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Confronted with an unexpected moment of reckoning, some moderate Republicans are pointing out the party has some important decisions to make about its future:
- Are they going to be the party of former President Donald Trump or a party that wins elections?
- Are they going to be able to excise the “extremism” in their party that more Republicans are openly talking about?
The first indication of where the party is headed will come this week when Republicans, anticipating they will ultimately hold a slim House majority, choose their nominee for speaker.
Some of the most Trump-aligned lawmakers want Rep. Kevin McCarthy to commit to a more combative stance against the Biden administration. While McCarthy expects to prevail, the unfolding drama will show what he has to sacrifice to keep Republicans in the House on the same page. CNN reported Monday that Trump has been quietly working to shore up support for McCarthy.
A third run
But coming to terms with the full scale of their election failure won’t be easy for Republicans, and it may be impossible if Trump can block out challengers and maintain his hold over the party.
Speaking of challengers, former Vice President Mike Pence is becoming more carefully critical of Trump as he dives into a tour to promote his new book, “So Help Me God,” and considers his own next move.
Pence will be on CNN Wednesday night for a town hall with Jake Tapper at 9 p.m. ET.
A long pause
The difficulty of Pence’s predicament – trying to distinguish himself from Trump without triggering Trump and his followers – was abundantly clear when ABC’s David Muir asked Pence about Trump’s tweet during the January 6, 2021, insurrection, that the then-vice president lacked “courage” to overturn election results.
Pence paused for a very long time before saying the tweet angered him.
“But I turned to my daughter, who was standing nearby. And I said, ‘It doesn’t take courage to break the law, it takes courage to uphold the law.’ The president’s words were reckless. It was clear he decided to be part of the problem,” Pence said.
Moving beyond extremism
Two moderate Republican governors who will be handing over their jobs to Democrats next year are speaking out about how their party failed in a year when it should have romped.
“Voters, generally speaking, especially in battleground states, aren’t interested in extremism. They just aren’t,” Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker told CNN’s Jake Tapper in an interview that aired Monday on “The Lead.” Baker, who will be replaced by Democratic attorney general Maura Healey in January, said Trump’s influence hurt Republicans on Election Day and is driving people from the party.
It was a wide-ranging talk and Baker also had some interesting comments about social media, which he said is giving power to the fringes of politics and society. But it’s his hot take on the midterms that might have the most resonance for a party that was expecting a “red wave,” but now feels adrift.
“One of the big lessons that the Republican Party nationally needs to take away from (the midterms) is voters want collaborative elected officials. They don’t want extremes,” Baker said.
Third strike for Trump
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, long a Trump critic, was more unvarnished in his criticism during an interview Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“Commonsense conservatives that focused on talking about issues people cared about, like the economy and crime and education, they did win,” Hogan told Dana Bash. “But people who tried to relitigate the 2020 election and focused on conspiracy theories and talked about things the voters didn’t care about, they were almost universally rejected.”
In that regard, American voters were sophisticated, splitting tickets to elect Republicans in certain races and Democrats in others.
Hogan, who will be replaced by Democrat Wes Moore in January, said this is the third straight election Trump has cost Republicans. “It’s like three strikes, you’re out,” he said, adding, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result. And Donald Trump kept saying, ‘We’re going to be winning so much, we will get tired of winning.’ I’m tired of losing. I mean, that’s all he’s done.”
Others are not quite as direct, even if they’re saying some similar things.
Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, who was reelected in a state that backs Democrats, also thinks voters are fed up with extremism.
“What I think people said was, ‘Look, we can work on these policies later, but as Americans, we got to fix extremism right now,’” he said on ABC News on Sunday, although he did not exactly equate extremism with Trump’s politics.
“I think there’s an extreme left and an extreme right. In this sense, I think a lot of folks are saying, ‘Look, it’s not about payback, it’s about solving problems,’ right?”
Republicans should have romped
The pieces were there for a “red wave”:
- Joe Biden is an unpopular president, whose approval rating is under 50% and has at times been under 40%.
- He failed to inspire confidence in the economy.
- More Republicans showed up to vote than Democrats.
But the emerging narrative is that Trump and his toxic baggage cost Republican candidates the support of moderate and independent voters and, by extension, control of the Senate, multiple governorships and a more commanding House majority. CNN has not projected which party will control the House next year as West Coast votes continue to be counted. Republicans are on track to have an extremely slim majority.
Trump blames everyone else
Trump has been casting about on his social media network, Truth Social, for someone to blame. So far, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is Trump’s favorite target, although he has also turned on Gov. Glenn Youngkin, the Republican who found a way to win in blue Virginia last year, and Ron DeSantis, who helped turn Florida into a red state this year.
McConnell is likely to remain as minority leader despite Trump’s active public campaign to get Republican senators to try someone new.
Republicans need to broaden horizons
Tapper asked Baker why Republicans aren’t moving to embrace a moderate like him who can win a blue state, and Baker admitted that his brand of northeast Republican “looks and acts a little different than most of many of the Republicans around the country.”
“It’s a 50-state country. And that’s part of what makes it beautiful and gorgeous and also what creates a lot of the noise that goes on at the national level,” Baker said, arguing Republicans need to “broaden our horizons and get beyond what I would call the core of the party and to start talking to a lot of those independents.”
Tapper wondered if the leaders of Republicans in the House, like McCarthy, will agree with that advice.
“Well, I think the voters of the United States agree with what I said, and it’s a pretty powerful force,” Baker said.