16 February 2021

The Republicans show no sign of moving on from Donald Trump

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Donald Trump’s Senate acquittal came to the surprise of no-one with even the slightest interest in American politics. While many Republicans, including virtually all of those in the orbit of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, doubtless wanted the vote to go the other way, too few were individually willing to risk Donald Trump’s wrath in a future primary to vote for conviction.

Indeed, 16 of the 50 Republican Senate Republicans are running for re-election next year and will have already geared up to full campaign mode. Everything from the moment Joe Biden was declared president-elect must be seen in the context of those elections and the party’s battle to regain power.

McConnell himself, so long a master of Washington power politics, now casts a somewhat tortured figure. His statement that Trump was “morally and practically responsible” for the Capitol Hill riot, having just voted to acquit him, must rank among the more grievous failures to walk a political tightrope ever seen. His public existential crisis is plain to see: realising the dangers for both the Republicans and the Republic in continuing to placate far-right conspiracy theorists – including the withdrawal of significant corporate donations – but lacking the power base himself to take them on. His suggestion that Trump could now be subject to criminal charges was a further cry for help – for someone, anyone, to put an end to this misery, as long as he didn’t have to do it himself. Mitch wants his party back.

While the Senate is split 50-50, and opposition parties usually make gains in mid-terms, next year’s elections will be no slam-dunk for McConnell. While Democrats are defending slightly more competitive Senate seats, their incumbents are relatively strong, and Republicans face tough battles in states like Pennsylvania and North Carolina where the current Senators are retiring. Indeed, both Donald Jr. and Lara Trump (the ex-President’s daughter-in-law) have been mentioned as potential candidates in those states, which would rile up the base in both parties. There will be no ‘moving on’ from the Trump era for Leader McConnell.

Over in the House of Representatives, however, Republican Kevin McCarthy has made the opposite calculation to his Senate counterpart. The 14 gains made by his party last November, when most experts had expected losses, left him on the precipice of the speakership. He’s wanted the job a long time: he was favourite to succeed John Boehner in 2015, but lacked support from conservatives in his caucus, who handed the gavel to Paul Ryan. Fast-forward six years and the now-retired Ryan is a frequent Trump critic, while the ascendant McCarthy voted to overturn election results, dines with Trump in Mar-a-Lago and has been noticeably quiet on attempts to control far-right Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene.

House Republicans need just five gains out of 435 seats to regain the majority, and something will have to go terribly wrong for them to fail. Their resilience on a local level last November, holding on to every single state house targeted by Democrats, has meant they will exert outsized control over this year’s redistricting process – shaping, and indeed gerrymandering, House seats for the next decade. And in what many see as a spectacular self-own, Democrats have unilaterally disarmed their ability to return the favour in big states they control, such as California and New York, by setting up independent redistricting commissions – though we’ll have to wait and see how non-partisan these are in practice. This factor alone will likely be enough to put the Speaker’s gavel into Mr McCarthy’s hands in two year’s time, even if you ignore the usual mid-term shift back towards the opposition. So close to his goal, threats from within his own party will weigh far more heavily than those from the public at large – and we can expect him to grip Trump and Trumpism ever tighter.

And what of the presidency? It’s now abundantly clear that the Electoral College favours the Republicans more than it ever has in the past, and any Democrat likely has to be ahead by four points or more in the popular vote in order to win the White House. This will change as Texas inevitably becomes a true tossup, but the current path to victory still runs through Rust Belt states that are drifting towards the GOP demographically. With Biden, a candidate with unique appeal to that region, seemingly unlikely to run for re-election as an 81-year-old (whatever those around him currently say), 2024 may well be the first presidential election in 20 years that Democrats enter as underdogs.

Donald Trump is clearly eying up another run – and even if he doesn’t end up taking the plunge due to age, legal difficulties or disinterest, there is no imaginable situation in which he doesn’t play kingmaker. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine him building up a campaign apparatus for 2024, clearing the primary field, only to use it to pass the baton on to another member of his family. As I’ve suggested here previously, the GOP has likely transformed into a Forza Italia-style clientelist party that primarily exists to serve the Trumps.

While Democrats and Mitch McConnell may wish it otherwise, Trump and Trumpism will remain just inches away from the levers of power for a long time to come.

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Mark Gettleson is a campaigns and election strategist.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.