Never-Trump movement splinters as its villain heads for the exitDecember 17, 2020
The defeat of Donald Trump might have been the easy part for never-Trump Republicans. Next up: taking on the more elusive target of Trumpism with their boogeyman gone from office.
More than a dozen leaders of the never-Trump movement said in interviews that they see their work as far from over once Joe Biden is sworn in on Jan. 20. They want to keep the heat on Republicans who serve as Trump foot soldiers and to provide cover for those who reject far-out conspiracy theories and attacks on democracy.
But how to do it is another story. After beating Trump and creating a permission structure for some GOP voters to back Biden, the task now, they said, is to turn back Republicans’ embrace of authoritarianism and transform their party in the process. But ask each of the never-Trump leaders what that means, and you get a different answer from each of them.
They admit the task ahead is daunting — they’re vastly outnumbered in a party dominated by Trump even after his defeat.
“The reality is, is there a market for an anti-Trump Republican Party now?” said Stuart Stevens, a longtime Republican operative and member of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project. “I would say no.”
Just keeping the never-Trump coalition together “will be a challenge in and of itself,” said Evan McMullin, who mounted a conservative third-party presidential bid in 2016. Moving forward, the movement has to “bring more Republicans on to our side of this fight.”
Some said they intend to shield Republican lawmakers who stand up to Trump. Others floated forming a third party. And still others want to direct their energies toward rebuilding trust in government and using Trump’s ouster as momentum for reforms on government ethics, taking a page from the post-Watergate playbook.
“Can we recruit never-Trumpers to run? Can we find moderate candidates to run, is that the best thing to do? Is the best thing to do to be more helpful to Biden? I don’t think there’s any clear answers right now,” said Tim Miller, a former spokesperson for Jeb Bush and a leading never-Trumper who left the Republican Party in November.
Trumpism isn’t going anywhere. The repudiation of GOP candidates up and down the ballot that never-Trumpers longed for never materialized, and Trump is already teasing a 2024 comeback bid. If he runs again, that would keep the activists united, but many are skeptical he’ll follow through. Polls show that two-thirds of Republican voters think Trump didn’t legitimately lose. And more than 120 Republican House lawmakers signed their names to a lawsuit filed by the state of Texas that attempted to subvert the will of the electorate.
Nudging Biden toward the center
Some never-Trump leaders said their biggest point of leverage is within the Biden administration and the Democratic Party, not the GOP. They’re looking to leverage friendships they’ve forged within Biden’s circle to pull the new president toward the center — all but ensuring he will be squeezed by the left and right. Biden’s coalition included a record number of crossover endorsements from past Republican officials at all levels of government.
“We can be a reminder that it’s a dangerous path to start moving too far left,” said Mickey Edwards, a former Republican congressman and co-founder of the conservative Heritage Foundation. “I have friends already who are going to be in good positions in the administration, and that’s just a phone call [away]. We’ll have a pipeline into the administration.”
Bill Kristol, a leading figure in the anti-Trump movement, said that “never-Trump Republicans are a small but potentially important part of the overall Biden governing coalition.” If Biden tries to pass an immigration bill, for instance, they could help by touting provisions popular with Republicans and moderates.
“It could be ads. It could be private meetings. It could be talking to business leaders or to … members of Congress,” he said. “Never-Trumpers can help the Biden administration govern successfully.”
Though several of the never-Trumpers don’t consider themselves Democrats, they aren’t too concerned about the success of the current GOP, either. Edwards said all of the anti-Trump Republicans he knows want the Republican candidates in the Georgia Senate runoffs to lose because a GOP-controlled Senate will stymie a Biden agenda. And a do-nothing Biden presidency would optimize conditions for “another Trump” in four years, he said.
Lincoln Party teams with Dems in Georgia
The Lincoln Project, which drew buzz throughout the year with its viral anti-Trump ads, plans to do what it did throughout 2020: Troll Trump evangelists.
Though the group failed to defeat most of the Republican Senate candidates it campaigned against, Lincoln Project leaders still said they see themselves playing an “accountability” role in the Georgia runoffs and beyond.
“At this point, we’re as much never-Republican as we are anything else,” said Reed Galen, co-founder of the group.
The Lincoln Project is “coordinating” with a larger coalition of Democratic and civil rights groups — including Stacey Abrams’ Fair Fight, Senate Majority PAC, the NAACP and BlackPAC — on how “we can be helpful to them either with [polling], staff support or financial support,” Galen said.
In a new TV and digital ad launching soon, the Lincoln Project hits Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) for stock trading after attending a private Senate briefing about the spreading coronavirus. The ad, first shared with POLITICO, strikes a populist tone that contrasts Loeffler’s wealth — her mansion in Georgia and villa in Sea Island — with Americans struggling during the pandemic.
In the longer term, the 18 Republican attorneys general and majority of House Republicans who backed the failed Texas lawsuit are “not going to get a free pass,” Galen said. “They don’t get to run themselves through the car wash on Jan. 21 and say, ‘Just kidding, we didn’t mean it.’”
Raising money without Trump in the White House to motivate donors is bound to be another challenge for the movement. Lincoln Project leaders said they expect fundraising to dip after the Georgia runoffs, but they’re confident their creativity in ads and messaging will draw attention that helps bring in money. Kristol said “our donors think we made a difference in 2020” and want the group to keep it up.
A secretive anti-Trump group plots what’s next
But the path forward for the never-Trump movement writ large is far from clear. A recent email to attendees of the secretive anti-Trump gathering known as the Meeting of the Concerned, which was obtained by POLITICO, illustrates the crossroads that some never-Trumpers face.
With Trump soon leaving office, “it’s worth thinking through what new functions the meetings can or should serve,” Geoff Kabaservice, an organizer of the meeting, wrote to his allies.
He then requested that they fill out a questionnaire, which asked everything from, “Do you believe that, after Trump leaves office, the Republican Party can become a positive force in American political life?” to “Would you prefer to direct your political efforts over the next two years to reforming the GOP, or to supporting the Democrats or a third party?”
Kabaservice said because the meetings are confidential, he could not discuss the specific findings of the poll. But he said those in the movement “worry a little about what’s going to keep us together” after Trump leaves office.
Some believe in “renovating and restoring the Republican Party.” Others say, “Good riddance, and it all needs to be burned down.” As for forming a third party, Kaberservice said, there’s a “huge difference of opinion.”
Sarah Longwell, co-founder of the anti-Trump Republicans for the Rule of Law, said her mission is twofold: Keep fighting attacks by Trump on the election system and protect Republicans who break with Trump or who work with Democrats.
Her group dropped nearly $1 million in Georgia, Pennsylvania and Michigan defending GOP officials who certified election results in recent weeks. Longwell’s group also launched its first-ever ad buy on Newsmax — a far-right outlet that’s become a favorite of Trump’s — to challenge the misinformation served up to Trump voters at the source. And if Trump runs again, she’ll keep her other organization, Republican Voters Against Trump, going.
Longwell also said, “We want to be there to help provide air support for Republicans who are trying to find a way to work together on sensible things” with Biden, such as infrastructure legislation or reforms that rein in executive power.
A new party?
The Republican Party’s attempts to overturn the election results, including a coming last-ditch effort on the House floor and threats of violence by GOP officials, stunned never-Trumpers. It spurred McMullin to ask in a New York Times op-ed this week whether it was time to form a new conservative party.
That may “include running our own candidates in Republican primaries,” he said in an interview with POLITICO.
“I wouldn’t advocate for starting a new party without the support of some sitting officials in Congress or elsewhere,” McMullin said. “We’re inching closer to a point in which that might be possible.”
Some leading never-Trump groups have started discussing which Trump loyalists to target in primaries. Among the possibilities: Republican Reps. Louie Gohmert of Texas, Andy Biggs of Arizona, Chris Stewart of Utah, Jim Jordan of Ohio and Paul Gosar of Arizona. They may also challenge Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) by lending support to a Democrat. Conversations are in early stages, however, and targets could change depending on which party wins the Senate.
The amorphous nature of the never-Trump movement is plain in the individuals who compose it. Some have done what they once considered unthinkable and become Democrats. Others said they’re not Democrats, but they aren’t Republicans either, making it harder to plot their next moves.
“I don’t see a place for me to get elected to anything in the next four years because Trump and Trumpism is going to dominate,” said former Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.). “I’m going to probably be in the political wilderness for the rest of my life.”
Stevens, of the Lincoln Project, is willing to work for Republicans but is more focused on helping Democrats be a “governing” party.
“Basically, the choice now dividing the parties is not so much ideological as pro-democracy or pro-authoritarian,” Stevens said. “It’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen. We’ve had authoritarian movements in America before, but we’ve never had one so embraced by a majority of a party to throw out election results.”