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The Republican Party is at war with itself as it charts its post-Trump future

Posted January 26, 2021 7:02 a.m. EST

— A cold war is underway within the Republican Party as its members begin to navigate how former President Donald Trump and his legacy fit into the GOP's future.

Some in congressional leadership have signaled their desire to move the party beyond Trump by impeaching and convicting him. Allies of the former President, on the other hand, are proclaiming their loyalty to him in conservative media and in state and local party organizations. Still other Republicans remain fearful of the power Trump may yet wield in GOP primaries or see electoral possibilities in embracing a version of his populist-conservative approach.

The result is a Republican Party in a fight with itself over who will determine its path forward -- and, more crucially, who should be kept from the levers of power in the GOP. For the moment, party unity is giving way to recriminations, a culmination of the longstanding dispute between the party's grassroots and its leadership class that was mostly put on hold during Trump's presidency, when few Republicans dared to cross him.

"Republicans are entering the wilderness and looking desperately to point blame," said Erick Erickson, the conservative commentator and radio host. "They're going to have to make room for each other or let the Democrats run over them in the mid-terms."

Disunity could present a more existential threat to Republicans. In his final days in the White House, Trump raised the idea of starting a new political party, a senior Trump adviser told CNN. While others around him dismissed this scheme to launch a "patriot party" as unserious, the potential of a split among right-of-center voters looms for Republicans.

Erickson says the divide in the party isn't just philosophical but literal, with both sides having their own redoubts within the GOP infrastructure.

"The pre-Trump establishment right now largely runs the policy-making arm of the party, and the Trump wing controls the state party arms," he said. "That can't last and have the party winning."

For Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a six-term Illinois congressman and one of just 10 Republicans in the House to vote for impeachment, the party is in the midst of a difficult fight about its own identity.

"I do think we are in a battle," Kinzinger told CNN's Jim Sciutto Monday. "And it may be a battle that really needs to happen for our party to say, what does it we stand for? Not when it comes to policy, but as much as anything, are we aspirational or are we a party that feeds on fear and division?"

Sanders gets in, Portman gets out

Two announcements on Monday reflected how much the Trump wing of the party remains in the GOP's driver's seat -- and that members of the pre-Trump establishment are fading.

The first was from former Trump White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who declared her candidacy for governor of Arkansas with a press release touting her allegiance to the former president.

"A trusted confidant of the President, Sarah advised him on everything from press and communications strategy to personnel and policy," read the release. "For two and a half years, Sarah worked closely with the president, battling with the media, working with lawmakers and CEOs, and accompanying the president on every foreign trip, including dozens of meetings with foreign leaders." Trump endorsed Sanders later on Monday, saying in a statement that she "is a warrior who will always fight for the people of Arkansas and do what is right, not what is politically correct."

The second came from Sen. Rob Portman, the moderate Ohio Republican and veteran of the George W. Bush administration who announced he would not seek reelection in 2022 -- prompting a free-for-all for the GOP primary in a state that has taken an increasingly Republican turn in the Trump era.

Portman's decision to leave a "safe seat tells you that he doesn't think much is going to get better in Washington, and we are unlikely to take the majority in '22," one strategist close to Republican fundraisers told CNN.

"We need all the moderates we can get," said a second GOP strategist familiar with Ohio Republican politics. "He's exactly the type we want, and now he will be replaced by someone more 'conservative' by ideology or by positioning."

McConnell, Cheney face backlash

But "more conservative" -- or at least more dedicated to Trump -- is exactly what those most loyal to the former President want.

For the party's current problems, they blame Republicans too willing to toss Trump overboard following the election. That includes Sen. Mitch McConnell and Rep. Liz Cheney, two GOP leaders in Congress who publicly condemned Trump for his actions surrounding the January 6 insurrection.

Cheney, the chair of the House Republican conference, was among the just 10 House Republicans who voted for impeachment earlier this month. For that vote, some of the most strident Trump allies in the GOP conference are threatening to strip her of her leadership role. And one of them, Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, is going to Cheney's home state of Wyoming this week to speak out against her vote.

McConnell, meanwhile, has only gestured at his openness to voting to convict, but that has been enough to turn up the pressure from some Republican colleagues. And in two recent speeches on the Senate floor, the Republican leader harshly criticized Trump's actions surrounding the attack and denounced the lie propagated by the President that the 2020 election was stolen from him.

All of that's made McConnell a target of pro-Trump voices in the conservative media.

"Mitch McConnell, if you're not going to fight, we deserve better," said Fox News host Sean Hannity last week. "You can go back to representing the people of Kentucky and let somebody that knows how to lead, lead."

Many Republicans with potential White House ambitions are therefore treading lightly.

Sens. Marco Rubio and Tom Cotton, for example, did not object to counting electoral votes like their other ambitious colleagues Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley did. But Trump remains popular among Republican voters, and most polls show little appetite among them to impeach Trump.

So both Rubio and Cotton, along with other senators who may be looking at running for President, have already indicated they won't support convicting Trump -- a potential hedge against primary voters who may be counting fealty to Trump as an asset in a presidential nominee.

Trump's party in the states, too

In some states, party committees and local activists have been lashing out at those who have not sufficiently defended Trump. Backed by Trump himself, Republicans in Georgia have gone after their own elected officials, including Gov. Brian Kemp and secretary of state Brad Raffensperger, for not trying to overturn the election.

In a statement following the January 13 House vote on impeachment, the Texas Republican Party blasted the vote as "frivolous and cruel." And last week, the Oregon Republican Party released a lengthy, fiction-filled statement calling the 10 GOP votes to impeach Trump a "betrayal."

Over the weekend, the Arizona Republican Party, which had just narrowly reelected its pro-Trump chairwoman Kelli Ward, passed resolutions censuring three of the state's most prominent Republicans: Cindy McCain, former Sen. Jeff Flake, and Gov. Doug Ducey.

What happened in Arizona -- a longtime Republican state that Trump lost and where Democrats are ascendant -- worries longtime GOP operatives like Michael Steel, a former top aide to House Speaker John Boehner.

"If you say to the people of Arizona that your successful, conservative, two-term governor is somehow a problem, you are dooming yourself to minority status," Steel told CNN.

Erickson agrees.

"A party that isn't big enough for Dick Cheney's daughter, Trump's secretary of transportation's husband, John McCain's wife, and the sitting governors of Arizona and Georgia is a party not big enough to win," he said.

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