Republicans confront bitter divide; no clear path forward

January 28, 2023 GMT
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Re-elected Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel holds a gavel while speaking at the committee's winter meeting in Dana Point, Calif., Friday, Jan. 27, 2023. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
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Re-elected Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel holds a gavel while speaking at the committee's winter meeting in Dana Point, Calif., Friday, Jan. 27, 2023. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

DANA POINT, Calif. (AP) — Ronna McDaniel has become the longest serving leader of the Republican National Committee since the Civil War. But now, she must confront a modern-day civil war within the GOP.

Frustrated Republicans from state capitals to Capitol Hill to the luxury Southern California hotel where RNC members gathered this week are at odds over how to reverse six years of election disappointments. And while there are many strong feelings, there is no consensus even among the fighting factions about the people, policies or political tactics they should embrace.

On one side: a growing number of elected officials eager to move beyond the divisive politics and personality of former President Donald Trump despite having no clear alternative. And on the other: the GOP’s vocal “Make America Great Again” wing, which has no cohesive agenda yet is quick to attack the status quo in both parties.

“It will be extraordinarily difficult, if not near impossible, for Ronna McDaniel to put the pieces back together,” said Republican fundraiser Caroline Wren, a leading voice in the coalition of far-right activists, conservative media leaders and local elected officials across the country who fought and failed to defeat McDaniel. “These people are not just going to forget.”

Indeed, as RNC members packed up from the Waldorf Astoria ballroom Friday, there was broad agreement that McDaniel’s reelection alone would do little to heal the gaping divide that plagues their party, even as she celebrated a notably decisive reelection victory.

Trump quickly congratulated McDaniel on his social media platform after privately helping her campaign. But conservative activist Charlie Kirk, a Trump loyalist, likened McDaniel’s successful reelection to a “middle finger” for the GOP’s grassroots who demanded change at the institution that leads the party’s political activities.

“The country club won today,” Kirk said from the back of the Waldorf Astoria ballroom where RNC members from across the country voted to give McDaniel another two-year term. “So, the grassroots of people that can’t afford to buy a steak and are struggling to make ends meet, they just got told by their representatives at an opulent $900-a-night hotel that, ‘We hate you.’”

A similar sentiment roiled the Republican Party earlier in the month on Capitol Hill as Kevin McCarthy struggled through days of embarrassing defeats in his quest to become House speaker before acquiescing to the demands of the anti-establishment MAGA fringe.

McCarthy’s inability to control the hardline Trump loyalists in his conference now threatens to undermine a high-stakes vote on the nation’s debt limit that could send shockwaves through the U.S. economy if not resolved soon. So far, House Republicans haven’t articulated a specific set of demands.

Some see the Republican divide as a byproduct of the GOP’s years-long embrace of Trumpism, a political ideology defined by its relentless focus on a common enemy and a willingness to fight that perceived foe no matter the cost.

McDaniel has repeatedly highlighted the perils of GOP infighting as she campaigned for an unprecedented fourth term as RNC chair. On Friday, she pleaded for Republican unity while citing a Bible verse once used by former President Abraham Lincoln before the Civil War.

“Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand,’” McDaniel said from the ballroom podium. “Nothing we do is more important than making sure that Joe Biden is a one-term president. But in order to do that, we have to be unified.”

It may get worse before it gets better.

The conclusion of the RNC’s winter meeting marks the unofficial beginning of the 2024 presidential primary season. Trump has already launched his candidacy and promises to wage a fierce campaign against any would-be Republican competitors.

The RNC is in the process of scheduling the first Republican presidential primary debates, which will likely take place in Milwaukee, the site of the party’s next national convention, in late July or early August.

While he has been slow to hit the campaign trail since announcing a 2024 bid last November, Trump has events in New Hampshire and South Carolina this weekend. Sensing political weakness in the former president, as many as a dozen high-profile Republicans are expected to line up against him in the coming months.

Should he fail to clinch the GOP’s next presidential nomination, Trump has already dangled the possibility of a third-party presidential bid, which would all but ensure Democrats win the White House again in 2024.

New Hampshire-based RNC member Juliana Bergeron reflected upon the state of her party as she prepared to take a red-eye flight back home to attend Trump’s Saturday appearance. The New Hampshire GOP is working through its own bitter leadership feud.

“The party in New Hampshire is divided. The party nationally is divided. I just think there’s a lot of space between the far right and some of the rest of us,” Bergeron said.

“I think it’s over,” she said when asked about Trump. “I want to see a new generation out there.”

And there are some signs that Trump’s MAGA movement may be ready to move on as well. Some privately acknowledged that Trump had lost control of his own movement, which worked to defeat McDaniel even as the former president and his lieutenants tried to help her.

While Trump declined to publicly endorse McDaniel, Wren said it wouldn’t have changed the grassroots’ demand for new GOP leadership even if he had.

“We’re not just sheep that follow a single endorsement anywhere,” Wren said. “We want to win elections and we’re not winning elections.”

Indeed, Republicans may need a successful national election to come together again. The next national election? Nov. 5, 2024.

“The hard work now begins for bringing our party together,” said former Trump chief of staff Reince Priebus, a former RNC chair who backed McDaniel’s reelection. “This isn’t going to be easy.”