What’s Left Of The ‘Mainstream’ Republican Party Is Looking Around And Getting Nervous

UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 30: Reps. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., left, and Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., attend a news conference on the China Task Force report in the Capitol’s Rayburn Room on Wednesday, September 30, 2020. The report outlines bipartisan action to combat threats from China. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 30: Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
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February 5, 2021 6:14 p.m.

The ascendancy of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), and Republicans’ lack of willpower to punish her, speaks volumes about where the party still is even after President Donald Trump’s defeat. 

Only 11 Republicans joined the entire House Democratic caucus to strip her of her committees Thursday night; by contrast, 61 Republicans voted to demote Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) for voting to impeach Trump for inciting the Capitol attack. 

That the Trump-Greene sect of the party has such power and support does not necessarily portend future electoral success. After all, during Trump’s term alone, Republicans lost the House, Senate and White House. In particular, they lost both seats in a double-barrel Georgia Senate runoff that, by all historical precedent, they should have won. 

With the 2022 midterms on the horizon, again a cycle that historical trends suggest should be good for the GOP, there is a niggling concern that the loud, extremist part of the party could give Democrats their best shot at staving off the onslaught.

“If he stays a powerful actor in the party, he could boost a slate of his preferred candidate which would probably help the Democrats,” Susan Stokes, a political science professor at the University of Chicago and director of the Chicago Center on Democracy, told TPM of Trump. “If Democrats hang on to the House and the Senate, maybe the message sinks in more powerfully.” 

“A lot of people may like him but they’re not winning elections anymore,” she added. “Maybe then a more institutional Republican, with less risk to themselves and wanting to be a winning party, can say ‘we need to get past this guy.’”

Republican officials, both current and former, seem to be mulling that scenario. 

“House members never like us judging them, but I do think as a party we have to figure out what we stand for,” Sen. John Thune (R-SD), Senate Minority Whip, told reporters this week. “I think we’ve got to be the party, as I said, of ideas and policies and principles, and get away from members dabbling in conspiracy theories.”

Thune’s comment was part of the rush of GOP senator disapproval of Greene let loose after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) issued a statement in which he called someone of Greene’s beliefs a “cancer” to the party. McConnell is reportedly livid with the President after the Georgia losses.

The conspiratorial vein that Greene represents — she is really a renaissance woman when it comes to conspiracies, dabbling in everything from 9/11 doubt to COVID-19 denialism to QAnon — is the newest outgrowth of the now-familiar disinformation churned up by the rightwing media apparatus for years. The strain is not new, but its prominence is, given its biggest bully pulpit by the former President who still wields enormous influence.

While Greene may be a fringe character, the kind of nuisance that embarrasses the party but has relatively little power, the most troubling thing about her is that the movement she represents has gained a “foothold” in the party, said Dan Judy, vice president of North Star Opinion Research, a consultancy for Republican candidates.

“That’s my concern: not so much that the GOP becomes the party of Q-Anon, but that enough Q-Anon adherents (and people of that ilk) find a home in the party that it simply becomes unpalatable to the educated suburban voters the party desperately needs to win back post-Trump,” Judy told TPM in an email.

There are other factors at play too, including redistricting, which could help Republicans regardless of Greene’s ascendency, said Mike DuHaime, a longtime conservative strategist and partner at the Mercury public strategy firm.

“That said, no candidate in a competitive race for Congress, Senate or Governor, wants the face of the party to be Marjorie Taylor Greene,” he told TPM. He added that even in good years, Republicans have lost seats by nominating bad candidates, pointing to Todd Akin in Missouri and Sharron Angle in Nevada. 

“But none of those bad candidates were the face of the party,” he added. “Republicans need to decide if they want to be the party of reasonable likable conservatives like Ben Sasse or unlikable conspiracy theorists like Marjorie Greene.”

The moderates in the party — or at least those who fit a more traditional Republican mold — appear to be feeling the squeeze. 

Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), saying that it was getting “harder and harder to break through the partisan gridlock” in an “increasingly polarized country” is the latest to announce his retirement, though he will likely not be the last. Sens. Pat Toomey (R-PA) and Richard Burr (R-NC) announced their impending departures before Portman, opening up two would be-safe seats to potentially competitive Democratic challenges. And on Friday, the Associated Press reported that Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) is privately discussing ducking out. Sens. Thune, Ron Johnson (R-WI) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) are being closely watched. 

One outspoken member of the anti-QAnon caucus, Rep. Denver Riggleman (R-VA), was ousted from his primary this summer largely for officiating gay weddings. He’s been replaced by Rep. Bob Good (R-VA), a Trumpy Republican who has called the COVID-19 pandemic “phony.” 

“I really am not a big fan of conspiracy theories or radicalization,” Riggleman said to the Atlantic. “There’s this bizarre stream of that running through the GOP right now. And it’s going to hurt the party.”

Another prominent anti-QAnon voice, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), has said that he’s at “peace” with what will come next electorally after supporting Cheney and voting against Greene. He recently launched the “Country First” PAC to counteract the Trump tide within his party. 

“We don’t embrace conspiracy theories to win anymore,” he told the Washington Post of his goal with the new movement. “Would we lose the Proud Boys? Maybe. I’m fine with that.”

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