Fight for the GOP's Future Has Already Started
If Donald Trump falls short of winning the presidency, Republicans anticipate a spirited, urgent debate over the direction the party should take in the aftermath.
Indeed, that discussion has already begun.
On Oct. 11, a group of three dozen prominent conservative thinkers, whose brand of Republicanism has been in exile during Trump’s candidacy, met one block from the White House at Old Ebbitt Grill in downtown Washington, D.C.
They convened to discuss privately some of the questions that have regularly bubbled up into the public sphere this year: Would Trump’s brand of Republicanism end with his candidacy, or would its effects come to bear on the party long after Election Day? Could the Republican Party be reformed, or would anti-Trump conservatives be better off starting from scratch? The group sought to make sense of Trump’s rise and to come to grips with the party that enabled it.
Attendees included Evan McMullin, the former House Republican staffer whose upstart campaign for president has put deep-red Utah in play, and Mindy Finn, his running mate. McMullin spoke about the meeting with RealClearPolitics, and another source confirmed details about where and when it took place.
“Some people in the room were thinking more traditionally: We need to reform the Republican Party. Others were thinking we’ve got to build something new,” McMullin said. “And then there were some people ... who argued that it was too hard to build something new, and we just need to reform the Republican Party, and they were making the argument that it could happen.”
A PowerPoint presentation by the latter faction included a slide that read, simply, “47 percent,” a figure well known to those in the room as the share of Republican primary votes won by Trump.
“They thought that was evidence of, it’s not a majority who are supporting Trump, therefore we can reform this thing,” McMullin said. “But the reality is, having been on the inside of this, I know that even if the support for Donald Trump was 30 percent or 25 percent, that’s enough to control who’s the speaker of the House, it’s enough to create major havoc in policymaking. It’s a big deal.”
“Forty-seven percent means you can’t make change,” McMullin added. “It means you can’t reform the party while keeping the party together.”
Polling suggests the GOP has remained divided on Trump even as most Republicans have backed him during the general election. In a New York Times/CBS News poll released Thursday, 39 percent of Republicans said Trump’s candidacy has been “good for the party,” while 41 percent judged that it has had a negative impact.
In challenging Trump and Clinton for the presidency, McMullin hoped to seize on that Republican angst and act as an outlet for it. He has successfully done so in Utah, where polling suggests roughly one-third of the state’s voters support him — an enormous share for a third-party candidate.
That surge of voters rejecting Trump, and to a lesser extent Clinton, has heartened some Republicans searching for a glimmer of hope for the party’s future, a small signal though it may be.
“It’s definitely validated many of our assumptions on where the American people are,” said Boyd Matheson, a former chief of staff to Utah Sen. Mike Lee. Lee has announced he will not support Trump.
Since Matheson stepped down from Lee’s office in January, he has marinated full time on the same questions haunting many Republican Party professionals. He has, in his words, “been solely focused on obsessing about the Wednesday [after Election Day], and what happens when we all get up in the morning.”
“We’re not on the verge of a civil war,” Matheson said of his party. “I think we’re on the verge of a civil debate.”
But whether the debate will be productive is an open question for Matheson and others.
“My worry for the GOP is, they’re going to do all these autopsies and all these things, but what they’re basically going to do is say, ‘We’re going to take our yellow taxis and paint them red, instead of trying to compete with an Uber-ized world,” Matheson said.
“Whether the parties can adapt is a huge question mark, because they’re so invested in the past,” he added. “Rarely are people who created the bureaucracy capable of reinventing the organization.”
As a symbolic leader of the anti-Trump strain among Republicans, McMullin is still assessing what his role in the debate would be. He is not optimistic that the party will adapt or reform, he says, but he does remain open to the idea that it might.
“I’m open to being a part of it, but at the end of the day, if the Republican Party is going to go down the road of Trumpism, which is white nationalism and populism, then I can’t be a part of that,” McMullin said. Ditto, he predicted, for other conservatives who value the principles he does. “And that’s just the way it is. And we’ll have to start something new, if that’s the case.”
As the group of conservatives pondered this future last month at Old Ebbitt, they discussed whether Trumpism would begin to fade after Nov. 8, were the Republican nominee to lose. McMullin, at least, thinks not.
“He’s going to have a voice after this election, even though I expect him to lose, and he’s going to command support of people who share his white nationalist, xenophobic, bigoted ideas,” McMullin said. “That’s not going away.”