Why Republicans Can’t Agree on a Way Back to Power

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The Republican Party is entering a period of political powerlessness in Washington badly fractured from within, lacking a unifying message and set of principles and missing a clear bench of national leaders — a party with internal divisions and outside obstacles so significant that it may not easily weather the splintering underway.

While all parties go through reckonings after losing power, the G.O.P. has lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections and, for the first time since Herbert Hoover, ceded the White House, Senate and House in a single term. President Trump is staring down a second impeachment, members of his administration have resigned in protest of his actions, and senators from his party have called for him to do the same.

What’s more, the party’s political messaging is likely to be inspected intensely by social media platforms that have already barred Mr. Trump and others on the far right. Business and corporate donors are threatening to cut off the party’s financial spigot, and tech companies are stifling Mr. Trump’s ability to raise money online, the lifeblood of his political operation.

But the most acute danger for the health of the party, and its electoral prospects to retake the House and Senate in 2022, is the growing chasm between the pro-Trump voter base and the many Republican leaders and strategists who want to reorient for a post-Trump era.

“Have you heard what some of these folks waving MAGA flags are saying about Republicans?” said Representative Peter Meijer, Republican of Michigan, whose first days in Congress this month were marked by evacuations to escape from a mob. “They don’t identify themselves as Republicans.”

Mr. Meijer was among the Republicans who voted to affirm President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s Electoral College victory last week, in the proceedings that rioters incited by Mr. Trump interrupted. The vote set off another round of vitriol and threats.

“Our expectation is that somebody will try to kill us,” said Mr. Meijer, an Iraq war veteran. “That is the scenario that many of us are preparing for.”

Mike DuHaime, a Republican strategist who served as a top adviser for Chris Christie in his 2016 run for president, said the violence at the Capitol represented a breaking point for his party’s relationship with Mr. Trump.

“Now the two camps are, who is a Trump sycophant and who is not,” Mr. DuHaime said. “That spells doom until we can get past Trump.”

Mr. Trump won 74.2 million voters, a Republican record, even in defeat in 2020. Some party leaders fret that as of now, they cannot win with Mr. Trump, and they cannot win without him. Right-wing voters have signaled that they will abandon the party if it turns on Mr. Trump, and more traditional Republicans will sour if it sticks by him.

The twin losses last week in Georgia, where the Republican incumbents yoked themselves closely to Mr. Trump and his baseless accusations of election fraud, not only cost Republicans control of the Senate but also offered a warning sign for the future. The dynamics mirrored the 2018 midterm elections, when Mr. Trump’s divisive brand of politics was better at mobilizing Democrats than Republicans when he was not on the ballot himself.

In the coming days, the specter of more violence is clear and present. The National Guard said Monday that it was planning to deploy up to 15,000 troops in the nation’s capital for the inauguration, and the F.B.I. warned in a bulletin about the potential for armed protests at all 50 state capitols between now and the inauguration.

Mr. Trump is at the lowest point of his presidency, with 60 percent of Americans disapproving of him and a narrower majority wanting him removed from office, according to a new Quinnipiac University poll on Monday. His diminished approval is matched only by the depths of August 2017, when he equivocated after the white nationalist march in Charlottesville, Va., turned violent.

And yet.

A strong majority of Republican voters still approve of Mr. Trump — more than seven in 10 in the Quinnipiac survey — and similar numbers have bought into his baseless accusation that last year’s election was riddled with fraud. And Mr. Trump’s handpicked choice to lead the Republican National Committee for another term, Ronna McDaniel, won re-election virtually by acclamation last weekend.

Some prominent party leaders, after years of supporting Mr. Trump and staying silent about so much of his divisive behavior, have begun to break with him. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, called his vote to affirm the Electoral College victory of Mr. Biden the most important of his more than three decades on Capitol Hill. He warned that backing attempts to subvert the election would send American democracy into a “death spiral.”

But a faction of Republicans rebelled, worsening the divisions within the party. Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, was the first to say he would object to the Electoral College vote, and he has been shunned by his colleagues. Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, who led another group of objectors, has faced rebukes from former close allies. Both are considered possible 2024 presidential candidates.

Chad Sweet, who served as chairman of Mr. Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign, wrote in a note on social media over the weekend that he was cutting off support for Mr. Cruz. “In moments like this, all freedom loving Americans must put the survival of our democracy above loyalty to any party or individual,” Mr. Sweet wrote.

But the verdict has been very different in the House, where the chamber’s top Republican, Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, led a majority of his conference in voting against certifying Mr. Biden’s victory in two states.

In an ominous sign for the Republicans who want to move past Mr. Trump, many of those with future ambitions within the Republican Party left the president conspicuously absent from their condemnations of the riot last Wednesday, such as Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the former White House press secretary, who may run for governor of Arkansas in 2022.

George P. Bush, the Texas lands commissioner and the son of a prominent Trump critic, Jeb Bush, made no mention of the president in his statement denouncing the attack. “There is absolutely no place for the violence we are seeing today in Washington,” he said.

Allen West, the chairman of the G.O.P. in Texas, which remains firmly Trump country, made the case in an interview for “the way ahead” for the party: “It goes back to the grass-roots.”

“We had 12 million new voters vote for the Republican ticket, and we want to make sure we maintain those new voters,” said Mr. West, whose appeals to the anger of grass-roots voters drew attention in December when he embraced secessionist language after Mr. Trump’s effort to overturn the election was rejected by the Supreme Court.

Republicans have some reason for optimism about their political future. Opposition parties typically perform strongly in the first midterms of a new presidency. Democrats will enter 2022 with some of the slimmest margins possible: a 50-50 Senate and a razor-thin House majority. And Republicans have a structural advantage in the Senate, given that underpopulated conservative states get two Senate seats just as populous liberal states do, while gerrymandered districts have helped House Republicans after the G.O.P. landslide of 2010.

But Republicans face a steep climb toward becoming a majority party nationwide after Mr. Trump lost to Mr. Biden by more than seven million votes.

In a remarkable statement opposing the effort to overturn the 2020 results, seven House Republicans this month acknowledged the party’s lack of a path to a national majority in the popular vote, warning against “delegitimizing” an Electoral College system that “that could provide the only path to victory in 2024.”

Hours before the Capitol riot, the divergent political approaches of Republican leaders were on display in comments by the departing head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Senator Todd Young of Indiana, and the incoming chairman, Senator Rick Scott of Florida.

Surrounded by Trump supporters outside a Senate office building, an exasperated Mr. Young defended his decision to certify the election. “The law matters,” he said. “I took an oath under God. Under God — I took an oath. Do we still take that seriously in this country?”

Around the same time, Mr. Scott announced that he planned to vote against the electors from Pennsylvania. The primary job of the N.R.S.C. chairman is to raise money, and the growing list of corporations that are pausing or reconsidering G.O.P. donations in the wake of the electoral objections has caused some Republican consternation.

For some House Republicans, the divisions in the party are hardly ones they expected even a few weeks ago.

Representative Nancy Mace of South Carolina, who worked for Mr. Trump’s campaign in 2015 and 2016 and who had pledged to be a Trump “ally” during her own congressional race, began last week on an upbeat note: She brought her two children to Washington for her swearing-in. “How cool would it be to roam the halls of Congress and then do virtual school?” she recalled thinking.

But Ms. Mace, who is the first woman to graduate from the Citadel, sent them home after one day. Alarmed by the boiling-hot language from her own party about fraud, she feared violence, and her fears were realized in Wednesday’s rampage.

“There is no way we can go down that rabbit hole again,” said Ms. Mace, who voted to certify Mr. Biden’s victory and urged a break from Mr. Trump. “We have to rebuild our party. We are starting from scratch. And if we don’t recognize that now, we are going to be in denial for a very long time.”

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