One of the staples of the 2021 political news diet is: “Whither the GOP?” Political journalists of all stripes weigh in on this subject in “big picture” analysis pieces and countless opinion columns. Various Republican “strategists” you’ve never heard of offer their views on the subject on cable news networks. Party officials assert to anyone who will listen that the future is Trumpian or post-Trumpian, depending on the party official. And so it goes, on and on, more or less every other day. It’s like a soccer set piece that never results in a goal and is endlessly reprised.
Here’s the answer to the question: The future of the GOP is Trump, unless Trump is defeated by Republican primary voters in 2022.
Obviously, Trump will not be on the ballot in 2022, so he cannot be defeated in 2022 primary elections. But Trump-endorsed “challenger” candidates will be on the ballot — lots of ballots — in primary elections across the country. And it is in those elections that the party will chart its future course. If Trump-endorsed candidates win, the GOP remains the Trump Party. If Trump-endorsed candidates (or significant numbers of them) lose, Trump’s grip on the GOP loosens and his standing as king-maker is diminished. It’s basically as simple as that.
Last weekend, Trump kicked off his 2022 campaign with a rally in Ohio’s 16th Congressional District, during which he went on at some length about the treachery of the District’s Congressman, Tony Gonzalez, one of 10 Republicans in the House who voted for impeachment after the January 6th riots on Capitol Hill. Trump is betting that his endorsement of Gonzalez’s primary challenger (a former Trump aide and loyalist) will insure Gonzalez’s demise and, in so doing, remind everyone in the GOP (and at Fox News) who’s boss.
Trump’s hold on self-identified Republicans remains strong. Early polling in various primary venues shows Trump’s endorsement carries weight. And he continues to enjoy the obeisance of party officials, elected or otherwise, all across the country. No less than the Ohio State Republican Party scurried to censure Gonzalez for his impeachment vote, saying he had “betrayed his constituents” and “relied on emotions rather than the will of his constituents and any credible facts.”
Meanwhile, national Republicans who dislike (or despise) Trump sense an opportunity to do him damage in the Ohio CD 16 primary campaign. In Gonzalez, they see an exceptional candidate; a former Ohio State University football star (who went on to play in the National Football League), Stanford Business School graduate and technology company executive who won the seat in 2018 (a very Democratic year) with 53% of the vote and who was re-elected in 2020 with 63% of the vote, easily outperforming Trump himself in the district.
Those same Republicans believe that Gonzalez’s impeachment vote has not done him grievous damage and that, in certain respects, has made him politically more attractive. It’s certainly earned him notice across the country as someone willing to take a political stand for reasons other than self-promotion. Demand for that in the political marketplace is often under-valued.
Perhaps more important, Gonzalez’s new-found status as Trump target will transform his fund-raising operation into a cash machine. Dozens of anti-Trump, high dollar GOP donors will step up to assist. Hundreds of thousands of voters of all types will do the same. Hatred of Trump continues to run deep.
On top of all that, there’s what one might call the “macho factor.” Former National Football League player Gonzalez has a high macho factor. His Trumpist opponent does not. In side-by-side appearances, Gonzalez will emerge as the dominant figure. One suspects his campaign will call for many joint appearances.
The campaign is now underway. It’s obviously too early to predict how it will play out. My guess is that Trump made a mistake making Rep. Gonzalez his first GOP primary loyalty test. The voters may not see it that way and may resent being told to see it that way.
Whatever the outcome, Ohio’s 16th CD GOP primary election will have national repercussions and consequences. As will its US Senate GOP primary, the subject of the next Political Note.
Coming Soon!: Ohio, Part 2: Peter Thiel, Rupert Murdoch and the rise (?) of JD Vance.