WASHINGTON – Donald Trump’s grip on the Republican Party is something few could have imagined when he made what seemed like an unlikely bid for the 2016 nomination.
But even if Trump loses reelection on Tuesday, his grip on the GOP is now strong enough that the party will take some time before finding a way forward.
“I don’t think this is a party that is ready to tackle what it has done or reassess itself anytime soon,” said GOP consultant Brendan Buck, who has worked for the last two speakers. of the Republican House and does not support Trump.
Trump’s takeover of the GOP was swift. While at the forefront in the 2016 primary debates, Trump was initially slow to consolidate his support. Even as late as the convention, the possibility of a ground fight threatened his nomination.
Once Trump was elected, however, he reshaped the party in his own image, and GOP officials were judged – by him and by voters – primarily on their loyalty to the president.
“Until that changes,” Buck said, “it will be difficult to have a real conversation about changing who we are as a party.”
This is despite the fact that the headlines have been filled with former GOP officials who reject Trump – even though the party base remains passionate about the president.
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Ninety-five percent of Republicans approve of the way Trump does his job, a figure similar to George W. Bush’s position before his re-election in 2004, according to Gallup.
But Trump was generally viewed much less favorably than Bush was among Independents and Democrats in the months leading up to the election.
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One of the worst erosions has been among older voters, those with a college education and women.
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Such changes could force a long-term political realignment, according to William A. Galston, a senior researcher at the Brookings Institution who worked in the Clinton administration. Voters who sever ties with the GOP to support Democratic challenger Joe Biden could make a temporary move permanent if they like what they see in a Biden presidency.
“This could be an extremely important election in that regard, as it would mean a shift in the plate tectonics of politics in the United States,” said Galston. “It could be a big deal.”
One group of former Republicans who are giving up on reshaping the party is the Lincoln Project, which ran some of the toughest ads against Trump and sued Republicans in the Senate over the ballot.
“There are a lot of people who might be very interested in rebuilding the Republican Party,” said Reed Galen, co-founder of the Lincoln Project who worked for President George W. Bush and Arizona Senator John McCain. . “We are not them.”
Galen sees Project Lincoln as a “coalition partner” with a Biden administration.
“If you want to restore the health of the country and return to work and school, it will take a broad, bipartisan effort nationwide to get there,” he said. “To the extent that we can be of service to President Biden in this regard, we want to do so.”
The Lincoln Project recently happily tweeted that its 2.6 million subscribers had surpassed the 2.5 million of the Republican National Committee.
For Republicans like Buck, it just proves the group won’t have a voice at the Conservative table.
“I think it’s a bunch of guys who run a Democratic political organization effectively and their supporters are Democrats who are happy to see them take out Republicans for them,” he said.
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In fact, it’s not clear whether the Tories who pushed Trump and the changes he made to the party are a significant force, said Vanessa Williamson, co-author of The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism. “.
“The question that I think remains open is what support these individuals have, either institutionally or in terms of voter support,” Williamson said in a recent discussion at the Brookings Institution, where she is a senior fellow. . “It’s not, I think, at the level where I would describe it as a faction, even, for the Republican Party, in terms of the level of organization or power within the party.”
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At the conservative American Enterprise Institute, researcher Yuval Levin has brought together policy advisers with politicians to discuss how to change what Tories are offering voters.
Levin, who worked on domestic policy for Bush, was among those who “long before Trumpism” supported the Reaganists – lowering taxes and letting market forces rule – who led the party for many years. are not useful for working families.
“It’s really a debate within the right,” he said. “I think Republican politicians are still deeply perplexed about what happened in 2016.”
Likewise, a new think tank, the American Compass, is trying to make it clear that “post-Trumpism must be very different from pre-Trumpism.”
“Trump just proved the opposite of virtually everything the center-right thought they knew about what his politicians were supposed to say, what really mattered to his constituents,” said executive director Oren Cass, former adviser to Senator Mitt Romney in 2012. the presidential campaign.
Cass argues that conservative public policy has become too dominated by libertarian impulses, a hands-off approach that has left many needs unaddressed.
“We see a much bigger role for public policy to play in the proper functioning of the market,” he said.
A large tent?
In order to recalibrate, Republicans will first have to roam the wilderness, said Sarah Longwell, founder of Republicans for the Rule of Law and Defense of Democracy Together.
“It depends on the strength of Donald Trump’s grip on the party,” she said. “Because one of the things that’s really important to understand about Donald Trump is that he cares less about beating the Democrats than about owning the Republican Party.”
For this reason, Longwell believes voters must “absolutely wipe out” Republicans on November 3.
But the groups she heads are not actively working to defeat Republicans except Trump, like Project Lincoln is.
For Defending Democracy Together’s $ 30 million campaign to give Republicans “permission” to vote against Trump through testimony from Republicans who do just that, Longwell wanted a tent as large as possible.
“Ninety percent of the people in our project explicitly endorse Biden and will likely vote directly,” she said. “But many others might not be. And we wanted to have a project that gives everyone in that space a home.
John Pudner, a former Trump-backed Romney adviser, said the “Never Trumpers” lost their credibility with rank-and-file Republicans when they started lashing out at senators.
“I just don’t see how a conservative thinks we’re better off with every branch that Democrats control,” he said.
Tom Nichols, a senior advisor on Project Lincoln, said it was laughable to argue that Republicans should keep the Senate to take stock of Democrats, if they lose the White House.
“I don’t remember, for over 40 years, that anyone has ever said, ‘Now we’re on the verge of a landslide … but we better leave Democrats in power so as not to go crazy. “said Nichols, author of” The Death of Expertise “.
And since it is “quite rare for parties to die,” he said, the most likely future is some sort of reconstituted Republican Party.
“But there have to be new people,” he added.
Even if Trump loses, it’s impossible to predict what things will look like after November 3, Levin said.
But, soon enough, he said, “these conversations will be happening all over the right.”
“I mean,” Levin added, “that’s all we’ll have to do.”