Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of columns exploring the future of the Republican Party and the conservative movement.
When Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney lost her primary in August, it raised many questions about who is still welcome in the Republican Party.
Because it’s hard to get more conservative than Cheney, the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney. She even had a record of voting with former President Donald Trump 93% of the time.
She has described herself as a “conservative Republican” who believes “deeply in the policies of limited government, of low taxes, of a strong national defense.”
Yet after Jan. 6, 2021, when Trump supporters stormed the Capitol and Trump didn’t do enough to stop it, Cheney had enough. Her involvement in congressional hearings investigating the riot and her decision to vote to impeach Trump after that Jan. 6 did not endear her to the party faithful.
Do traditional conservatives like the Cheneys, Bushes and Romneys still have a home in the GOP? Or is Trumpism the new standard moving forward?
Overriding takeaway for conservatives
Answers to those questions are complicated. The overriding takeaway for conservatives, however, is that the Republican Party is still the best place for those who hold the ideals of small government and personal responsibility.
The challenge for the GOP is to keep those Republicans in the fold while the new Trump-aligned activists aim for a bigger role and push conspiracies and an agenda that doesn’t mesh with mainstream conservatism – and in some cases threatens democracy itself.
Some top party leaders are seeking to look beyond Trump and the 2020 election and focus on bringing Republicans together in a united front against Democrats and their big-government agenda. Trump’s influence within the party is waning, but with about a third in the GOP still loyal to him, other Republican leaders have to walk a tightrope of appealing to the Trump wing while also trying to move forward.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, for example, has repeatedly distanced himself from Trump and noted this year that it was more important for the GOP to have electable candidates than Trump loyalists. Trump fired back at McConnell recently, using violent and racist rhetoric that earned bipartisan condemnation.
It illustrates the challenges that GOP leaders face if they publicly split with the former president: Trump not only fights back with disproportionate force but also rouses his remaining supporters for an intraparty battle.
‘Keeping the lights on’
Recent primaries and elections haven’t been all bad news for the Republicans who would just as soon move on from Trump and his grip on the party. Trump’s stamp of approval undoubtedly helped candidates get across the finish line in some cases, but that wasn’t the case in numerous races.
Liz Mair, president of Mair Strategies and a Republican consultant, pointed to states – especially in the South – that turned their back on Trump candidates as proof that there is still a future for those who don’t embrace Trump or his bombastic style of politics .
“Look at the state of Georgia,” Mair said. “(Most of) Trump’s candidates got completely blown out there, and the people who vigorously opposed him won big in their primaries – and will probably win their general elections fairly easily, too. (California) Rep. David Valadao who voted to impeach survived his primary earlier this year. Billy Long was easily the Trumpiest candidate in the Missouri Senate race and he got nowhere. Rep. Nancy Mace (of South Carolina) did a little bit to cozy back up to Trump but was widely viewed as having gone anti-Trump in Congress, and she’s still with us.”
Trump-backed candidate wins primary: Democrats should hang their heads in shame for helping out principled Republican
Trump-endorsed candidates did have more success in the Rust Belt, where Trump still has traction and clout, Mair said, but he has less sway in the South.
Former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said the future won’t be easy for conservatives like him and Cheney who want to stay within the party but who are increasing ostracized by activated Trump voters and candidates.
“How do you operate inside of it? I think that’s going to be a challenge,” Steele told me. “You know, I refer to myself as a Motel 6 Republican these days because someone’s got to keep the lights on, right? The problem is with these SOBs that keep coming by the porch and shooting the light out. They don’t want the light on. They don’t want the light that Reagan talked about. They don’t want the light that Lincoln professed to the nation. And it’s heartening, but it’s real. So what do you do with that?
“I think that’s the interesting challenge and opportunity for folks like myself and others who stay inside the party to carve out and create a new space.”
Who’s a ‘real’ Republican?
Cheney is far from alone in the predicament she finds herself. Plenty of conservatives are labeled as “RINOs” by Trump loyalists, who believe that fealty belongs to the former president and not to long-standing principles and ideologies.
In Michigan, it has been strange to see members of the powerful billionaire DeVos family slapped with the “Republican in name only” label, after decades of loyal giving to the Republican Party and supporting conservative causes and candidates. Trump even chose Betsy DeVos to serve as his Education secretary, but since she resigned after the Jan. 6 riot, some Trumpers have taken to insulting the DeVoses and treating them like the enemy.
Betsy DeVos: Trump’s actions on Jan. 6 were ‘line in the sand’ that led to resign
John Engler, a former three-term Republican governor of Michigan, said he has also been called a RINO, despite a long conservative record in politics and business. He said as new members join the party, they start thinking they have all the answers and want to distance themselves from the “old way” of thinking.
“I’ve had some people suggest that after having a reputation as a conservative, pragmatic governor who solved problems that I’m a Republican in name only,” Engler said. “And I like to point out that I’d won 10 elections before Donald Trump had stopped contributing to Hillary Clinton.”
Despite that, Engler said there is still room in the party for traditional conservatives like himself. He makes a distinction between candidates who become governors and those who go to Congress. Engler spent many years in Washington with the National Association of Manufacturers and Business Roundtable, and he was appalled by the lack of fiscal constraint he saw.
“We have a very strong base among governors on the question of fiscal responsibility because they all come from states where we’re constitutionally required to balance budgets,” he said. “I think that’s different than Washington.”
Stay and fight?
Michael Meyers, president of TargetPoint Consulting, has worked with presidential candidates such as George W. Bush, Mitt Romney and John McCain, and he said the GOP is in a time of change, just as it is for the Democratic Party. As the parties transition, there is more energy at the poles and not as much in the middle.
For conservatives who still believe in smaller government and lower taxes, Meyers said, all hope isn’t lost: “There is still room in the party for all those people.”
And let’s face it. There aren’t many great alternatives for those who don’t feel as at home in the GOP as they once did. Some have switched parties, become independent or have just one on the sidelines. Yet the fact remains that there are still two primary political parties – and most voters will continue to choose one or the other. As Democrats move further to the left, non-Trump Republicans aren’t likely to cast their conservative principles aside completely.
As Meyers asked, “If you don’t like the current direction, do you want to stay and fight for what you think is right? Or move to the Democratic Party, which is not welcoming at all?”
Opinion alerts: Get columns from your favorite columnists + expert analysis on top issues, delivered straight to your device through the USA TODAY app. Don’t have the app? Download it for free from your app store.
Looking to the future, RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said there is room for unity among the GOP if the party can come together and fight back against Democratic policies. McDaniel, who is the nicer of Sen. Mitt Romney and was also chosen for her post by Trump, bridges the divide between traditional conservatives and the Trump Republicans. The goal must be winning back the US House and Senate, she said.
“I think we all have to have our eye focused on winning, and we’re going to be so much more effective,” McDaniel said. “There are so many things that the Democrats are turning their backs on when the American people are truly suffering. So as Republicans, we’re here to be a voice for Americans who are hurting and that are being ignored by the Democratic Party right now.
“I always say, let’s win now and we can fight later, but let’s focus on what we need to do.”
Meet the team
COLUMNISTS: Ingrid Jacques, Chris Schlak, Tim Swarens, John Wood Jr.
EDITORS: Kristen DelGuzzi, Louie Villalobos, Thuan Le Elston, Tim Swarens
DIGITAL PRODUCTION AND DEVELOPMENT: Ryan Marx, Reid Williams
SOCIAL MEDIA, ENGAGEMENT AND PROMOTION: Janessa Hilliard
You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to [email protected].
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump vs conservatives: Can Republicans hold the party together?