech, McDaniel condemned the attack on the Capitol, saying “the violence does not represent acts of patriotism.” While she did not mention Trump in connection with the riots, she praised him for growing the Republican Party.
Trump “has redrawn the political map for our party,” McDaniel said.
Trump’s supporters remain key for Republican victories
There was a little Trump-related drama at the session. Three RNC members challenged Tommy Hicks – a friend of Donald Trump, Jr. – for the role of party co-chair. But Hicks prevailed with a majority of the votes, underscoring Trump’s continuing control of party leadership.
The trick moving forward, some RNC members said, is to keep the millions of working class voters Trump brought with him, while distancing the party from Trump’s grievances and the extremism of some of his backers.
Many RNC members spoke privately, some noting that party leadership didn’t want them discussing the party’s problems with reporters.
While expressing different levels of support of Trump, they generally agreed that the best way to move on is by steady work, day-by-day, issue-by-issue, voter-by-voter.
Most of the Republican plans are basic: Have lawmakers and prospective candidates promote an agenda of limited government, lower taxes, and fewer regulations; work on voter contacts, building a turnout machine for congressional, state, and presidential races.
In the meantime, the Republicans are planning an aggressive communications strategy to counter incoming President Biden and the new Democratic Senate and House.
Most of this is standard procedure after an election loss. The difference this time is that Republicans will be trying to rebuild the party in the wake of a norm-busting presidency and Trump’s plans to stay active in politics.
RNC members speaking privately wondered if the invasion of the Capitol – and the president’s tepid response to it – would reduce his political support and end his potential candidacy in 2024.
But some said Trump will likely hold onto a formidable base of supporters and could be the favorite for the 2024 Republican nomination if he runs again.
Harmeet K. Dhillon, a national committeewoman from California, said Republican rebuilding will focus on “the grassroots” rather than “Washington insiders,” and Trump will be a part of that.
The president “would be very popular if he runs again,” she said: “He will be an outsize influence in this party.”
If Trump does run, he will probably face a healthy number of Republican opponents. Some potential Republican candidates dropped by the RNC this week, including former United Nations ambassador and South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.
“I’m sure there will be a primary (in 2024),” Barnett said. “And I’m sure the RNC will be open, will be fair, and will be neutral.”
The post-Trump Republican Party will first be tested by congressional and gubernatorial races in 2021 and 2022, though some of those races may feature Trump himself.
The soon-to-be-ex president has threatened to back primary challenges to Republican lawmakers who have displeased him, especially during his challenging of election results. That could include Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and South Dakota Sen. John Thune, both of whom essentially objected to Trump’s demands that Biden electoral votes be voided.
Primaries will make it that much harder for the GOP to unify.
Beyond the gilded hallways of the Ritz-Carlton, current and former Republicans said the party would be well-served by jettisoning Trump.
Tony Fratto, a former spokesman for Republican President George W. Bush, said the party “needs a cleansing,” including “that whole operation at RNC.”
“They’re nothing but Trump loyalists and have zero interest in policy principles,” Fratto said. “The party itself has to focus on solving problems, not attacking Americans.”
Liz Mair, a Republican strategist and long-time “Never Trumper,” noted that Trump and some of his backers attack the Republican Party itself. She suggested the RNC invest in security for its members, and start listening more to GOP governors and congressional leaders.
“The priority now is the 2022 mid-terms,” Mair said. “Act accordingly.”
Moving past Trump won’t be easy, however, given the way the Republican Party has barnacled itself to the former New York businessman over these past five years.
Rich Galen, a former Republican strategist who left the party during the Trump era, said “the Republican Party is now the Trump Party. People who don’t understand that are going to be horribly surprised.”