As President Trump prepares to step down with his party in disarray, Republican leaders, including Senator Mith McConnell, are maneuvering to thwart his GOP grip in future elections, while forces aligned with Mr. Trump seek to punish Republican lawmakers and governors who broke with him.
The bitter struggle underscores the deep divisions Mr. Trump has created in the GOP, all ensuring that the next campaign will be a key test of the party’s direction, with a series of conflicts looming in the coming months.
Friction is already escalating into several key sweeping states after spurring Mr. Trump on a mob that attacked the Capitol last week. They include Arizona, where Trump activists are trying to rebuke a Republican governor they consider insufficiently loyal to the president, and Georgia, where a hard-wing faction wants to defeat the current governor in the primary.
In Washington, Republicans are particularly concerned about several far-right members of the House who could run for the Senate in sweeping states, potentially denigrating the party in some of the country’s most politically important areas. Mr. McConnell’s political lieutenants envision a major campaign to prevent such candidates from winning election elections in key states.
But Mr. Trump’s political cohort seems no less determined, and his allies in the states are laying the groundwork for the takeover of Republican officials who voted to recall Mr. Trump – or who only acknowledged the clear reality that Joseph R. Biden Jr. had. won the presidential race.
Republicans on both sides of the conflict openly admit they have gone to war.
“Hell, we are,” said spokesman Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, one of 10 Republicans from Parliament who voted to recall Mr. Trump.
Mr. Kinzinger was equally outspoken when asked how he and other anti-Trump Republicans could dilute the president’s influence in the front lines: “We beat him,” he said.
Trump’s most influential tests could pass in two sparsely populated Western states, South Dakota and Wyoming, where the president targeted a pair of GOP leaders: John Thune, a second-ranked Republican in the Senate, and Liz Cheney, a third-ranked House Republican.
“I guess we’ll see a lot of that activity in the next few years for some of our members, including me,” Mr Thune said, adding that he and others would have to “play the hand you got.”
He may face less political danger than Ms Cheney, who voted to recall Mr Trump saying “there has never been a greater betrayal of the president”. The Wyoming Republican Party said it was overwhelmed by calls and messages from voters inflating its decision.
Mr Trump spoke to advisers about her contempt for Ms Cheney in the days following the vote and expressed his joy at the reaction she was suffering in her home state.
Privately, Republican officials are concerned about possible campaigns for the senior office of some of the senior House MPs who have disrupted election results and propagated marginal conspiracy theories. Among those figures are MPs Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Andy Biggs of Arizona. All three states have seats in the Senate and governorships for the 2022 election.
Equally striking, a number of major Conservatives in the House speak openly about how much Mr. Trump was damaged after the election, culminating in his role in inspiring the riots.
“The day after the election, the issue of leadership was undoubtedly in the hands of one person, and each week that passed it was unfortunately limited based on their own actions,” said North Carolina spokesman Patrick McHenry, who predicted that ordinary voters would come to share his discomfort after fully absorbing the Kaptol restlessness.
Still, Mr Trump has promised a campaign of political retaliation against lawmakers who have crossed him – a number that has risen with a recall vote. The president is still extremely popular among party roots and is most likely able to raise enough money to be a disruptive force in 2022.
Scott Reed, a former chief political strategist for the Chamber of Commerce, a powerful business lobby, said Republicans should prepare for a fierce battle with each other. Mr Reed, who as Mr McConnell’s ally helped crush right-wing populists in the last election, said the party establishment would have to use divisions within Mr Trump’s faction to bring its favored candidates to power.
“In 2022, we’re going to face a bunch of Trump fairies and we’re going to have to work to get them back,” Mr. Reed said. “We hope to create multi-candidate races in which their influence will be diluted.”
An early test for the party is expected in the coming days, with Trump’s loyal attempts to deprive Ms. Cheney of a leading role in the House. If that effort proves successful, it could further signal to voters and donors that the party’s militant wing controls – a potentially alarming signal to more traditional Republicans in the business community.
Kevin McCarthy, a minority leader in the House, has admitted to political donors in recent days that the outgoing president and some members of his faction have seriously damaged the party’s relationship with big business, people familiar with his talks said.
If Ms. Cheney is ousted, it could trigger primary challenges against other Republicans who supported the recall or reprimand, including more moderate lawmakers such as MPs Peter Meier and Fred Upton of Michigan and John Katk of New York, whose counties could evade Republicans. if nominated firm Trump believers. But in a sign that Mr Trump cannot expect to fully dictate party affairs, Mr McCarthy has indicated he opposes calls for her to be removed from the leadership.
William E. Oberndorf, an influential Republican donor who gave Mr. McConnell’s super-PAC, the Senate Leadership Fund, $ 2.5 million in the 2020 election, said donors should closely monitor recall votes as they formulate their plans for giving. A longtime critic of Mr. Trump, Mr. Oberndorf, said it was a mistake that the party did not overthrow Mr. Trump during his first impeachment trial last year.
“They now have the opportunity to address this huge mistake and ensure that Donald Trump will never be able to run for public office again,” Mr Oberndorf said. “Republican donors should pay attention to how our elected officials vote on the issue.”
It is still unclear how broad the party leadership can accept a non-new-Trump strategy, and there are strong indications that the Republican base could react angrily to any explicit effort to bring the former president to the political dump. As a harrowing complication for Senate leaders, their pre-election committee chairman, Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, has been critical of the recall and opposed the confirmation of Pennsylvania election results – a vote that could undermine his ability to raise funds from major donors.
A number of state parties are already under the control of Trump’s allies, some of whom have said Republican traditionalists would have to come to terms with their new coalition.
“What President Trump has done has rearranged political parties, and either the establishment of the Republican Party recognizes it or not – and I believe we will,” said spokesman Ken Buck, who is also president of the GOP in Colorado. He suggested that the party should be careful about supporting Mr. Trump’s working class and avoiding “hyperfocusing on voting in the suburbs”.
In some respects, the party may still face the same irreconcilable pressures that have plagued it for the past four years: on the one hand, the strong cult of personality of Mr. Trump on the right; on the other hand, his profound personal unpopularity with most American voters. As much as the president’s behavior stunned party leaders, they cannot win a general election if his stubborn supporters stay at home or cast protests.
On paper, the GOP should have a good chance of reoccupying one or both houses of Congress in the next campaign, as Democratic majorities are small and the party holding the White House usually loses ground in the meantime.
But Republicans are in extreme disarray in the Sun Belt states that have infiltrated Mr. Biden’s column, and on several large northern battlefields like Wisconsin and Michigan, they face the likelihood of disobedient Senate or gubernatorial pre-elections. The last time Democrats controlled the presidency, the House and the Senate, was in 2010, Republicans won the House but failed to call the Senate because some of their candidates were outside the mainstream.
The divisions are perhaps currently taking place most sharply in the two historically red states that have joined Mr. Biden’s column and elected three Democratic senators in this cycle: Georgia and Arizona. Local GOP institutions are turning to these defeats, and Mr. Trump has lured local leaders with fierce – and false – allegations of political perfidy.
Both states have Senate and governor elections in 2022, offering staunch Trump supporters a number of calling targets.
In Arizona, state party officials who supported Mr. Trump’s attempts to reverse Mr. Biden’s victory there launched an effort to rebuke Republican Gov. Doug Ducey for his public health policy, as well as Cindy McCain and former Sen. Jeff Flake, a couple of Republicans who supported Mr. Biden. Mr. Ducey could be the party’s strongest rookie for next year’s Senate race.
Jonathan Lines, a former Republican Party chairman in Arizona who supports Mr Trump, said he feared the island faction would cripple the GOP at a time when it needs to be rebuilt.
“It’s just destroying the party to come out and try to reprimand the people,” Mr Lines said. “It doesn’t show they’re trying to attract new people to the party.”
And in Georgia, Mr. Trump has vowed to overthrow his former ally, Gov. Brian Kemp, for refusing to sabotage the election outcome in his state. This week, the state’s second-rate Republican, Lt. Col. Geoff Duncan, who rebuked Mr. Trump for meddling, demoted three state lawmakers who tried to help Mr. Trump undo the state’s election results.
Several Republicans said they hoped Democrats would overdo it with their newly acquired power in ways that would unite the GOP. “Nothing unites the party like a common threat,” said Ohio spokesman Steve Stivers.
Still, Mr. Stivers, who chaired House’s 2018 board committee and saw Mr. Trump harm the party, said he hopes the president will “pull aside” in the manner of his predecessors who “spent in the sun”.
And what if he doesn’t do it and seeks retaliation against people like Mr. Upton, the much-loved House veteran who supported impeachment?
“Then I’ll approach Fred Upton,” Mr. Stivers said.