AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. – At a golf-and-beach resort about 700 miles from the chaos of Washington this week, Republicans 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.
The Capitol Hill insurrection by a pro-Trump mob will loom large over the president’s legacy and probably will shadow Republicans 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 Fogarty, a Republican National Committee member from Massachusetts.
In Washington, several prominent Republicans have broken with Trump, including two members of his Cabinet who resigned and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who said on the Senate floor late Wednesday that he and Trump have had “a hell of a journey,” but “enough is enough.” Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., called for Trump’s removal from office. Some of Trump’s allies have continued to defend him.
In three days of private meetings, barroom bull sessions and hushed conversations in hallways at the Ritz-Carlton in Florida, Republicans discussed long-term plans to raise money, expand coalitions, recruit voters and improve their get-out-the-vote machinery – all complicated by the specter of violence as Trump exits 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.”
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 Thursday during a breakfast for about a minute. Attendees said he received enthusiastic applause.
Unanswered questions loom as Trump support fractures
Though RNC members expressed support for the outgoing president – they unanimously reelected Trump-backed Ronna McDaniel as party chairwoman Friday – they noted the path forward has been rocky.
Some Republicans who were critical of Trump’s protests of Joe Biden’s win are apoplectic over the incursion into the U.S. Capitol. Party members blamed Trump directly for the loss of the U.S. Senate and White House in the elections.
The party’s future depends in large part, GOP members said, on how much fallout from the riot will sap Trump’s political strength? How outspoken will the ex-president be? And how many Republican voters will take him seriously?
While Republicans gear up for the 2022 congressional elections, the 2024 presidential primary is frozen until Trump answers the most basic question: Will he run again?
“I don’t think we know that yet,” said Jonathan Barnett, an RNC 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.”
Some 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 with 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.
Some Republicans 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.
Most of the party planning this week took place in secret, and meetings were 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.” Though 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. Hicks prevailed with a majority of the votes, underscoring Trump’s continued control of party leadership.
The trick moving forward, 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.
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, and work on voter contacts to build a turnout machine for congressional, state and presidential races.
Republicans plan an aggressive communication strategy to counter incoming President Joe 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 try 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.
Some said Trump will probably 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. Potential candidates floated by the RNC this week: 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.
The soon-to-be-ex-president threatened to back primary challenges to Republican lawmakers who have displeased him, especially during his challenge of election results. That could include Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and South Dakota Sen. John Thune, both of whom 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 longtime “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 listen 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, given the way the Republican Party has tied itself to the former New York businessman over the 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.”