For four years, President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump nomination to be held in private: report Graham defends Trump on TikTok, backs Microsoft purchase Federal appeals court rejects Stormy Daniels libel case against Trump MORE has held an iron grip over the Republican Party, basking in the warm glow of adulation from a base that follows his direction to punish critics and reward allies.
But with polls showing an increasingly perilous path to reelection, there are new signs that his grip is loosening, as some Republicans begin to explore what the future of the Grand Old Party might look like once Trump becomes a lame duck or an ex-president.
In interviews with more than a dozen strategists, party leaders and current and former members of Congress, Republicans said their party is searching for a new direction even before Trump leaves the stage.
“His weaker poll numbers and off-the-wall tweets plus his flexible, day-to-day ideology empower and in some cases encourage dissent,” said Tom Davis, a former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. “Politics is, above all, a game of survival, and his off-message remarks do not inspire confidence.”
The search for a post-Trump direction is made more complicated by the universal acknowledgment that Trump will never truly be gone, even if he loses in November; his Twitter feed will still drive news coverage, and a potential deal to land a television network could give rise to a political force that would drive the conservative conversation for years to come.
“Trump is not going to go away after he loses the election. He’s going to have a TV network,” said one operative close to Senate Republicans. “He’s going to be a protagonist again. He’s so comfortable in that role.”
Two distinct groups of prominent Republicans are considering ways to move beyond Trump, though the immediacy of their mission varies.
One is a large and growing set of Republicans who are already positioning themselves for the next race for the White House. They are testing new messages, appearing with favored candidates in ideologically divided primaries and staking out territory they hope will give them a springboard in what is certain to be a crowded field of candidates running to be Trump’s successor.
Sen. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonThe Hill’s Morning Report – Presented by Facebook – Brawls on Capitol Hill on Barr and COVID-19 Hillicon Valley: Tech CEOs brace for House grilling | Senate GOP faces backlash over election funds | Twitter limits Trump Jr.’s account Republicans raise concerns TikTok could be used by Chinese government interfere in elections MORE (R-Ark.) has embraced what Trump portrays as a hard line on China. Sens. Ben SasseBenjamin (Ben) Eric SasseMcConnell: 15-20 GOP senators will not vote for any coronavirus deal CNN chyron says ‘nah’ to Trump claim about Russia Chamber of Commerce endorses Ernst for reelection MORE (R-Neb.) and Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzTrump tests GOP loyalty with election tweet and stimulus strategy Republicans dismiss Trump proposal to delay election GOP asks Supreme Court to reinstate Arizona voting rules deemed racially biased MORE (R-Texas) are reviving Republican calls for fiscal conservatism; Sasse this past week criticized Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinBiden calls on Trump, Congress to enact an emergency housing program Sunday shows preview: White House, Democratic leaders struggle for deal on coronavirus bill ‘Progress’ but no deal as coronavirus talks head into next week MORE, while Cruz has clashed with fellow GOP senators over pandemic relief spending.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) is on a media blitz promoting himself as a return to good-governance Republicanism. Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), a businessman who has a relationship with Trump that pre-dates either man’s time in politics, has already run television ads in Iowa.
Cruz and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki HaleyNimrata (Nikki) HaleyPrepare for four more years of the most disruptive president ever The Hill’s Coronavirus Report: Chris Christie says Trump team wasn’t aggressive enough early in COVID-19 crisis; Tensions between White House, Fauci boil over If the US wants a better WTO, it should lead the way MORE (R), who later served as Trump’s U.N. ambassador, are among those who have been fundraising aggressively for fellow Republican candidates. Vice President Pence has maintained a scaled back but still regular travel schedule, even in the midst of the pandemic.
“What we’re seeing now is a significant amount of trial balloons being floated. Everyone knows the Republican Party requires a pivot in messaging and a better ability to connect with a broader set of voters. The question is what that messaging and who that messenger looks like,” said Brent Buchanan, an Alabama-based Republican pollster.
The other group seeking to distinguish itself is the set of congressional Republicans, especially incumbents up for reelection this year in a political climate that is shaping up to be a Democratic landslide.
Those lawmakers are considering ways to distance themselves from Trump without angering the still-substantial base that’s fiercely loyal to the president. Many are spotlighting their legislative accomplishments; Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerGOP fears Trump attacks on mail-in vote will sabotage turnout Chamber of Commerce endorses Ernst for reelection 100 Days: Democrats see clear path to Senate majority MORE (R-Colo.) is running advertisements touting a public lands bill that won support from environmental groups, and Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsFrustration builds as negotiators struggle to reach COVID-19 deal Shaheen, Chabot call for action on new round of PPP loans McConnell tees up showdown on unemployment benefits MORE (R-Maine) has aired spots promoting the local impact of funding from the record $2.2 trillion CARES Act that provided coronavirus relief.
“They’re basically thinking of their own political future, and nothing creates independence more than the perception of a politically damaged incumbent,” said John Couvillon, a Louisiana-based pollster.
Others, like Sens. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisChamber of Commerce endorses Ernst for reelection GOP under mounting pressure to strike virus deal quickly Hillicon Valley: Tech CEOs brace for House grilling | Senate GOP faces backlash over election funds | Twitter limits Trump Jr.’s account MORE (R-N.C.), Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstThe Hill’s Campaign Report: Who will Biden pick to be his running mate? Chamber of Commerce endorses Ernst for reelection Trump tests GOP loyalty with election tweet and stimulus strategy MORE (R-Iowa), Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyUnemployment benefits to expire as coronavirus talks deadlock McConnell tees up showdown on unemployment benefits Trump may have power, but he still has no plan to fight the pandemic MORE (R-Ariz.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.), find themselves more tightly tied to Trump. All four represent swing states in November; GOP strategists said Trump almost certainly needs to win their states for the senators to win in November. In 2016, for the first time since direct election of senators began 100 years ago, no state with a Senate contest split the vote between the presidential election and the Senate race.
Trump’s tweet Thursday floating the idea of delaying November’s election — something a sitting president is uniquely powerless to actually achieve — was the rare moment in which the two groups found common cause to criticize the president. Virtually every Republican elected official, from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBiden calls on Trump, Congress to enact an emergency housing program ‘Progress’ but no deal as coronavirus talks head into next week Senators: You can’t let COVID-19 leave women and people of color behind MORE (Ky.) to rank-and-file members of the House, dismissed the concept of postponing the election as impossible and out of the question.
The very reason Trump would want to delay an election in which he appears headed for defeat is the same reason Republicans feel emboldened to push him away: His power lies in his poll numbers, and his poll numbers are sagging.
“Trump has ruled the party by fear more than love, creating mostly transactional relationships whose durability depends on perceptions of his power,” said Bruce Mehlman, a well-connected GOP lobbyist.
Republicans seeking reelection are also frustrated that they still do not fully know what Trump has in mind for a second term. His scattershot approach to a coherent message, knocked askew almost daily by the latest Twitter broadside or new surges in the number of coronavirus cases across the country, has left the party without a platform on which to run.
“The coronavirus has upended his reelection game plan of prosperity and he has not figured out a Plan B. His leadership has not inspired confidence, even with his base,” Davis said. “That leaves a vacuum, and power abhors a vacuum.”
The next phase of the Republican Party will be inescapably shaped by Trump’s time in office, and the course corrections Republican voters want to make once he is done being a candidate. How much power Trump himself has to guide that new direction will depend on how willing and able those lined up to succeed him are to accept, or reject, the grip he maintains.
On The Trail is a reported column by Reid Wilson, primarily focused on the 2020 elections.