The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump is trapped in the past, and it’s hurting him with GOP voters

In Georgia, they rebuked him by nominating incumbent officials he opposed, while party activists in Wisconsin sent a warning about 2024

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) speaks during an election night watch party on May 24 in Atlanta. (John Bazemore/AP)
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Donald Trump is trapped in the past and losing his grip on the Republican Party.

He remains the dominant force within the GOP, and his ideas are widely mimicked by many GOP elected officials and candidates. He continues to instill fear in some elected officials. He might become the party’s 2024 nominee. But the past week showed that a growing number of Republican voters are ready to move on.

The strongest evidence came last Tuesday in Georgia, where Trump suffered a double defeat in the Republican primaries. These were not small losses; they were a rebuke to a former president who has focused substantial attention on that state and its elected Republican leaders in his campaign of lies about his 2020 reelection loss.

Trump had endorsed challengers to Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, the two most prominent Republican officials who were vocal in dismissing Trump’s false claims about the 2020 vote there and who defended the certified results that showed Joe Biden the winner by 11,779 votes.

Kemp certified Biden’s victory after multiple recounts confirmed the outcome. Raffensperger stood up to Trump when he called the secretary of state days ahead of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol and badgered him to “find” enough votes to overturn the results. Trump eagerly sought their defeat in last week’s primaries. Instead, he ended up being humiliated.

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In the gubernatorial primary, Trump supported former senator David Perdue against Kemp but backed out of an election-eve appearance when it was clear that his candidate was on the skids. Former vice president Mike Pence, a former governor himself, broke with Trump and supported Kemp. Pence headlined a rally in Georgia for the incumbent the day before the election, declaring that there was “no greater champion of the conservative agenda” than Kemp.

Perdue had dismissed polls showing Kemp with a hefty lead ahead of Election Day, saying he was not as far behind as some showed. Instead, he was beaten by an even bigger margin: 52 percentage points. Incumbent governors are never easy to beat, especially in a primary, but the Kemp margin was nonetheless stunning.

Raffensperger had a tougher race than Kemp; it was always clear that would be the case. But he, too, cruised to victory against Rep. Jody Hice, avoiding a runoff by winning just over 50 percent of the vote, with some help from Democrats. Hice, like Perdue, had run with Trump’s backing.

Trump’s endorsement record so far this spring is mixed, with some victories he can rightfully claim and some defeats he cannot run away from. Many more primaries lie ahead. But the longer Trump clings to his big lie about 2020, the wearier many Republicans could become with the politics of the past.

Trump’s endorsements in the 2022 Republican primaries

In a week in which the horrible slayings of 19 children and two adults at a Texas elementary school overwhelmed everything, another small sign of the problems that could lie ahead for Trump was overlooked.

Last weekend, Wisconsin Republicans held their state convention. They have spent much of the past two years continuing to debate the 2020 results. Trump prodded GOP leaders in the state assembly to launch something akin to the flawed review of the ballots in Arizona. Led by former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice Michael Gableman, the partisan inquiry has been a fiasco.

A review of the Wisconsin results by a state legislative agency found some flaws in the state’s voting procedures but nothing that would have changed Biden’s narrow victory. Still, the Gableman review continues.

The state convention included a 2024 straw poll conducted by WisPolitics.com, which asked delegates whether they wanted Trump to run and also whom they preferred as their nominee. The number of people who cast votes was minimal, and straw polls are not in the least scientific. But whenever Trump has done well in such measures, he has trumpeted the results. Last weekend, he had nothing to brag about.

On the question of whether he should run again, only about 4 in 10 who cast votes said they hoped he would, while not quite 1 in 3 said they hoped he would not. Hardly a ringing endorsement for the leader of the party who has sent hint after hint of his desire to run again. Another 22 percent said they were unsure. Republican strategists say most of them probably oppose Trump becoming a candidate again but are not willing to say so explicitly.

More interesting, however, was the question of the delegates’ preference for 2024. On this one, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was the plurality winner, capturing about 38 percent of the votes cast. Trump was second, with about 32 percent. DeSantis has become a national figure in the party and now is being seen as a leading alternative to the former president.

Trump will no doubt win future straw polls, as he has already done in some conducted since he left the White House. He won the Conservative Political Action Conference straw poll in February with 59 percent of votes cast. But in a state where Republicans are still fighting over the 2020 election, his meager showing in Wisconsin is worth noting, especially at a gathering of party activists who are seen as more loyal to him.

A few days after the state GOP convention, divisions within the GOP over Trump’s lies surfaced again. Dean Knudson, a former Republican legislator, abruptly resigned from the Wisconsin Elections Commission, which administers election laws in the state. In leaving the panel, he said it had been made clear to him “from the highest levels of the Republican Party in Wisconsin” that there was a “deep desire” that he not become chair of the commission.

Knudson had drawn criticism from Trump loyalists who back the Gableman review. He said his personal integrity demanded that he accept the truth. “In this case, the painful truth is that President Trump lost the election in 2020, lost the election in Wisconsin in 2020, and the loss was not due to election fraud,” he said.

Knudson went on to say that senior elected and appointed GOP officials in Wisconsin refuse to believe that Trump lost and, worse, “some have peddled misinformation and perpetuated falsehoods” about what happened in 2020. He noted that “Republicans across Wisconsin did just fine at all other levels in the 2020 election.”

Andrew Hitt, a former GOP chair in Wisconsin, said in an email exchange: “The reality is party and legislative leaders are listening to the very vocal wing of the party who will always be with Trump. I have been saying that is a much smaller group than people realize and even polls pick that up.”

Trump appears trapped with a message that has diminishing appeal to many Republican voters. He cannot move on without acknowledging that Biden is the legitimate president and that, whatever minor irregularities there were in the election of 2020, they weren’t big enough to have changed the outcome.

Meanwhile, because the GOP is now very much in Trump’s image, Republican voters can have Trumpism without having to have Trump himself by picking DeSantis or any number of other ambitious Trump acolytes as their standard-bearer. One example of the endurance of Trumpism is the focus on election integrity, which will be a rallying cry for Republicans this fall and in 2024, regardless of whether GOP candidates agree with Trump’s false claim about what happened in 2020.

Some Republicans have simply had it with Trump as a result of what happened when his loyalists attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Others probably still admire him but want to move on to more traditional Republican issues. Others may want him to be president again but feel that the political establishment, the media and Democrats won’t let that happen.

That’s a rocky foundation upon which to build a presidential candidacy. Trump isn’t going away. But he is in danger of seeing his power and influence eroded as rank-and-file Republicans assess a future both with him and without him as their leader.

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