The result is that many of the party’s field officers in the states are preparing to dig in to ensure that Trump — and his style of politics — remains the party’s guiding light. That is putting them at cross-purposes with more traditionalist Republicans, such as Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who are positioning themselves as alternatives to Trump.
Trump has suggested that he will run again, but many Republicans aren’t convinced. Saul Anuzis, a former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, said, “I suspect we’ll see 15 people running for president again next time around.”
The signs already point to a protracted intraparty war. In Arizona, where Trump was the first GOP nominee to lose since 1996, Daniel Barker, a former Arizona Court of Appeals judge who started a PAC of Republicans supporting Biden, said “there clearly is a major problem” in the Republican Party, even with Trump’s loss.
“If people for the next two or three years view Trump as having 60 or 70 million votes, it’s going to be hard to say no to him,” Barker said, fearful that Trump or Trumpian candidates will maintain a hold on the party. In response, members of Barker’s group are weighing whether to begin recruiting Republican-minded independents to run in Arizona if Trump-oriented candidates clog the Republican Party field.
Stan Barnes, a former ArIzona state lawmaker and longtime Republican consultant, predicted the name-calling between Republicans is “a fever that will come and go.” Still, he said, “it’s acute.”
After Ward’s back and forth with Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey last week, Barnes said, “You just don’t often get the leader of the party willing to say out loud, ‘Hey, governor, shut the hell up,‘ and then the governor responds in kind.”
He called it a “special occurrence I’ve never seen before.”
And it isn’t just in Arizona. Fearful of alienating Trump’s base in Georgia, Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) over the weekend declined to answer multiple questions during a debate with the Rev. Raphael Warnock, her Democratic opponent, about whether it was wrong for Trump to attack Kemp — the governor who appointed her to her seat in 2019.
In New Hampshire, a small group of Republicans are openly discussing impeachment of Gov. Chris Sununu, a popular Republican who just won reelection in a landslide. The crime was his imposition of a coronavirus-related mask order, though the state party chair, Stephen Stepanek, defended the governor.
And in Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker — who is highly popular in his state — has been hammering the president for his “wildly inappropriate” challenge of the election, while the GOP chair, Jim Lyons, advances the “Trump movement” in his heavily Democratic state.
Rob Gray, a veteran Republican strategist who advised Baker and three former Massachusetts governors — Mitt Romney, Paul Cellucci and Bill Weld — said the relationship between Hogan and Lyons isn’t caustic, but “uncomfortable.”
“I would say the Trump element of the party here is a faction,” Gray said. “The push and pull on the party are Trump supporters versus [more moderate] Weld Republicans and practical institutionalist members of the Republican state committee.”
In red swaths of the country, that push and pull is heavily lopsided in Trump’s favor — and for good reason. Despite Trump’s loss last month, the GOP’s success in congressional and legislative races across the country was widely viewed as a testament to Trump’s appeal to voters previous Republicans have been unable to turn out — something state party chairs will be loath to let go.
Jeff Kaufmann, chair of the Iowa Republican Party, had planned to retire after the election, but said he intends to stay on in part because he sees the party expanding — with a coalition that will depend on maintaining “an element of our party that is populist, that is blue-collar. And that’s something that Trump gave to us.”
Kaufmann, a former Iowa state lawmaker who has been the state party chairman since 2014, said that “as the party chair, we have to ensure that Donald Trump’s attitude toward establishment-era politics” is maintained, describing part of that appeal as giving “the middle finger to the establishment.”
“The Mitt Romney-lites of the world, the Ben Sasse-lites of the world, they’re hanging on, they’re waiting, and they’re going to appear again, and they’re going to be well-funded,” Kaufmann said. “Whether it be 2024 or 2028, one way or another, we’re going to all have that ‘come to Jesus’ moment when we decide who do we want as our candidate again, and God help us if it’s a Mitt Romney-type again.”
Publicly, the national party is taking all comers for 2024. Last week, Ronna McDaniel, the chair of the Republican National Committee, invited about a dozen potential 2024 presidential candidates to the RNC’s meeting in Amelia Island, Fla., in what was widely viewed as a show of neutrality ahead of the next nominating process. Even if the party isn’t neutral, the rise of outside fundraising in recent years has diminished the significance of party organizations. And Trump’s romp through the 2016 primary field demonstrated the ability of a candidate to overcome the GOP’s existing infrastructure in the states.
“One of the best-kept secrets in politics today is that the party structure is not as relevant as it used to be, because each candidate is a free agent,” said Pat McCrory, the former Republican governor of North Carolina. “After the candidates are selected is when [the party] becomes more important to help get a ground game going.”