How Will Non-Trump Republicans Navigate Around Their Very Trump Base?

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

As CPAC approaches, two things are becoming more and more clear:

  1. Trump is still hoping to retain control over the party.
  2. Various politicians want to take the reins of Trump’s base.

The reports coming out ahead of CPAC are that the former President wants to essentially set himself up as the king-maker at the very least. There is even the possibility that he will declare himself the “frontrunner” of the 2024 Republican primary, putting himself at the forefront of what is already promising to be a very tough battle between a lot of Republican politicians who want to seize control now that Trump is out of office.

In yesterday’s column, one of the points I highlighted was the need for people who were extremely critical of Trump to understand that how a person runs a campaign and how they may appear can be at odds with how they govern, given that they still need Trump’s base in order to be elected and re-elected. As I mentioned, Ron DeSantis is one of those politicians who needed to run very close to Trump when he ran for Governor of Florida, but he has governed as his own man since – and surprisingly well at that, given what his state and the nation have had to go since he took office.

There are a good many Republicans who are in a similar position to DeSantis, who I think is somewhere in the middle of the Trumpometer (patent pending). Those who are above DeSantis on this scale are the ones who are more populist and/or more Trump-like. This would be Republican politicians like Josh Hawley (populist) and Matt Gaetz (Trump-like/Trump cult-like). These Republicans are all in either on what the Trump movement was trying to accomplish or on trying to stay in Trump’s good graces for the inevitable return.

Those Republicans are, obviously, not always going to be on the same side. If Trump runs again, he is (currently) likely to face Hawley, Ted Cruz, and others looking to win Trump’s base. Gaetz and others, like Jim Jordan, would be looking to support Trump and bring him back into a seat of power in Washington D.C. As you move from the top of that scale on down, you’ll come across Marco Rubio, Tom Cotton, Nikki Haley, and others.

Josh Hawley, the new Trump?
AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, Pool

Once you pass DeSantis on the scale, you’ll see major Republicans who are either distancing themselves from Trump to outright opposed to him on (some sort of) principle. As you continue, you’ll pass Mike Lee, Governor Brian Kemp of Georgia, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Mitch McConnell and, eventually, guys like Mitt Romney. These are Republicans who either have a pretty safe base of their own or know how to play the game just right in order to stay in power and push whatever their agendas are. That is not to say they are bad, just that they are navigating different paths.

Those at DeSantis’ level on the scale or higher are elected typically in places that have a huge Trump base presence in their states. They have to at least flirt with, if not outright sell themselves to, those voters to have a chance for re-election. In some cases, this is a transactional relationship with voters. They give those voters the red meat they want, the Trump loyalty they seek, etc., and in return, the voters give them the votes they need. As you go higher up on the scale, though, you find it’s less transactional and more fanatical (again, not inherently bad, though anti-Trump Republicans have no use for those politicians and look for better options).

I think it will be a fascinating case study going forward to see who will try to navigate their way through Trump’s base and how they will do so. I think the Mexico trip has likely ended Cruz’s chances for 2024, but it is a far-away-enough prospect that he could recover. Part of Cruz’s problem is that Trump’s base looks for people who are outside of Washington D.C. and its aloof behaviors and that Cancun trip looked very elitist and will surely be the subject of a lot of ads in the Republican primary.

Hawley is in a unique spot in that he’s making a play that is similar to Trump but without being slavishly devoted. He used the 2020 election as a means to an end, to boost his own profile as a fighter against the corruption of big government and Democratic officials. He is also far more prosecutorial and legislative in his approach than Trump was. Trump was a bomb-thrower. Hawley is a bit more precise.

There will be others stepping forward, whether Trump runs again or not. I think he’ll want to clear the field, but I also still have the sense that Trump in the long run likes the power and access of being the kingmaker, of being important, than the actual job, and he could try to position himself as a permanent elder statesman of sorts (much to the chagrin of people who want the exact opposite of that).

And, what will Trump’s base do? Will they stick with him or will they find someone new? It’s very hard to tell because that election is still so far off.