By: Daniel Wachman — Senior Political Correspondent
Since Donald Trump was defeated in the 2020 election, the Republican Party has faced difficult questions about its future – and the former president’s place in it.
Despite their considerable overperformance on Election Day, the GOP still lost control of the presidency and the Senate and failed to retake the House. In the months since, as Republican leaders evaluate the results and plan for the coming years, debates have arisen over the role that Trump played in the GOP’s performance on Election Day, and what role he should play in the future of the party. While Republicans united around Trump during his presidency, some have publicly distanced themselves from the former president since his loss, prompting questions about potential divides within the party.
Unlike the Democratic Party, which is more clearly split between moderate and progressive wings, the Republican Party’s divides are often ambiguous – their very existence is debatable. Some political analysts divide the party into two wings: a traditional “establishment” wing and a more populist wing led by Trump.
Sue Price, chair of the Sharon GOP, disputes the claim that the Republican Party is clearly split into these two factions.
“Republican voters have diverse opinions, care about a wide array of policy issues, and can’t be neatly divided into ‘traditional’ and ‘populist’ boxes,” said Price.
Like Price, others believe the divides in the Republican Party are not as easily defined. The so-called wings of the party often overlap with one another in membership and on key votes – many of the more moderate members of the Republican caucus often vote with the more conservative members, and vice versa. The more conservative side of the caucus can also be split up into subgroups like libertarian conservatives, Tea Party conservatives, and the Christian right. And although members of the GOP may disagree on certain policy issues, they repeatedly united in support of Trump and his agenda during his term in office. In recent years, many have attempted to dissect the groups which make up the GOP, yet each analysis describes different factions, numbers of factions, and members of each (for example, compare the analyses of NBC and FiveThirtyEight).
Sharon High School government teacher Mr. Sean O’Reilly feels that regardless of how the factions in the GOP are defined, the party is not as divided as one might think.
“The elite media is addicted to the narrative that the GOP is undergoing a civil war,” said O’Reilly. “Privately a lot of GOP politicians complain about Donald Trump to the elite media, which is why the elite media gives so much coverage to this narrative. But the only thing that matters is what GOP politicians do in public, and in public they are almost universally…supportive of former President Trump.”
In the aftermath of former President Trump’s defeat at the ballot box, several key votes in Congress have provided insight on the state of the Republican Party as its leaders answer a key question: should they embrace Trump or distance themselves from him?
The uproar over the past behavior of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia (read more here) prompted a controversial House vote to revoke her committee assignments, an action typically taken by party leadership. Furthermore, the House Republican caucus held a vote on whether to remove Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming as their chair following her vote to impeach then-President Trump. While the Greene controversy involved the whole House of Representatives, the debate over whether to demote Cheney was an entirely Republican one. 11 Republicans (out of 211) voted to remove Greene’s committee assignments, whereas Cheney retained her position by a 145-61 margin in a secret GOP caucus vote.
Price condemns Greene’s comments and behavior but believes only the Republican caucus should have jurisdiction over the congresswoman’s committee assignments, a belief held by many of the Republicans who voted against the Greene resolution.
“Democrats should not be involved with removing any Republicans from any committees,” said Price. “Hate speech should be condemned no matter from which side of the aisle or which end of the political spectrum. Representative Greene will likely have a challenger in her next primary…Republicans did not support Representative Steve King* after his terrible comments.”
*King, a former Iowa congressman, had his committee assignments revoked in early 2019 after making a series of offensive comments. Unlike Greene, King was punished by Republican leadership, not by a full vote of the House. Without party support, King was defeated in the 2020 Republican primary for his seat.
In regards to Cheney, Price notes that the unsuccessful vote to remove her as the #3 House Republican “wasn’t close,” adding, “Cheney voted her conscience, which is something that should be encouraged.”
O’Reilly believes these votes were “proxy fights” over Trump’s role in the party, and that they hold clues for the party’s future.
“What we have learned from these fights is the Republicans privately believe Trump is wrong because in a secret vote to remove Cheney…they voted to keep her in power,” said O’Reilly. “But when they voted publicly to remove Marjorie Taylor Greene…they voted overwhelmingly to keep her on her committees.”
O’Reilly believes that these votes show Republicans continue to avoid crossing former President Trump publicly, indicating that Trump is still the “unchallenged leader of the party”.
The first true test of this theory will be the 2022 midterm elections, in which primaries between Trump-supporting and Trump-opposing Republicans are likely to be spotlighted, and in which Republicans will see whether the party can succeed without Trump on the ballot.
Historically, the incumbent party – in this case, the Democratic Party – takes a hit in midterm elections; however, O’Reilly believes the turbulent nature of modern politics could change that.
“Our most recent politics have overturned a lot of conventional wisdom,” said O’Reilly. “With the massive, unique disruptions to life and politics that COVID and Donald Trump have caused, I’m not confident on using conventional wisdom to make any predictions.”
Price, on the other hand, is confident Republicans will succeed in the midterms.
“Republicans will win back the House and Senate in 2022,” said Price. “President Biden and the Democrats will slow the economy by an increase in unemployment, overregulation, and the loss of jobs overseas to China. Their open border policy will lower wages and hurt the working class, especially Blacks and Hispanics.”
The 2024 election will be another key test for the Republican Party. A recent poll from Morning Consult and POLITICO indicates that if he runs, former President Trump has the support of a majority of the GOP electorate. Trump’s return to the forefront of Republican politics would likely push party leaders to publicly, once and for all, determine whether Trump is indeed still the leader of the party. If the former president doesn’t run, Republicans will again be forced to find out if the party can succeed without him.
As O’Reilly points out, incumbent presidents typically fare well in their re-election campaigns (though it is unknown whether President Joe Biden will run for re-election – if not, it is likely that Vice President Kamala Harris will be the Democratic nominee for president). However, like the 2022 election, O’Reilly believes the current political climate could defy expectations.
“Under normal circumstances, the incumbent president usually wins unless there is an economic downturn,” said O’Reilly. “But with the current volatility of the economy as a result of the COVID pandemic and the possibility of Trump running again and his uniqueness as a candidate, it is impossible to know what will happen with COVID and the economy. Four years is a long way away in political terms and we have no idea what that race will look like.”
Price believes there is a clearer path to victory for Republicans if the party learns from Trump’s successes and failures.
“Unlike previous presidents, he did what he promised to do, which is why he was successful,” said Price. “Republicans will win the White House in 2024 if they nominate one of their excellent, viable candidates…The Republican Party should focus on the optimism that is conservatism, and promote the promise of our great country for all of us.”