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Donald Trump’s iron grip on the GOP: Why Republicans stick with him

President Trump speaks during a roundtable discussion at Gateway Church in Dallas on Thursday.
President Trump speaks during a roundtable discussion at Gateway Church in Dallas on Thursday.
(Alex Brandon / Associated Press)

After Randall Ritnour, a lifelong Republican in Lincoln, Neb., attacked President Trump in a video, his own brother denounced him. Ryan Rapier, a Republican in Thatcher, Ariz., who announced he would vote for Joe Biden, worried it could cost him his seat on the City Council. When Jennifer Horn, former chair of the New Hampshire Republican Party, was photographed with Biden, a GOP committee rescinded a special service award it had given her.

It’s never been easy to be an anti-Trump Republican, and even now, as the president endures a dark political hour, it’s no easier.

Trump’s standing in nearly all public polls is eroding. He has inflamed racial tensions in the wake of the George Floyd killing. He’s endured unprecedented criticism from former military leaders.

Yet Trump’s grip on the Republican Party remains so strong that only a handful of GOP elected officials have publicly criticized him, fearful of bringing down the wrath of the president or his supporters.

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At odds with the military, snubbed by foreign leaders and trailing in polls, President Trump faces several crises worsened by his own miscalculations.

After each controversial episode — the use of force against mostly peaceful protesters in a park in front of the White House to allow Trump to stage a photo opportunity, then his tweets promoting the groundless claim that a 75-year-old Buffalo protester pushed to the ground by police officers and left to bleed was a left-wing provocateur who faked being shoved — television cameras in the Capitol have captured a parade of Senate Republicans walking by and refusing to comment.

“There is no political incentive for elected Republicans to leave his side,” said Brendan Buck, a former aide to House Speaker Paul Ryan, who had an uneasy relationship with Trump before retiring from Congress in 2019.

“Members of Congress are not afraid of Trump; they are afraid of their voters and constituents,” said Buck. “As long as he has a stranglehold on them and is able to communicate directly with them, this is not going to change.”

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There have been some exceptions, but the tiny headcount of those in opposition is an emblem of how completely Trump has taken over the Republican Party — and, some fear, may leave it in a shambles if he loses in 2020.

“He’s got us on the wrong side of every emerging demographic,” said one senior Republican in Congress who asked not to be named discussing anxieties about Trump.

“Donald Trump doesn’t think long term. I care a lot about the future of the Republican Party, and it needs some serious work.”

Trump has held onto the support of most Republicans so far in part because he has delivered tax cuts, deregulation and other traditional GOP priorities, and they are loathe to cede power to an increasingly left-leaning Democratic Party.

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A poll earlier this month by Monmouth University that found Biden leading Trump 52% to 41% also found that 93% of Republicans said they would vote for Trump and 84% viewed him favorably.

The cornerstone of Trump’s reelection campaign is to focus more on mobilizing his base than expanding his appeal.

“He is leading a historically united party,” said Tim Murtaugh, Trump’s campaign spokesman.

Still, some of his supporters acknowledge that Trump’s prospects have been abruptly upended by the pandemic-induced economic and health crises, and by the wave of protest following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

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When former House Speaker Newt Gingrich finished the first draft of a book about Trump in February, he said, the tone was “triumphalist.” He has since had to rewrite it.

“Boom, everything blew up,” he said.

“It’s very hard for Trump to win a Trump-versus-Biden personality campaign,” said Gingrich, who is urging Republicans to reframe 2020 as a choice between Trump and a radical, anarchic opposition party.

Helping squelch GOP dissenters is the high political mortality rate among past Trump critics: Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina and Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Bob Corker of Tennessee were all defeated or driven into retirement.

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“The Republicans that have spoken out against the president have faced severe electoral consequences,” said Sanford, who lost his House seat after Trump backed his primary opponent in 2018.

Those who have dared criticize Trump are mostly unelected or retired Republicans or elected officials with an especially secure political base.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) last week welcomed an extraordinary critique of Trump by former Defense Secretary James N. Mattis, and said she was “struggling” over whether to vote for Trump in 2020. Trump, in a tweet, promised to campaign against her when she is up for reelection in 2022.

Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski says she’s ‘struggling’ over supporting Trump given his handling of the coronavirus and George Floyd crises.

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But Murkowski could shrug off the threat because she has a strong Alaska brand — her father was a long-serving senator and governor — and a distinctive political base: She was elected in 2010 as a write-in candidate after losing the GOP primary to a tea party challenger; she won the GOP nomination in a landslide in 2016.

Another Republican who has repeatedly criticized Trump with impunity is Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming. She has objected to his proposed troop reductions in Germany and Syria, and his recent tweets promoting a baseless conspiracy theory about MSNBC host Joe Scarborough. Still, not an ill word about her has issued from Trump or his Twitter account.

A member of the House GOP leadership, Cheney has little fear of political fallout back home, even though Trump is wildly popular in Wyoming. She benefits from a blue-chip political pedigree: She is the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, who earlier represented Wyoming in the House.

“She is not terrified by Donald Trump,” said Alan Simpson, a former GOP senator from Wyoming. “She won’t lose a single vote.”

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Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah has criticized Trump’s tweets, joined in a Black Lives Matter march, and was the only Republican to vote against Trump during his impeachment trial. Romney is basking in the political freedom of a 73-year-old former presidential nominee who comes from a red state where Trump is unusually unpopular.

Susan Collins of Maine, one of the most vulnerable Senate Republicans facing reelection in 2020, was also among those who criticized Trump’s recent photo op after protesters were cleared by force from Lafayette Square outside the White House. She deliberately stayed away from her home state when he visited last week. But, perhaps in a concession to her fragile political position in a swing state, Trump did not criticize her for it.

Horn, who founded an anti-Trump political action committee called the Lincoln Project with other disaffected Republicans, bristles at the political fear of Trump gripping so many in the party.

“It is outrageous that so few elected Republicans have had the courage to do the right thing,” she said. The group reaped a fundraising bonanza after Trump attacked it on Twitter after viewing a scathing ad.

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Some anti-Trump Republicans have all but given up trying to persuade elected officials to publicly join their cause. Instead, longtime Trump critics — including Bill Kristol, a conservative writer, and Tim Miller, who advised former Gov. Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign — have started a new group, Republican Voters Against Trump, that focuses on mobilizing rank-and-file GOP voters.

The group asks people to submit iPhone videos of anti-Trump testimonials, which it plans to turn into $10 million worth of digital and broadcast ads.

Participants say they suffer blowback not just for opposing Trump, but even more for backing Biden.

“They shake their heads, they think I’m crazy,” Rintour, a former district attorney, said referring to his Republican friends.

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Rapier, who won his City Council seat by just seven votes, wonders if his 2020 apostasy would haunt him when he next runs for reelection in his ruby-red community.

“But I felt I couldn’t be someone who sits back with my mouth shut and shake my head in wonder,” he said. “I had to say something,”


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