The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A weakened Trump? As some voters edge away, he battles parts of the Republican Party he once ran.

Former president Donald Trump at a rally in Conroe, Tex., on Jan. 29. (Go Nakamura/Reuters)
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EAST TAWAS, Mich. — Donald Trump’s pick to become Michigan’s next attorney general has a problem with the leaders of the party Trump once ran.

At a recent pizza-fueled meeting with activists overlooking the ice fields of Lake Huron, Kalamazoo attorney Matthew DePerno described the top Republicans in his state as a crew of corrupt self-dealers, more interested in their own power than the Constitution.

“We’re going 100 miles per hour off the socialist cliff. The state party wants to slow that down to go 50,” he told the crowd, after describing private conversations in which state party leaders told him that they could not support him. “I want to turn this around and go exactly in the opposite direction.”

Much of the Michigan party’s leadership is as disdainful of DePerno, who rose to prominence for his involvement in a widely debunked, Trump-embraced report that claimed Michigan’s electronic voting machines had rigged the 2020 election. A subsequent Republican-led review by the state Senate described his work as “demonstrably false” and based on “illogical conclusions,” and it referred those reporting the misleading claims for investigation by Attorney General Dana Nessel (D), whom DePerno is trying to defeat in November.

Similar clashes between Republican leaders and the candidates Trump has embraced have been playing out across the country with growing ferocity in recent months, a chaotic sign that Trump’s once unchallenged hold on the party and rank-and-file supporters is waning, even if by degrees.

The former president’s power within the party and his continued focus on personal grievances is increasingly questioned behind closed doors at Republican gatherings, according to interviews with more than a dozen prominent Republicans in Washington and across the country, including some Trump advisers. Many spoke on the condition of anonymity because there remains significant fear of attracting Trump’s public wrath.

More than 10 months after leaving office, former president Donald Trump maintains a powerful hold over the Republican Party. (Video: Zach Purser Brown/The Washington Post)

The growing split is rooted in diverging priorities: Trump has pursued a narrow effort to punish those who challenged his efforts to overturn the 2020 election result, while also working to put people in power who would be more sympathetic to him should he try the same thing again. Other Republicans are more focused on finding palatable candidates most able to win in November.

As a result, Trump and his endorsees now find themselves fighting against some elected GOP leaders, donors and party officers intent on navigating the party slowly away from him and his false election claims. Among voters, polls have shown Republican-leaning independents turning from Trump.

“It’s Trump versus the establishment again,” DePerno explained. “There are a lot of people in the state party who — they don’t like Donald Trump. They never liked him.”

In states such as Alabama, North Carolina and Alaska, Trump’s endorsed Senate candidates trail in fundraising or have been challenged in early polls. An increasingly emboldened minority of Republican senators in Washington have bucked Trump’s direct commands, first by supporting a bipartisan infrastructure bill and now by working on a bipartisan effort that would make it harder for a future president to overturn a federal election result.

Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich said that Trump has remade the party and that candidates the former president endorsed who can “successfully articulate his agenda” will win in November and beyond. He said Trump is “all in” when it comes to ensuring that “the MAGA ticket wins up and down the ballot.”

“The RINOs who want to ignore election integrity and the 2020 elections are the same ones who have embarrassed the Republican Party by getting rolled by Democrats in redistricting, have spent decades lining their own pockets at the expense of GOP victories, and fear President Trump’s commitment to drain the swamp,” he said, employing the acronym for “Republicans in name only.”

Yet even major Republican donors are becoming increasingly bold about suggesting Trump step aside to let someone else run for president in 2024.

Art Pope, a prominent North Carolina donor who opposed Trump in 2016 but said he came to support much of his presidency, said he constantly hears in donor circles that a new nominee is needed in 2024, even if there is general support of Trump. “My preference would be he not run again for a variety of reasons and let there be a good primary going forward,” Pope said.

“The longer he’s not president, the more he’s going to realize he can be a kingmaker, and can still be the lead in the Republican Party even if he’s not president,” said Doug Deason, a Texas donor with close ties to the Trump family who said he doesn’t expect Trump to run. “I just think he’s going to realize the freedom that he has.”

The growing dissent and ebbing support have undercut the former president’s efforts to portray himself as an unassailable figure, and thrown suspense into the upcoming primary season.

Behind the scenes Trump has pushed back on aides, and even screamed at advisers, who have told him not to focus so much on re-litigating the last election, according to three people familiar with the matter. One adviser recalled a recent phone call in which Trump started shouting that he won the election after a person started discussing some of the reasons he lost — and how he could improve in 2024. Trump has also complained to advisers about the new limits on his megaphone, as cable news networks shun live coverage of his mass rallies and his social media accounts lie dormant, two of his advisers said.

Online searches, social media interactions and television news mentions have all fallen sharply since he left office.

“People aren’t necessarily seeing his messaging as much. They just say he’s not on Twitter, they don’t really know what he’s doing,” said a senior Republican, reflecting private conversations with donors and operatives. “A lot of people now say to me: 'He did great things, he was a great president, but it’s time for something new.’”

Frustrations in the party have also grown about Trump spending less than $1.5 million in the second half of last year to help other Republicans, according to federal reports. Trump advisers say he wants to remain tightfisted with his political action committee outlays, though he will likely spend more ahead of the 2022 midterms.

“As opposed to being out there and to try to help the party, he is trying to help himself,” said one prominent Republican activist in Michigan. “He is completely focused on himself, and it is getting tiring.”

On Friday, the National Republican Senatorial Committee held a fundraiser for major donors at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s estate in Florida. Trump spoke to some of the committee’s top donors over lunch and, while ticking through races, vowed to help the Republican Party win back the majority. But he later falsely told guests the election was stolen and insulted Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), according to a person with knowledge of his comments.

In recent months, he has repeatedly attacked McConnell, former vice president Mike Pence and a range of other senators and lawmakers from his own party. At the same time, McConnell has boasted that not a single Republican senator has publicly supported removing him as leader, an oft-repeated Trump demand.

Polls also have begun to show some weakening among Trump’s electoral coalition, even as Republicans appear poised for huge gains in the midterm election.

Trump’s favorability remains high among registered Republicans, at just under 80 percent in an Economist-YouGov tracking poll this month. But the same poll found 54 percent of Republicans saying they viewed him “very favorably,” compared with 68 percent right before the Jan. 6 insurrection last year and 74 percent in the month before the riot.

A Trump adviser who has frequently spoken with the former president said voters are drawing a distinction between him and his agenda. “They needed a break from him,” the adviser said. “They’re not sure they want him back in their lives, even if they loved the policies.”

The share of Republican and Republican-leaning voters who consider themselves more a supporter of Trump than the party dropped to 36 percent in January’s NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll, down 10 points from a year ago. An October Pew poll found two-thirds of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents wanted Trump to remain a major political figure. Only 44 percent wanted to see him run again for president.

“He is still God among Republicans, but independents don’t want him to run again. They have had enough,” said Frank Luntz, a pollster who has previously advised Republican leaders. “They aren’t happy with Biden and they weren’t happy with Trump, and they want something new.”

Trump remains helpful to the dozens of candidates he has endorsed — and has more assets than other Republicans, including $122 million in his war chest, high popularity among the party’s base and ability to draw bigger crowds, according to donors and operatives.

In North Carolina, for example, Rep. Ted Budd has benefited from Trump’s endorsement in a Senate race, according to Jonathan Felts, an adviser. When Trump endorsed Budd, Felts said, online contributions “skyrocketed,” and their ability to attract grass-roots volunteers surged.

“If you’re in North Carolina and you’re saying Donald Trump doesn’t have an influence, that means you’re not endorsed by Donald Trump,” Felts said.

But Trump has not been able to clear the field for his chosen candidate. Pope, the major Republican donor, is supporting former governor Pat McCrory (R) in the race. “His endorsement is viewed as favorable, but it’s certainly not the decisive or determinative factor,” Pope said.

The shift against Trump among independents has been especially sharp in Michigan, a pivotal swing state in presidential elections. Trump continues to get the support of 79 percent of registered Republican voters there, according to a recent poll by WDIV and the Detroit News.

The same poll found Trump is viewed favorably by 31 percent of all voters, the lowest level since 2016. That includes only 1 in 5 independent voters and only 38 percent of independent voters who say they lean Republican.

That hasn’t stopped Trump from becoming deeply involved. He has endorsed in 15 down-ballot races in the state, including 10 state legislative contests. He is also publicly supporting a long-shot effort to elevate state Rep. Matt Maddock (R), who was part of a legal challenge to block Biden’s win in Michigan, as the next Republican speaker of the state House.

His wife, Meshawn Maddock, the co-chair of the Michigan Republican Party, has become a regular adviser to Trump, according to people familiar with her role. She is helping to engineer some of his endorsements in the state, which include the father-in-law of the Maddocks’ daughter. People close to Trump say he would prefer that she run the state party.

Requests from others for Trump to stay out of races in the state have been rejected because Trump has only cared about the “election fraud issue,” according to a senior Republican with knowledge of the conversations.

“He’s doing endorsements for candidates he doesn’t know in races he shouldn’t care about,” another prominent Republican close to him said. “He’s going to end up losing some of these.”

That has made DePerno’s candidacy a target for many in the state party. A rival for the nomination, Tom Leonard, is a former Michigan House speaker, statewide candidate and state party official, who ended the year with $665,968 in cash for his campaign, compared with $61,179 for DePerno.

Just days after Trump endorsed DePerno in September, a survey by the Detroit News of 740 attendees at a state party leadership retreat on Mackinac Island found Leonard had the support of 48 percent of the crowd, while DePerno was supported by 11 percent.

At the same event, Betsy DeVos, a major Michigan Republican donor, spoke publicly for one of the first times since she resigned her post as Trump’s secretary of education because of the role his rhetoric played in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

“I worry that principles have been overtaken by personalities today,” she told the crowd, according to the Detroit Free Press.

Some Republicans in the state worry that if DePerno is the nominee, the attorney general race will turn into a debate about election conspiracy theories, potentially chasing away independent voters and donors.

“The challenge that Matt DePerno has is if he is the nominee it is not a referendum on Dana Nessel. It is a referendum on Matt DePerno,” said Jason Cabel Roe, a former executive director of the Michigan GOP.

DePerno, whose advisers dismiss such suggestions as a misreading of the electoral environment, has found a niche in rural counties like Iosco, which includes the sparsely populated vacation community of East Tawas on Michigan’s eastern shore. The county GOP chairman, David Chandler, described the state party’s leadership as “a bunch of corporate folks that are more interested in making money than the integrity of this country.”

“We all hate the state party,” said Maureen Rudel, another organizer for the Iosco County GOP who hosted the recent gathering and said she had no doubt Trump won Michigan.

DePerno still argues, despite multiple investigations that found otherwise, that there was an intentional effort to program machines to flip votes to Biden in Michigan, allowing Democrats to steal the election. But at times during his talk, he pushed back on other conspiracy theories that were circulating through the crowd.

The important thing, he told them, was that they travel in April to Lansing for the state convention meeting, where delegates will choose whether Trump gets his way and DePerno wins the attorney general nomination.

“We need real patriots to get involved and to take back the way the party is run,” he told them. “And then you’d control those rules.”

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