- Republicans need Trump to help them win elections.
- But Trump doesn’t need the GOP like he did when he was president.
- He can use his influence over the party to settle scores and entertain himself.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
This week, Republicans are expected to vote to oust Rep. Liz Cheney from her position as conference chair, House Republicans’ third highest-ranking leadership position. Her crime is that she won’t stop saying former President Trump has been lying about the alleged theft of the 2020 election.
When people talk about an inability to quit Trump as an ongoing political problem for Republicans, they tend to mean that Trump is unpopular and continued association with him — though pleasing to the Republican base — is off-putting to most voters. And this is true as far as it goes, though we saw in 2020 how close the pro-Trump coalition came to electing a House majority and re-electing Trump.
But there’s a second problem with the Trump fixation that’s less noticed and may be hurting Republicans more. Since he left office, Trump’s interests have diverged from the interests of elected Republicans. He no longer needs them to win their own elections like he did when he was president. And he has objectives — like seeking revenge on Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp — that have nothing in particular to do with advancing the Republican party’s interests.
With his idiosyncratic, revenge-focused agenda, he’s distracting Republicans from trying to win the next election.
Trump has weird objectives unrelated to GOP victory
Back when Trump was president, his relations with congressional Republicans were sometimes rocky, but held together by shared interests. Trump needed Republicans to win elections so that they could quash congressional investigations, pass his legislative agenda, and block his removal from office.
But as the Washington Post notes, much of his energy in recent months has been focused on “revenge endorsements” — that is, efforts to defeat incumbent Republicans he sees as insufficiently loyal to him. At best, for Republicans, this is a distraction from beating Democrats in November. At worst, it may divide the party enough to throw general elections to Democrats — a particularly serious risk in Georgia, a blue-trending state where Kemp only defeated Stacey Abrams by a modest margin in 2018’s gubernatorial race.
Trump’s meddling has also caused trouble for Republicans in Georgia’s next Senate election, set to be held in 2022. Top-tier GOP officials continue to pass on entering the race while Trump’s preferred candidate to challenge Sen. Raphael Warnock — football great Herschel Walker, currently a resident of Texas — ponders whether he wants to move back to Georgia and run for Senate. CNN reports that Republicans in Washington are concerned Trump “is propping up a candidate simply because he has been a loyal friend, rather than assessing the former NFL running back’s electoral viability in a pivotal battleground.”
Trump can sit on his hands when Republicans need him
Next November, Republicans will hope that Trump works hard to elect them. But we’ve already seen what Trump looks like in a post-loss general election. In last year’s Georgia Senate runoff elections, Trump was lackadaisical, focused on a message about the presidential election he had already lost that had nothing to do with turning out voters for the runoff — and Republicans’ reward was a turnout gap large enough to cost them two senate seats.
Trump’s similar reluctance to engage in this year’s Virginia state elections also bodes ill for Republicans during next year’s midterms.
Insider’s Warren Rojas and Tom LoBianco report the former president chose not to endorse a candidate in the party’s nominating contest — ultimately won on Monday by former Carlyle Group co-CEO Glenn Youngkin — in part “because the team is worried the Republican pick may lose in November,” citing Trump advisers. This unwillingness to engage for fear of losing means there’s even less of a chance Trump helps drive low-propensity GOP voters come November, potentially harming Youngkin’s chances in the state.
Last time there was a new Democratic president, in 2009, Republicans picked up the governor’s mansions in both Virginia and New Jersey — the only two states that elect governors one year after presidential elections. Republicans are serious underdogs in both states this year, but Virginia should not be completely out of reach, and a strong gubernatorial campaign would boost the GOP’s chances of retaking the state’s house of delegates even if they lose the governor’s race.
But then, what’s Trump’s reason to care who controls the Virginia legislature?
His longstanding insistence on total loyalty — a reason that Republican candidates for governor ran extremely Trumpy primary campaigns in a state he lost by 10 points last year — has not helped in Virginia either.
Trump will control a lot of the party’s money
There is another reason Republicans are cozying up to Trump, despite this blasè attitude towards winning elections. Earlier this year, Trump had a message for Republican campaign committees: stop using my name and likeness to raise money.
Unusually for a former president, Trump continues to actively raise money. And he has urged Republican donors to direct their money to entities he controls. This complicates GOP efforts to raise money during the 2022 midterms and gives Trump a lot of control over how political money intended for Republicans will be spent.
What is Trump’s incentive to spend this money in a way that helps Republicans win elections, rather than in a way that helps him settle scores, rewards politicians who say nice things about him, and enriches himself?
Republicans can’t make Trump go away
Liz Cheney is obviously correct on the merits in her commentary about former President Trump. His conspiracizing about the 2016 election is both false and dangerous. But since Republicans are committed to their alliance with him, I get why they wouldn’t want her in leadership anymore. She hasn’t signed onto the party’s political strategy, odious as it may be.
Replacing her with Rep. Elise Stefanik — a recent convert to extreme Trump boosterism, who even voted against his tax cut bill in 2017 — will reduce the amount of time Republicans spend arguing with each other about him.
But what it doesn’t do is align Trump’s incentives with the party’s.
I don’t think Republicans have a better strategic option than trying to make nice with Trump. If the party tries to repudiate him, his political actions will be even more of an obstacle to the party’s strategy, and Republican voters, who overwhelmingly approve of Trump, will punish Republican officials.
But don’t confuse a situation where Republicans appease Trump with one where he is a net political asset to the party. Out of office, it’s not even clear that his best benefit to Republicans — an ability to drive turnout among voters whose primary loyalty is not to the party but to him — will persist if he is not featured on the ballot.
And as we’re seeing in Georgia and Virginia, he’s not necessarily going to apply himself.
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