EXTON, Pa. (Reuters) - C. Arnold McClure chairs the Republican Party in Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania - deep in Trump country - and wants to punish fellow conservatives who have turned against the former president.
McClure is among those pushing the state party to censure Pennsylvania’s Republican senator, Pat Toomey, for voting this month to convict Donald Trump, at his second impeachment trial, of inciting the U.S. Capitol riots. McClure will apply the same standard to any Republican candidate in upcoming elections who seeks support in his rural county: Those who have defended Trump will pass “our first litmus test,” he said. He has a simple question for any who have not: “What the hell?”
Other Pennsylvania party leaders say that’s a great way to keep losing elections - after Republicans ceded the White House and control of both houses of Congress to Democrats under Trump’s watch. Shunning Trump’s Republican critics “sends a wrong signal to many of those that are independents or leaning Republican,” said Sam DeMarco, the party chair in Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh.
Those dueling views encapsulate the rift among Republicans in Pennsylvania and nationally that some party leaders, along with opinion polls, suggest could imperil its chances in the 2022 congressional elections. Interviews with two dozen Republican officials, activists and political analysts reveal a deep split over strategy in Pennsylvania - a key battleground that could determine whether Republicans retake the Senate next year.
Republicans face a potentially self-destructive dynamic in statewide races: Trump loyalists may well prevail over moderate candidates in party primaries, but they are more likely to lose general campaigns against Democrats by turning off centrist voters.
“If that primary is going to be a race to the extreme right - and a race to see who is most loyal to Donald Trump - I guarantee you it will be extremely difficult for the Republican Party to win,” said Gene DiGirolamo, a Republican county commissioner in Bucks County - a Philadelphia suburb - and a former state representative.
A growing number of Republican voters are unhappy with the party’s direction, according to a Feb. 18-24 Reuters/Ipsos poll. Nearly half – 48% – of self-identified Republicans believe their party “has lost its way,” up 17 percentage points from a similar poll in December. A Reuters review of Pennsylvania state data shows more than 22,000 voters had left the party this year through Feb. 22, compared with fewer than 8,000 Democrats.
Still, many party leaders argue that turning against Trumpism isn’t the way forward. Sean Gale, an attorney and fierce Trump backer who has announced a run for Toomey’s seat, said the party has tried and failed to win elections with centrist candidates.
“Running a moderate, or a ‘Democrat-light’ Republican, to attract independents and Democrats is a proven recipe for disaster,” he said in an email. “The GOP tried this in 2008 with John McCain and 2012 with Mitt Romney.”
Trump lost Pennsylvania by more than 80,000 votes in November, four years after his upset victory there in 2016. The former president nonetheless remains the de facto leader of the Republican Party. Trump will deliver his first speech since leaving office at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Sunday in Orlando, Fla.
Trump spokesman Jason Miller did not respond to a request for comment. A Trump adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Trump plans to use his political action committee as a “weapon” against more moderate Republicans in next year’s elections.
“He’s still going to have an enormous amount of influence on both the direction of the policy and also in evaluating who is a serious standard-bearer for that message,” the adviser said.
The Republican Party’s state committee in Pennsylvania met on Wednesday to consider censuring Toomey, but the vote was derailed after a glitch with its electronic balloting system. The party had not yet rescheduled the vote early Thursday.
Trump’s brash brand of politics will be on display this Saturday in Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, when Lauren Boebert - the gun-toting freshman congresswoman from Colorado - will address gun rights at a party fundraiser.
Boebert, a fierce Trump backer, has amplified his false election-fraud claims. She’s also boosted ticket sales for the Pennsylvania fundraiser, said Robert Arena, the county party’s executive director.
“The congresswoman is a rising name,” he said.
Arena and some other Republican leaders downplayed the party rift, arguing it will be more united for the 2022 campaigns after more than a year under Democratic control in Washington.
A pivotal question: Who will they unite behind? Polls suggest Trump’s popularity has faded. About 7 in 10 Republicans approved of Trump in a Jan. 8-12 Reuters/Ipsos poll taken during his last month in office, down from as high as 9 in 10 last year.
Still, no other Republican comes close to being perceived as the party’s standard-bearer. Reuters/Ipsos polling between Feb. 18 and 24 asked Republican voters to pick from a list of prominent Republicans, not including Trump, who they thought embodied the qualities of an American leader. Texas Senator Ted Cruz, a chief Trump backer, polled highest, at 22%. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell - who has recently blasted Trump over his role in the Capitol riots - was favored by just 3%, the same as firebrand congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has been widely criticized for promoting conspiracy theories.
REPUBLICAN CIVIL WAR ‘CANCELED’
Asked about the attempt to censure Toomey, the party’s national Senate campaign organization pointed to comments this week from Senator Rick Scott, its chairman, declaring that the “Republican civil war has been cancelled.”
“Those fanning these flames, in both the media and our own ranks, desire a GOP civil war,” he wrote in a memo. “No, we don’t have time for that.”
The infighting won’t be so easy to wish away, said John Kennedy, a political science professor at West Chester University in Chester County. The increasingly Trumpian base of Republican voters, he said, will make it difficult for any moderate to win Pennsylvania’s party primaries, in which only Republicans vote.
Some analysts and moderate Republicans noted that the party tried nominating Trump-like candidates for Senate and governor in 2018, and they lost by double digits. Others compared the current insurgency to the Tea Party movement that divided Republicans a decade ago, when Tea Party-backed candidates were blamed for party losses in Senate elections.
Howard Merrick, the chairman of the Republican committee in Schuylkill County, a Trump stronghold, said that voters leaving the party are not necessarily just anti-Trump moderates. They also include Trump supporters who are furious with his Republican critics - and who still believe Trump’s claims that he lost a rigged election.
“There are people who are very, very mad at everything that happened,” he said. “Most are mad at Congress - those senators like Toomey who have not stood up for Trump.”
Yet Merrick believes the effort to censure Toomey would only further undermine the party. “It hurts us to do this,” he said.
FROM RELIABLE CONSERVATIVE TO REVILED TRAITOR
Toomey’s Senate seat in Pennsylvania is up for grabs because he has announced he will not run for re-election in 2022.
The Senate is currently divided 50-50, with Democrats in power because Vice President Kamala Harris has the tie-breaking vote. Losing in Pennsylvania - widely seen as the most competitive 2022 Senate race - would make it much harder for Republicans to retake the chamber.
The changing perception of Toomey, who declined an interview request, illustrates the party’s shift toward Trumpism. Once considered a reliable conservative, he’s now reviled as a traitor among some Trump backers. Toomey launched his first Senate run in 2004 against incumbent Republican Arlen Specter, who was ridiculed back then as a “RINO” – a Republican in Name Only, an insult now hurled at Toomey.
Many Republicans’ demands for absolute loyalty to Trump worry Ryan Costello, a moderate former Republican congressman and Trump critic who is close to launching a bid for Toomey’s seat.
“They’re demanding absolutism,” Costello said of Trump’s political operation. “If that’s what it takes to get his support, that’s a recipe for general election losses.”
Reporting by Nathan Layne and Joseph Ax; additional reporting by Chris Kahn, Jason Lange, David Morgan and Steve Holland; editing by Soyoung Kim, Colleen Jenkins and Brian Thevenot
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