The Grand Old Party is at a crossroads.
Everyone from pundits to party leaders has a finger in the air trying to determine which way conservatives and conservative-leaning independents are moving after four years of Donald Trump.
Traditional Republicans would like to move on and act like the past four years didn’t happen, but the former president continues to captivate the base with an approval rating consistently in the low 40 percent range.
Trump has no intention of exiting the national stage, either.
He has set up a "party-in-exile" at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida and insisting that his Save America PAC, which has $85 million in the bank thanks to small-dollar individual donors, is the rightful recipient of followers’ political donations. He’s also establishing a super PAC ahead of the 2022 midterms and handing out endorsements to anti-establishment candidates like indulgences.
These are uncertain times for Republican incumbents. This helps to explain why so many have decided to retire rather than risk having to run a gauntlet of angry Trump loyalists in the primaries and then turn around and face a far more moderate electorate in the general election.
Republicans need to separate the populism of Trump from his cult-of-personality politics without alienating his blue-collar base or suburban moderates who are key to retaking Congress.
Allowing Trump to drive the Republican family car after he crashed the last one would be a mistake. Trump may not be the guy you want behind the wheel, but there’s plenty of life left in his America First platform that could carry a more polished candidate to victory.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., has emerged as the most likely successor to the Trump brand. DeSantis has adopted Trump’s direct approach with the media while backing it up with real policy chops. Others have tried to grab baton and stumbled.
Once a darling of the Tea Party, Nikki Haley has struggled to emerge from Trump’s shadow after being his leading defender up until Jan. 6.
Whoever steps into Trump’s shoes will have to credibly address some of the more shocking claims made by the former president, including election fraud and conspiracy theories.
There’s a reason Trump lost the 2020 election while Republicans gained seats in the House. Trump had several viable paths to re-election in 2020 but couldn’t get out of his own way. Voters liked his policies on immigration, energy security, economic growth; yet, it could be argued they tired of the Donald reality TV show, so to speak.
Trump provided a much-needed shot in the arm for the GOP, which for too long was preoccupied with trying to recapture the high of the Reagan years to notice how the makeup of its base has shifted. Polls show Republicans are increasingly becoming the party of the working man and that blue-collar workers are shifting away from Democrats as that party focuses on issues of social justice and equity.
For all his faults, Trump’s populist brand still resonates with those voters. While the former president can be brash, he’s also far more interesting than the typical Brooks Brother-wearing politician. At least Trump was entertaining. People like spectacle – all the better if there’s a chance it might end up in a fiery crash, which Trump at times provided.
While the majority of Trump’s supporters disapproved of his post-election claims, they also didn’t take him too seriously. Voters have become more cynical and are less likely to take the utterances of politicians literally, which means a lot of Trump’s supporters came for the show but stayed for the policies.
Trump’s platform of pride in America and looking after America’s interests first strikes a chord with so many of those voters.
American voters remain highly partisan and unlikely to switch sides. Instead, they are more likely to stay home if there’s no candidate on the ballot that speaks to them. Republicans need to deliver what voters liked about Trump while leaving the cult-of-personality behind to ensure these voters turn out.
Picking out a path between Trump’s style and his policies won’t be easy.
But if Republicans want to win back either one or both chambers of Congress in 2022 and the White House in 2024, they must find a way to do it.
Dan K. Eberhart is CEO of Canary oilfield services and private equity firm Eberhart Capital, which has manufacturing, trucking and construction operations across the Heartland. Dan writes regularly on the intersection of energy policy, the economy and politics. He’s author of two books on energy. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona. Follow him on Twitter @DanKEberhart.
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