Donald Trump left office Wednesday, leaving in his wake a Republican Party that is out of power and divided, with just 21 months to unite before the 2022 elections.
Since Trump was sworn in as president four years ago, Republicans have lost control of the White House, the House and the Senate. In the last two weeks of his term, a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol and 10 Republicans voted to impeach the president from their own party.
But Trump still wielded his influence over the GOP. After the Capitol attack, 147 Republicans in Congress sided with him, voting against certifying two states’ electors.
The 2022 midterms will be the first chance for the GOP to define itself in a post-Trump era. Conversations with two dozen Republicans, many involved in congressional campaigns, revealed a party divided over Trump, their midterm prospects and the state of the GOP itself.
“When you talk to people about what we stand for versus what the Democrats stand for, we’re very unified,” Florida Sen. Rick Scott, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said in a recent interview.
But GOP consultant Alex Conant, who has worked for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, described a party in crisis.
“Political disaster doesn’t begin to describe how bad this is for Republicans,” Conant said.
All eyes on Trump
The main question on Republicans’ minds: What will Trump do next?
“This presidency and this president is certainly different than his predecessors who have gone fairly quietly into retirement,” said Scott Mason, a lobbyist with Holland & Knight who served as the director of congressional relations for Trump’s 2016 campaign.
Trump signaled Tuesday that he won’t be going away, saying in a video address, “I want you to know that the movement we started is only just beginning.”
Some Republicans questioned Trump’s influence without his Twitter account and with a scaled-down political operation. Trump was banned from Twitter after the Capitol attack.
Trump adviser Jason Miller recently told The Washington Post that Trump plans to help Republicans running in 2022. A former White House official said that Miller would likely spearhead Trump’s political team and that a dozen former campaign staffers remained with Trump as he left the White House on Wednesday.
Trump also could further divide the GOP.
The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that he has discussed starting his own party. On Jan. 6, Trump told his supporters to “primary the hell” out of GOP lawmakers who did not object to the Electoral College certification, which includes all but one GOP senator up for reelection in 2022.
Scott, though, was not concerned, saying Republican incumbents “are going to be fine.”
The 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump are also bracing for primary challengers.
South Carolina Rep. Tom Rice voted against certifying Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory, but he backed Trump’s impeachment for “incitement of insurrection.” Rice has no doubt Republican primary voters will remember that impeachment vote, his political strategist Walter Whetsell said.
“He is at peace with his vote,” Whetsell said. “He thinks he can explain it to logical, reasonable, rational people who will hear him out on it. He honestly believes that enough of those people are still important to Republican primaries in South Carolina that he will be reelected.”
Loyalty tests ahead?
Even if Trump doesn’t actively campaign against sitting Republicans, loyalty to him could still define GOP primaries. With Trump’s exit, the party is split between Republicans who want to move on and those who were elected by emulating him, former Pennsylvania GOP Rep. Ryan A. Costello said.
“The 2022 primaries are going to be where those tensions get tested,” said Costello, a Trump critic who is weighing a Senate run.
Most Republicans have said it would be a problem if Trump loyalty continued to define GOP primaries. Trump has turned off moderate and independent voters and he also supercharges Democrats, which could upend the traditional midterm dynamic in which the party out of power has an enthusiasm advantage.
“The more Trump hangs around, the intensity, as we saw in Georgia, stays with Democrats,” said former Virginia Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, a onetime chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Costello noted that the GOP base “may not be ready” to move on from Trump in 2022, but he questioned whether Trump’s core supporters would turn out without him on the ballot.
Still, some in the party are bracing for primary clashes. The New York Times reported that Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell’s allies were predicting “a large-scale campaign” to block far-right candidates in primaries.
“You can have the party donors and committees do a lot to try to recruit new candidates and defend incumbents,” Conant said. “At the end of the day, this is up to voters.”
Republicans offered a range of thoughts on whether they need to publicly break with Trump to move forward in 2022.
Amanda Makki, a former health care lobbyist and Hill staffer who lost a crowded GOP primary in Florida’s 13th District last year, said the party should rally around policy issues that Trump championed while in office, including lower taxes, reduced business regulation and “keeping the homeland safe.”
“It is worth mentioning the things that the administration pursued that no one is talking about because everyone is so focused on what happened on Jan. 6,” she said.
Brad Todd, a veteran Republican consultant, said the “rebranding” of the GOP “as the party of small business and work is something that will take hold, with or without President Trump.”
Others have called for the party to redefine itself without Trump and to confront the conspiracy theories, falsehoods and racism that fueled the pro-Trump mob that attacked the Capitol.
“I want to be a new voice for the Republican Party,” freshman South Carolina Rep. Nancy Mace told “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “And that’s one of the reasons I’ve spoken out so strongly against the president, against these QAnon conspiracy theorists that led us in a constitutional crisis.”
Under Trump, Republicans built a tenuous coalition, and they have struggled to turn out Trump voters without him on the ballot. Some think the party can still appeal to Trump voters, even those who despise politicians.
“Republicans have a natural message with those folks, which is distrust of government,” one GOP strategist said.
Amid the existential questions about the future of the party, Republicans are also facing the practical problem of fundraising.
The political action committees of some of the nation’s biggest and most recognizable corporations suspended their political donations after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Companies such as Marriott and Dow Chemical said they would no longer contribute — at least for now — to the Republicans who voted against certifying the electoral results.
Though donations from business PACs have become a diminishing source of campaign funding, cutting off such funds could still hurt the GOP’s top fundraisers, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who voted against certification. Scott, who objected to Pennsylvania’s electors, was still confident the NRSC could raise money.
Most Republicans were optimistic about the upcoming midterms, despite the recent chaos and division. The president’s party typically loses seats in his first midterm, and Republicans expect they will quickly unify in opposition to Biden. Even before Biden took office Wednesday, scores of Republicans issued statements criticizing his policy proposals.
Former Sen. Norm Coleman, now a lobbyist with Hogan Lovells, expects a backlash from the business community to the Biden administration’s regulatory agenda, among other policies.
“I don’t think this changes where we’re heading in 2022,” the Minnesota Republican said.
Some Republicans were particularly optimistic about taking control of the House, with redistricting providing more GOP pickup opportunities. But not everyone agreed the party was guaranteed to make gains.
GOP consultant Mike DuHaime said that while historic trends are in Republicans’ favor, “if the party behaves like it has in the last two months, we shouldn’t count on any success.”