Is the GOP Starting to Pivot Away From Trump?

Do the losses by Trump-endorsed candidates in recent elections mean that the former president’s iron-grip on the party is loosening? It seems possible as members of the GOP are beginning to pivot away from Trump in greater numbers. 

There seems to be a growing trend of Republicans who are willing to more aggressively assert themselves within the GOP amid signs that former President Trump’s once vise-like grip on the party is starting to weaken. 

In recent weeks, some of the GOP’s biggest names have begun to brazenly take on the former president and the candidates whom he has endorsed. In the run-up to the Georgia primaries, for instance, a handful of Republican governors flocked to the state to campaign for Gov. Brian Kemp, who faced a Trump-backed primary challenge from former Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.). 

Other Republican power players, like Trump’s former Vice President Mike Pence, have started to take bolder steps toward potential White House bids of their own, suggesting that they’re no longer willing to put their own plans on hold if Trump decides to mount a comeback campaign in 2024.

“I don’t think [Trump] has ever looked as vulnerable as he does now,” one Republican strategist said. “Naturally, people are going to notice that and take the opportunity to put themselves out there a little bit more.”

The strategist pointed to Trump’s recent string of losses in Georgia, where several of his endorsed candidates failed to emerge from primaries against incumbents whom the former president had vowed to oust.

In what many are saying was perhaps the most embarrassing upset handed to Trump so far this year, Perdue lost to Kemp in the state’s closely watched GOP gubernatorial primary by a more than 50-point margin. Kemp was helped in the final days of his campaign by a triumvirate of influential Republican governors, including Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a one-time Trump ally.

Pence also helped Kemp in the race, traveling to Georgia to campaign with him on the eve of the May 24 primary.

Perdue’s loss was only the latest in a series of unexpected defeats for Trump’s endorsed candidates. His picks in the primaries for Georgia secretary of state and attorney general also lost by wide margins, while his preferred candidates in the gubernatorial nominating contests in Idaho and Nebraska also fell in recent weeks.

Alex Conant, a Republican strategist, said that those losses have empowered other Republicans to more directly challenge Trump after years of deference to him.

“Without the White House, social media, or a campaign, Trump doesn’t have as much power, and that’s reflected in his mediocre endorsement record, the fact that other Republican leaders don’t defer to him, and the decreasing amounts of media coverage,” Conant said. 

“He’s still the most powerful person in the party, but he’s definitely seeing the limits of what he can do post-White House.” 

And once servile, Republicans may be sensing some blood in the water.

In the run-up to Pennsylvania’s GOP Senate primary earlier this month, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to the Keystone State for a press briefing in which he raised concerns about Trump’s endorsed candidate in the race, Mehmet Oz. Pompeo, who is seen as a potential 2024 presidential contender, had already endorsed Oz’s chief primary rival, former hedge fund CEO David McCormick, in the race.

Former House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is also wading into the GOP primary in South Carolina’s 7th District, where he’s set to campaign for Rep. Tom Rice (R-S.C.), one of 10 House Republicans who voted last year to impeach Trump for his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol. 

Trump has endorsed one of Rice’s challengers, South Carolina state Rep. Russell Fry. 

Doug Heye, a Republican strategist, said there’s little doubt that Trump remains deeply influential within the GOP, but that the power of his endorsements has been greatly exaggerated. He pointed to the Republican Senate primaries in Ohio and Pennsylvania, where Trump’s endorsed candidates notched just about one-third of the total vote.

“You can’t deny that he doesn’t have an influence here,” Heye said. “But we now see where that number is, and it’s around a third or a little bit lower.”

Party strategists and operatives said there is growing concern among many in the GOP about the former president’s judgment, especially when it comes to wading into primary contests. 

Trump has shown a propensity to endorse candidates based on their loyalty to him and willingness to echo his mostly debunked claim that widespread voter fraud and systemic malfeasance robbed him of reelection in 2020.

“Trump really wants to relitigate 2020, and there’s decreasing interest in doing that with Republican voters,” one GOP consultant said. “Republican voters are focused on stopping Biden’s agenda, winning the midterms, and ultimately retaking the White House. They’re not focused on 2020, but Trump is.”

The consultant said that Trump’s singular focus on his 2020 electoral loss to President Biden may be creating an opening for other prospective White House hopefuls, who see an opportunity to sell themselves to voters as adherents of Trump’s so-called “America first” political movement, but without the baggage of the former president.

“Most Republican primary voters still really like Donald Trump, but they’re also interested in what’s next,” the consultant said. “Trump was such an omnipresent force for five years, and I think we’re finally seeing other Republicans start to get more attention, because it turns out the party’s a lot broader than just Trump and his loyalists.” 

There are already a handful of Republicans positioning themselves as possible alternatives to Trump, though perhaps none as openly as Pence. Trump’s former vice president has maintained an aggressive travel schedule for months, raising speculation about a potential 2024 presidential bid.

Despite the questions about Trump’s continued influence in the party, however, strategists have little doubt about his legacy, noting that he has fundamentally reshaped the GOP and its platform under his “Make America Great Again” banner. That version of the Republican Party appears likely to stay, one Republican lobbyist said.

“MAGA is still mostly driven by Trump,” the lobbyist said. “Is it becoming its own thing where it is more than Trump? Yes. MAGA is the Republican Party, and it’s going to evolve over time, but it’s never going to lose that ‘America first’ mindset, and that is a complete tribute to Trump.

About Bill Sheridan