Trump’s dominance in GOP comes into focus, worrying some in the party

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., speaks Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2022, at a primary Election Day gathering at Mead Ranch in Jackson, Wyo. Cheney lost to challenger Harriet Hageman in the primary.

Donald Trump is securing his grip on the Republican Party less than three months before the midterms, with GOP primary voters surging to the polls in Wyoming to oust his most vocal GOP critic, scores of nominees for state and federal offices amplifying his false claims and bellicose rhetoric, and many prominent party figures echoing his evidence-free attacks about the FBI search of his home.

Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., Trump’s staunchest Republican opponent in Congress, lost her primary Tuesday in a landslide to Harriet Hageman, whom the former president endorsed with the sole mission of dislodging Cheney. The race attracted more voters than any Republican primary in Wyoming’s 132-year history – serving as a stark example of how Trump has kept his hold on the party after losing the presidency in 2020.

Hageman’s victory marked the fourth and final primary defeat of a House Republican who voted to impeach Trump last year on charges that he incited a riot. Of the 10 who cast that vote, only two are now possibilities to retain their seats next year, both advancing from all-party primaries with unusual rules. The other four opted not to run for reelection.

“Trump has an absolute viselike grip on the Republican electorate, and if he wants to be the Republican nominee in 2024, he will be,” said GOP strategist John Thomas. He said he had been helping to organize a political action committee to support a potential presidential bid by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis if Trump doesn’t run but recently put those plans on pause.

Some Republican strategists have voiced worries about Trump’s influence, fretting that he is elevating less electable candidates in crucial races and that his polarizing presence in the midterms could complicate Republican attempts to win back control of Congress by running on concerns about inflation, crime and other problems that have persisted under Democratic control of the federal government.

“Having amateur candidates who’ve never run for office before carrying the banner for the Republican Party in critical Senate races is a risky maneuver,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster who argues that Trump has helped elevate risky candidates in pivotal states. “The list is quite lengthy of Senate seats lost by weak Republican candidates, even in good Republican years.”

Even as he has notched some political wins, Trump has considerable legal and political problems, with multiple federal and state investigations into his conduct related to improperly taking classified materials to his seaside Florida estate, and his activities related to the Jan. 6, 2021, riot.

A Trump spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Wyoming primary was among the last intraparty contests of the year – and Republicans do not worry about holding that seat in a ruby red state. These races have unfolded against the backdrop of the FBI’s Mar-a-Lago search – which found top secret documents and other classified information, according to a list unsealed by a judge – and its aftermath. Many Republicans have followed Trump’s attempts to sow doubts about the legitimacy of the raid, alleging without evidence that it was a political attack, though some have started to defend federal law enforcement more vocally.

On Wednesday, former vice president Mike Pence told an audience in New Hampshire that the attacks on the FBI are unwarranted and that “Calls to defund the FBI are just as wrong as calls to defund the police.” But he also said he was “deeply troubled” that a search warrant had been issued and called on Attorney General Merrick Garland to release more information about its justification.

“We definitely pumped the brakes,” after the FBI search, said Thomas, speaking of the preparations to support a DeSantis bid in 2024. He said he reasoned that Trump would seek reelection and that “at this point, it would be essentially a fool’s errand for DeSantis to attempt to run.” The Mar-a-Lago search, he added, “turned Trump into a victim” and fed the “us-versus-them psychology” that fires up Trump’s base.

DeSantis is up for reelection this year and has not ruled out a run in 2024. At a rally with GOP nominees in Arizona this weekend, DeSantis rallied to Trump’s defense, asking a crowd, “How could you get to the point where you have people being targeted based on whether they’re for or against the current regime?” He reiterated his comparisons to a “banana republic.”

Contributions to Trump’s political action committee topped $1 million on at least two days after the Aug. 8 search of his Palm Beach, Fla., estate, according to two people familiar with the figures.

When it comes to the midterms, Trump’s influence in the party – which has been the subject of debate among Republicans since he left office under a torrent of criticism after a mob of his supporters attacked the U.S. Capitol in Jan. 6, 2021, in an effort to prevent President Biden’s election win from being certified – carries near-term risks for the GOP, some Republicans said.

The 45th president’s overall record of endorsements has been mixed and includes some last-minute forays once races were effectively decided. He has helped elevate first-time candidates in key Senate races who have at times struggled, such as Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania and Herschel Walker in Georgia.

Many Democrats and some Republicans have pointed to Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election and exact political punishment on those who refused to assist that effort or echo his false claims that it was tainted by fraud, saying they see in him an existential threat to norms who must be stopped.

In a concession speech Tuesday night, Cheney warned of a perilous moment for American democracy and said she would “do whatever it takes to ensure Trump is never again anywhere near the Oval Office” – noting that most of her party has only rallied behind him since the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

Anti-Trump conservatives have long discussed the possibility of Cheney running for president solely to attack Trump or siphon votes from him, and on Wednesday, Cheney told NBC’s “Today” that she will decide whether to run “in the coming months.” Right after her primary defeat, she filed with the Federal Election Commission to establish a leadership PAC called “the Great Task.”

Across the political spectrum Wednesday, many agreed that the one-of-a-kind result in Wyoming – the defeat by some 37 points of the daughter of a former vice president whose family has been dominant in state politics – signaled something broader about the direction of the GOP.

“It’s a clear indication that the American republic will only be preserved if principled Republicans, Democrats and independents put country over party and join to defend it,” said Evan McMullin, an independent U.S. Senate candidate in Utah, who local Democrats have endorsed as an anti-Trump candidate. “None of these factions have the necessary votes to do it alone.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, Hageman had won at least 113,025 votes to 49,316 for Cheney, according to the Associated Press. Two years earlier, just over 108,000 ballots were cast for every candidate in the GOP primary.

Trump was determined to bring Cheney down, according to several of the ex-president’s advisers. He and his team vetted candidates, worked to try to clear the field, and he regularly talked to Hageman, according to the advisers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly. Trump and his team plotted ways to ensure that Cheney would not advance – including pushing for changes in voting rules and pressing state officials such as Republican Gov. Tim Murtaugh, a 2020 Trump campaign spokesman, to handle Hageman’s communications.

Their efforts helped boost a Republican attorney who, in 2016, had briefly worked to block Trump from winning her party’s presidential nomination. Cheney’s campaign tried to portray Hageman as an opportunist, even renting a billboard that quoted her past criticism of Trump when the former president came to the state for a rally.

The strategy didn’t work, as Republicans found that many conservative voters had gone on a similar journey – skeptical of Trump as a candidate, then committed to his leadership of their movement.

“She tried making the whole race about Trump, and she got rejected in a historic and humiliating fashion because of it,” said Andy Surabian, a Republican strategist who oversaw an outside group supporting Hageman.

Democrats have been watching the Republican Party’s internal warfare, hopeful it can move swing voters in their direction, but aghast at the ongoing purge of Trump critics.

Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in a recent interview that Republicans have erred by attacking the FBI search and failing to aggressively rein in members who were calling for the FBI itself to be defunded or abolished.

“All of us who were there on January 6th know what happens when you whip up the mob. People get hurt,” Maloney said.

Florida state Rep. Anthony Sabatini, who is running for a safe Republican seat in next week’s Florida primaries, said that the Wyoming race “became a national referendum on the future of the GOP.”

“There are other Liz Cheneys in the conference,” Sabatini added. “They’re just smarter, and they keep their mouths shut.”

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The Washington Post’s John Wagner and Isaac Arnsdorf contributed to this report.