An RNC Remade by Trump Backs Away From His 2024 Campaign

  • In Politics
  • 2023-01-26 13:36:52Z
  • By The New York Times

As former President Donald Trump prepares for his first public events since announcing his presidential campaign, dozens of members of the Republican Party's governing body are expressing doubts about his ability to win back the White House and are calling for a competitive primary to produce a stronger nominee in 2024.

The 168 members of the Republican National Committee are gathering in Southern California to select their own leader Friday, and interviews this week with 59 of them - more than one-third of the committee's membership - found few eager to crown Trump their nominee for a third time. While they praised his policies and accomplishments as president, many expressed deep concerns about his age (76), temperament and ability to win a general election, often in unusually blunt terms.

"This isn't 2016," said Mac Brown, the chair of the Republican Party of Kentucky. "People have moved on."

Jonathan Barnett, an RNC member from Arkansas who says he was the first member of the committee to endorse Trump's 2016 campaign, said the party would benefit from its nominee being forced to navigate a crowded primary field.

"I've been a supporter of Donald Trump in the past," Barnett said. "I just think that we need choices this time. We've got to look at all of our options."

The motivation to leave Trump behind is not ideological but political, the party leaders said: They worry he can't win.

"Everybody is very appreciative of Trump, and he did a lot of great things," said Art Wittich, an RNC member from Montana who said Trump was not best positioned to win the general election. "There's this burning desire to win in 2024, and that's what's going to drive a lot of the action."

One year before the first presidential nominating contests are set to begin, Republicans eager for Trump alternatives are seeking candidates who could capture the populism animating his base without replicating the chaos that characterized his administration. First mentioned is almost always Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, though members cited other would-be rivals, including Nikki Haley and Mike Pence, both alumni of the Trump administration.

The departure of many RNC members from the former president, after moving in lock step with him for more than six years, is even more extraordinary given how many of them owe their own positions to him and his supporters.

The RNC has been transformed during the Trump era: Of the 168 members, 99 joined the committee since Trump seized the party's presidential nomination in 2016. Dozens of the establishment-minded members with ties to the Bush and McCain political dynasties were cast aside by their state parties and replaced by Trump loyalists. That left the former president with what was seen as rock-solid standing during his time in and out of office.

"Did I vote for Trump in 2016? You bet. Did I vote for him in 2020? You bet," said Hank McCann, who joined the RNC from Delaware in 2020. "Now, I don't know. I think we've got probably 10 candidates that can win."

The New York Times called, emailed or texted all 168 RNC members. Just four offered an unabashed endorsement of Trump's 2024 campaign. Twenty said the former president should not be the party's nominee. An additional 35 said they would like to see a big primary field or declined to state their position on Trump. The remainder did not respond to messages.

In interviews, some RNC members estimated that between 120 and 140 of them preferred someone besides Trump to be their party's presidential nominee.

The defections of so many are particularly striking given the RNC's leading role in defending Trump's involvement in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol - last February the party declared the events that led to the attack "legitimate political discourse." Now, committee members complained about the decision to fund Trump's personal legal defense bills, including attorneys' fees for criminal investigations into his businesses in New York, for months until he announced his candidacy in November.

Trump's polarized political standing and effort to return to the White House have plunged the party into a deeply unpredictable landscape, a situation unlike any since 1912, when Theodore Roosevelt's attempt to recapture the presidency split the Republican Party four years after he left office.

Trump enters the race as the party's front-runner and owns by far the most robust fundraising apparatus. Yet many RNC members said he had nonetheless taken on the image of a loser after his 2020 defeat to President Joe Biden, who is expected to announce his own reelection bid in the coming months. Trump's subsequent refusal to accept the results and his endorsements of GOP candidates in 2022 who stressed their devotion to him - and then lost seats in key battleground states including Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin - have some saying they are ready for a divorce.

"To win 50% plus one in the Electoral College requires us to find an alternative and I think we've got plenty of good choices," said John Hammond, an RNC member from Indiana. "We can't be a cult of personality any longer."

Speaking to one another, members of the committee can be even more blunt. The RNC's rules dictate that it is neutral in primaries, but members are free to back whomever they like.

"I supported Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020, but it is clearly time for the Republican Party to move on from Donald Trump," Oscar Brock, an RNC member from Tennessee, wrote last week in a mass email to other members that was first reported by The Washington Post. "I know many of you feel the same way I do."

Trump still maintains a loyal following. Already, he has picked up endorsements in South Carolina from Gov. Henry McMaster and Sen. Lindsey Graham and will be delivering a keynote address Saturday to the New Hampshire Republican Party, whose chairman, Stephen Stepanek, remains a key supporter. The most recent polling shows Trump leading DeSantis in the primary, a shift from late last year when DeSantis had a small lead.

Those seeking a new nominee say they object to Trump's temperament and his focus on the 2020 election. By and large, they remain supportive of the stances on foreign policy, immigration, trade and cultural issues that powered his campaign and transformed the party's ideology.

Trump has been counted out so many times it has become a political cliché. Republican lawmakers, officials and strategists predicted his political demise after he made racist remarks about a federal judge's ancestry, after the release of video in which he crudely boasted about grabbing women, when he authorized a program to separate migrant children from their families and following the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

"President Trump is the leader of the Republican Party and anyone who questions that is simply living in a false reality," said Steven Cheung, Trump's campaign spokesperson. "President Trump leads in the polls by wide margins and there is no other person who can generate the type of excitement and enthusiasm as he can."

The openness with which some RNC members are now willing to speak out against Trump is new. Officials who once rolled their eyes and privately criticized Trump no longer fear repercussions from doing so publicly.

There are other signs that Trump may face cracks in the foundation of his political coalition. His support has been wavering among evangelical voters, whose backing provided a crucial push in his 2016 victory. The divides with evangelicals over abortion and other issues burst into the open this month when Trump accused them of "disloyalty." And Trump lost some support last year as his actions leading up to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol were broadcast to millions by a House committee.

Surveys show, and strategists note, that Trump commands the loyalty of roughly one-third to 40% of Republican primary voters. Even as some former supporters say he should not be the nominee, Trump's loyalists cannot fathom the idea of someone else taking the reins from him as the party's leader.

"He needs to come back and finish what he started," said Fanchon Blythe, an RNC member from Nebraska who helped lead a Trumpian takeover of the Nebraska GOP last summer. "DeSantis, stay in your own lane. Stay in Florida. Come back in 2028 if you want to run for president."

Trump is "an icon," Shelly Gibson, an RNC member from Guam, said in an interview during a layover in her 30-hour trip to California. "He sets a tone of pride. He has touched the hearts of citizens who felt forgotten and found a place they fit."

Trump's support, along with an implicit threat that his backers would abandon any other nominee, could be enough to fend off a crowded field, a strategy that lifted him to the nomination in 2016.

Party officials and front-runner candidates often worry about a crowded primary field, fearing such contests could weaken the eventual nominee by forcing the candidate to court their party's fringe with positions that hurt them in the general election. But for candidates untested in the combative sport of presidential politics, primaries can serve as a crucial testing ground. The strongest candidates typically improve over the course of a primary and enter the general election ready to compete.

Even RNC members who have been among the biggest Trump cheerleaders are reluctant to get behind his latest presidential campaign.

Ed Broyhill, a North Carolina RNC member who was the state's finance chair for Trump's 2020 campaign, said he had met with DeSantis and Pence, and plans to contribute to them should they run. Cindy Costa, who served as a Trump elector from South Carolina in 2020, said she was going into the primary with an open mind prepared to back the winner.

Carson Jorgensen, the Utah GOP chair, said, "I was a big supporter of the president in 2016 and in 2020." But now, Jorgensen said, he's staying out of the primary. "I just want to keep my thumb off of it and let the people decide."

© 2023 The New York Times Company


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