‘Never Trump’ Republicans split over next steps

By Adam Wollner
McClatchy Washington Bureau/TNS
Then-President Donald Trump speaks to his supporters at the Save America Rally on the Ellipse on  Jan. 6, 2021, near the White House in Washington, D.C.

WASHINGTON - The loose coalition of "Never Trump" Republicans who worked to defeat former President Donald Trump are now turning to a new and far more challenging goal: purging his brand of politics from the GOP.

But there’s little agreement on the best way to do that - or whether it’s even possible.

Current and former Republican strategists and officials who oppose Trump and now find themselves without a natural political home said they have largely fallen into three camps since the 2020 election: reform the GOP from within, start a third party or align with moderate Democrats.

Regardless of where they fall, the relatively small band of anti-Trump Republicans acknowledge that eradicating the influence of the man who’s easily still the most popular figure in the GOP is much more daunting than simply beating him in an election.

But in the aftermath of the Capitol riot and the former president’s subsequent acquittal of an impeachment charge in the Senate, they argue that challenging the Trump coalition has taken on a renewed sense of urgency, even if they tackle that mission in different ways.

“The ‘Never Trump’ coalition is not bound by any particular policy principles,” said Lucy Caldwell, who managed former Republican Rep. Joe Walsh’s presidential campaign. “We don’t all have to make our bed together anymore.”

The most active anti-Trump GOP group since the election has been the Republican Accountability Project, which spawned from Republican Voters Against Trump. RAP’s executive director, Sarah Longwell, said they plan to raise and spend $50 million over the next two years as they pursue multiple avenues to defeat Trumpism.

The group has already paid for a series of billboards and ads to put pressure on GOP lawmakers who echoed Trump’s unfounded claims of voter fraud and opposed certification of the election. RAP is also providing support for Republican members of Congress who voted against Trump during the impeachment proceedings, many of whom are facing primary challengers and censures from local parties.

Longwell said the group, chaired by conservative commentator Bill Kristol, plans to continue those efforts through the 2022 midterm elections. She added that they will also explore backing both Republican and Democratic challengers to Trump allies in upcoming primary and general elections.

“How do you beat back the MAGA right that is working to dominate the entire party? That requires coming at it from a number of different angles electorally,” Longwell said.

While anti-Trump Republicans generally would like to see more center-right candidates advance out of primaries next year, not all of them would go as far as backing Democrats to ensure the former president’s loyalists are defeated.

Former Rep. Reid Ribble, a Wisconsin Republican and frequent Trump critic, said he wrote in Vice President Mike Pence for president on his ballot and voted GOP down-ticket in the last election because he still found the Democrats to be incompatible with his conservative views.

“I’m not ready to trash the Republican Party because I have a disagreement with the top of the ticket,” Ribble said. “I prefer people like me work within the party system to find great candidates.”

But even Republicans like Ribble admit that will be difficult as long as Trump maintains his grip over the party. A recent poll from Morning Consult found that 59% of GOP voters nationwide said that Trump should play a “major role” in the party going forward, up 18 percentage points from last month.

In a statement last week blistering Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, Trump promised to “back primary rivals who espouse Making America Great Again and our policy of America First.”

And the most notable early entrants into 2022 GOP primary races are taking note. In the battleground state of Ohio, two candidates running to replace retiring Republican Sen. Rob Portman — former state Treasurer Josh Mandel and former state party chair Jane Timken — are casting themselves first and foremost as Trump defenders.

Tim Miller, the former political director for Republican Voters Against Trump, said that many GOP voters who opposed Trump in the last election have left the party altogether and are functionally Democrats now, meaning that they likely won’t even participate in future Republican primaries.

“I don’t really see a role for ‘Never Trumpers’ in open GOP primaries,” Miller said. “The Republican Party now consists of people that are either actively pro-Trump or don’t think Trump was all that bad, given how bad they think the Democrats are.”

That line of thinking has led some anti-Trump Republicans to conclude that a third party would provide a more natural home. They point to a recent Gallup poll showing that 62% of Americans think a third party is needed, more than at any point since 2003, and the tens of thousands of Republican voters who have changed their party affiliation since the Capitol riot.

As Reuters first reported, a group of more than 120 former Republican officials met over Zoom earlier this month to discuss forming a conservative third party, though the idea has since gained little traction.

Prior to the impeachment vote in the Senate, Trump also reportedly floated the possibility of creating a third party called the “Patriot Party,” but quickly dropped the concept.

Former Florida Rep. David Jolly, who left the GOP in 2018, has taken a step in that direction and is now leading the Serve America Movement, or SAM Party. He said he hopes to attract a “big tent coalition” of voters of all ideologies who are tired of the two-party system.

Jolly may test whether a third party is viable in the current climate himself, saying he is laying the groundwork for an independent campaign for Florida governor. He added that he will make a final decision by the end of the year and has been in touch with other ‘Never Trump’ Republicans about the effort.

“We’ve all chosen a similar, but different direction,” Jolly said. “They’re in a fight for conservatism. ... I’m fighting for good governance.”

Some anti-Trump Republicans fear that creating a third party would backfire. They argue it would never become as powerful as the two major parties, and that if moderates leave the GOP, only Trump’s staunchest allies would remain.

“The country as a whole is moving away from Republican extremists, but it still has the Republican Party as one of the two most dominating forces,” Caldwell said. “An exodus of center-right people only means that what we can reasonably expect is far-right, extreme candidates.”

The uncertain future of The Lincoln Project is also hanging over the ‘Never Trump’ universe. The well-funded group, which was founded by former Republican operatives and gained notoriety for its viral anti-Trump ads during the 2020 election, has been under fire for its handling of sexual harassment allegations made against co-founder John Weaver.

Several of the Lincoln Project’s leaders have since resigned, but the controversy has sparked concern that the group could hinder the broader "Never Trump" cause.

“Just shut it down already ... it’s over,” tweeted Kurt Bardella, a former senior adviser to The Lincoln Project.

Elsewhere, other "Never Trumpers" are pressing on. In Pennsylvania, Craig Snyder, a Trump critic who served as chief of staff for Republican-turned-Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter, is exploring a bid for retiring GOP Sen. Pat Toomey’s seat.

Snyder said he hopes that enough candidates enter the primary and split the pro-Trump vote, giving him a lane with the sliver of Republicans who aren’t on board with the former president. He said his campaign could very well serve as a test case for whether there is still room in the party for someone like him.

“The only way to find out is to give it a try,” Synder said. “It wasn’t the party of Trump before all this, and it doesn’t need to be after Trump.”