Home » The GOP’s great Trump reckoning begins at the state party level

The GOP’s great Trump reckoning begins at the state party level

For years, Lou Barletta counted himself among Donald Trump’s most diehard allies. The former Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial candidate and congressman endorsed him at a time in 2016 when many GOP elected officials saw Trump as radioactive. He served as the co-chair of his first presidential campaign in Pennsylvania.

Six years later, Barletta is finally disembarking from the MAGA train.

“I’m not supporting him,” he said of Trump’s 2024 campaign in an interview with POLITICO. “I was one of his most loyal supporters in Congress. But loyalty was only a one-way street.”

Barletta may have personal reasons for ditching Trump. The former president endorsed his opponent in the GOP primary for governor in May. But his sentiments reflect a broader reckoning happening after Republicans underperformed expectations across the country in November.

Having lost high-stakes, expensive races for the Senate, House and governor, there has been a wave of finger-pointing and second-guessing across the party.

In Pennsylvania, several potential candidates are rumored to be thinking about challenging the current state GOP chair, Lawrence Tabas, whose term is up in 2025. And Republicans there are questioning everything from their disdainful approach to mail voting; to whether the state party should have endorsed candidates in the primary; to, yes, Trump himself.

Even the party’s GOP leader concedes things need to change.

“As a party, we will need to take a critical look at the way we approach endorsements and mail-in ballots going forward and, as always, I’ll look for input from elected party leaders,” Tabas said. “I am not a top-down, backroom-deal leader, and I’m never going to be.”

Not everyone in the party is ready to declare that a course correction is upon it. David Kochel, a top strategist on Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign and a longtime Trump skeptic, said the party features “too many people dug into their position” that Trump is still the only way forward for the GOP.

“You mean some sort of a reckoning that actually resolves things?” Kochel asked. “We’re not talking about rationality here. We’re talking about people’s feelings.”

But underwhelming midterm performances across the board have already ignited a wave of intraparty conflagrations. And as a post-midterm power vacuum in Michigan, New Hampshire and other pivotal states threatens to weaken Trump’s vise grip on state party apparatuses, Republican insiders are jostling for what they believe will be a great resorting.

Some of the first shots fired came via a Michigan GOP memo leaked on Twitter by none other than the state’s defeated gubernatorial candidate, Tudor Dixon. The Nov. 10 memo, authored by state party chief of staff Paul Cordes, blamed “the Trump effect” for the party’s historic losses in the midterms. Two days later, Dixon tweeted that she was weighing her own bid for party chair — possibly challenging the defeated Trump-backed attorney general nominee, Matthew DePerno.

Some Republicans told POLITICO the memo didn’t go far enough in criticizing and identifying the direction of the party, which they said ceded too much power to co-chair Meshawn Maddock to broker Trump endorsements up and down the ballot.

“For the GOP to have any chance in [Michigan] in [2024] the leadership has to be changed in full to someone focused on winning and who is totally dedicated to making sure that the people who are encouraged to win primaries are those who will appeal to the median general election voter,” a Republican operative familiar with the state told POLITICO. “A ton hangs on the decisions that will be made on this in the coming weeks and months.”

Jeff Timmer, the former state party executive director and a senior adviser to the anti-Trump Lincoln Project, put it more bluntly. The memo, he said, “was a ‘fuck you’ to the Meshawn Maddocks and the MAGAS.”

In New Hampshire, it’s a similar tale. GOP Chair Steve Stepanek, one of Trump’s 2016 campaign state co-chairs, is likely to face a leadership challenge after Democrats trampled the party’s congressional candidates and brought themselves within a few recounts of taking the state House.

“There’s an unhappiness, a restlessness among the troops,” state Rep. Norm Silber, the Belknap County Republicans’ chair who lost his reelection bid this fall, said in an interview.

And in the home of the first-in-the-nation presidential primary, there are signs some Republicans are trying to buy themselves some space before deciding whether to recommit to Trump.

State lawmaker Al Baldasaro was the only one of Trump’s three 2020 New Hampshire co-chairs to attend his Mar-a-Lago campaign launch earlier this month. Fred Doucette, also a state representative, said he was busy with the ongoing recounts but is “waiting patiently to hear from [Trump’s] people” on rebuilding his campaign apparatus in New Hampshire. Lou Gargiulo, the third 2020 co-chair whose state Senate race this fall went to a recount, said that while he’ll “most likely” be with Trump, it’s “premature” to pick sides. “I’d like to see the landscape first,” he said.

But, like Kochel, former New Hampshire GOP Chair Fergus Cullen warned recent Trump skeptics not to underestimate the former president’s staying power.

“I was an original ‘never-Trumper.’ There are a lot more ‘not-again Trumpers,’” Cullen said in an interview. “But the party apparatus is still completely taken over by Trump — your state party chairs, your county committee leaders, your rank-and-file members. … That’s not going to just evaporate overnight.”

In Arizona, for one, it’s unclear that the GOP is eager to move away from Trump even after the party saw Republicans lose Senate and gubernatorial races.

Kelli Ward, a Trump diehard who showed preference to election-denying candidates while rushing to censure both sitting and former GOP elected officials she deemed RINOs, has said she won’t seek another term. Her announcement followed recent calls to resign by establishment-minded Republicans, including Karrin Taylor Robson who was defeated by Kari Lake in the party’s gubernatorial primary.

But there’s no sign the fabric of the Arizona GOP is changing, or that a large-tent Republican will be at the helm anytime soon. Insiders suspect someone in the image of Ward is most likely to succeed her, citing a top-down MAGA-minded party apparatus that was built up around her.

“This is trench warfare,” said Chuck Coughlin, a Republican-turned-unaffiliated voter who remains a political consultant in the state. “There’s nothing that would tell me they’re willing to give up those positions of authority and sing kumbaya, or even have legitimate conversations about what that would look like.”

In deep-blue Massachusetts, where voters have backed fiscally conservative but socially more moderate Republican governors for the better part of 30 years, a similar dynamic is playing out. Republicans deviated from their battle-tested method for electoral success — nominating candidates who can appeal across party lines in a state where the majority of voters are independents — by putting forward Trump-endorsed Geoff Diehl for governor and a slate of mostly hard-right candidates down the ballot.

After Republicans lost every statewide and congressional race and saw their already slim minority in the state legislature shrink even further, Jay Fleitman, the vice chair of the state party, announced his candidacy for chair. Several other state committee members are also considering bids.

But Jim Lyons, the embattled two-term state party chair, has shown no signs of dumping Trump. Lyons, who still hasn’t said whether he’s running for a third two-year term as state party leader, was posting on social media from the ballroom of Mar-a-Lago the night of Trump’s announcement thanking the former president for the invite.

Rising frustration with Trump hasn’t just produced fissures across numerous GOP state parties. It’s created larger uncertainty about the 2024 presidential cycle. Republicans in key battleground states said they now believe there was an opening for DeSantis and other potential Republican challengers.

David Urban, a Pennsylvania native who served as a senior adviser for Trump’s 2016 campaign, said, “I think most people in Pennsylvania are open to somebody else” in 2024.

Urban said that even his longtime friends in Beaver County, who are “Trump until they die,” told him “we like DeSantis a lot,” though they haven’t yet walked away from the former president.

Still, the GOP civil war, if one ever is launched, is unlikely to resolve itself for months ahead of 2024.

On his way out of La Jolla last week, Kochel, the longtime Iowa GOP consultant, tweeted a video of sea lions by the water, heads raised as they barked into the air. “Intraparty squabbles after weak election performance,” Kochel wrote.

“Everybody’s just barking at each other, and nobody’s saying anything,” Kochel said in an interview, elaborating on his sea lions-as-Republicans analogy.


November 2022