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Trump, tough issues and personal rivalries test the GOP's reputation for unity

Republicans often present a united front, but loyalty to former President Donald Trump, seen here with House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy, and views about his future in the party are showing some divisions.
Alex Brandon
Republicans often present a united front, but loyalty to former President Donald Trump, seen here with House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy, and views about his future in the party are showing some divisions.

Newspaper headline writers joke about keeping "Democrats in Disarray" set in type, just to be ready the next time it's needed.

In any given year or season, that "standing head" pops up about as often as "Weather Snarls Traffic" or "Middle East Peace Talks Collapse."

But we lack an equally facile cliché for Republicans. Either they manage not to fall out with each other, or they are less likely to let it show — at least not where it might be seen as newsworthy.

Presenting a united front has been an even greater imperative for the GOP when Democrats were in the White House and especially when Democrats also had majorities in Congress.

That may be changing. Heightened tensions within the GOP have been increasingly visible in recent weeks, driven by the still-divisive personality of former President Donald Trump — but also by issues such as vaccines and mandates and by the prospect of big Republican gains in the elections of 2022 and 2024.

This week's focus has been on Republican governors declaring their independence not only from the former president but from present party leaders in Washington.

In some cases, the governors are reacting to Trump's meddling in their home state politics. Here we have Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who is term-limited but has backed a candidate to succeed him. Trump has endorsed someone else, adding that Hogan himself is "toxic" and "a Republican in name only [who] has been terrible for our country and against the America First Movement."

Asked about Trump taking sides, Hogan replied: "I'd prefer endorsements from people who didn't lose Maryland by 33 points," referring to Trump's blowout loss to Democrat Joe Biden in the state last year.

This particular feud is not new. Hogan has been critical of Trump for years and condemned him for inciting the crowd that marched on the Capitol on Jan. 6.

But eyebrows were raised over the weekend when a big name Republican, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, criticized Trump and his claque in Congress. Sununu was especially disturbed at the so-called "MAGA Squad," the hardcore Trump acolytes who have tried to ostracize their in-party House colleagues who voted for the Senate's bipartisan infrastructure bill earlier this month — or who voted to impeach Trump earlier this year.

"I think they've got their priorities screwed up," Sununu said on CNN Sunday. "That kind of social media mob mentality that's built up in this country ... culturally, those tactics are ruining America."

These critiques are more than just talk. Sununu's approval in New Hampshire is 67%, Hogan's at home is 70%, but both have declined to run for the Senate next year, depriving the GOP of their best chance at a pick-up in both states.

Also refusing party pleadings are Gov. Phil Scott of Vermont, the nation's most popular governor at 79% approval, and Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, who looks not too shabby at 72%. Scott has said publicly he voted for Biden and also called for Trump to be removed from office after Jan. 6. Baker has said he did not vote for Trump in either 2016 or 2020, and Trump has endorsed someone else for governor in the Bay State.

Trump has also weighed in on intraparty struggles in other states where the race is likely to be competitive next year, always seeking out someone willing to parrot his line about the "stolen" 2020 election. That makes recruiting that much harder for Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and the party's Senate campaign chairman, Sen. Rick Scott of Florida (both of whom have acknowledged the Biden win and urged the party to move on).

Prosperity may also test unity

But Trump's continued insistence on his 2020 alternative reality is not the only problem driving the GOP's dive into disunity. Another factor, curiously enough, is the prospect of power.

Robust Republican turnout this month in New Jersey and Virginia gave the party near-giddy certainty about its prospects in 2022. This is especially true in the House. The party in the White House nearly always loses seats in the House in the midterm election year. The few exceptions, such as in the aftermath of the terror attacks 20 years ago or the Great Depression 90 years ago, mostly prove the rule.

More typically, the president's party's midterm losses soar well into double digits. Trump lost 40 seats and control of the House in 2018. The last two Democratic presidents, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, also lost the House in their first midterm with even greater carnage: Obama lost 63 seats, the worst loss for his party in 72 years, Clinton lost 52 seats (and also lost the Senate the same day, giving the GOP its first full control of Congress in 40 years).

Right now, the Democrats' margin in the House can be counted on the fingers of one hand. So it might seem necessary – or especially smart — for Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy to be out there predicting his party will flip more than 60 seats again in 2022, or to set the bar even higher to challenge most of the 200-plus Democrats now hold.

Yet McCarthy continues to set expectations in the stratosphere. And the explanation may lie in the message he was sending when he kept the House in session overnight to hear him speak for more than eight hours (a total of 512 minutes) last week.

In that moment, McCarthy was delaying a final House vote on the roughly $2 trillion, 10-year budget bill that embodies Biden's social-and-climate agenda. A futile gesture, perhaps, but one likely to be noticed by the media and applauded by the base.

Who will be Speaker in 2023?

While McCarthy is nominally in line to be Speaker in a Republican House, he has been in that position before and been denied. He is popular with his colleagues, but getting the big gavel is much trickier than winning other leadership jobs, because it requires more than just a majority of one's own teammates.

The speaker is chosen by the whole House, not just the majority party. So 218 votes are required. If a new GOP majority has lots more members than that, McCarthy could lose a slice to an intraparty rival and still reach 218. But if the margin is narrow, he would need virtually every Republican vote to win. That gives even a small faction the power to stop him and to empower an alternative.

That is the calculus that did him in the last time the opportunity beckoned. McCarthy was next in line when Speaker John Boehner resigned in 2015, but doubts about his readiness and media savvy kept him short of 218. The party managed to unite instead behind Paul Ryan, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee and the GOP vice-presidential nominee in 2012. Ryan, a reluctant speaker, stepped down two years later, presaging the losses the party would suffer in that cycle, and reflecting his frustration with the House Freedom Caucus, an informal but powerful faction of several dozen Republicans who were willing to withhold their votes at crucial moments — even on issues such as keeping the federal government open for business.

Two of this group's founders, Jim Jordan of Ohio and Mark Meadows of North Carolina, continue to play a role today.

Jordan is still in the House, having been an outspoken defender of Trump and now ranking member on Judiciary. Meadows left the House to be Trump's fourth (and final) chief of staff and has recently been in the news for defying a subpoena to testify before the House committee investigating Jan. 6.

Meadows was a guest on the podcast of MAGA squad member Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida earlier this month. He unloaded on his former colleague McCarthy and the rest of the GOP leadership: "They're not skating to where the puck is, and so I would give them a grade of D."

Meadows suggested that a new GOP House majority next year should elect Trump as Speaker, an idea that has been floated before. It is not impossible. The Constitution does not require the Speaker to be a member of the House, only to be chosen by the House. So it could be Trump or someone else not a member, such as, perhaps, Meadows.

Or it could be a member, as it has always been since Congress first convened. Jordan has been regarded as a likely contender, and so has McCarthy's presumably loyal No. 2, Steve Scalise of Louisiana. Scalise, the House Minority Whip, has staked out a far more Trump-friendly position on the 2020 election than McCarthy's. (Given multiple chances to say who won that election, Scalise simply refuses to say.)

For his part, McCarthy has tried to zig-zag between acknowledging Biden's win (and criticizing Trump for Jan. 6) and pledging fealty to the former president and calling the Jan. 6 rioters "patriots."

Trump, who had previously called McCarthy "my Kevin" and favored him over other Hill Republicans, more recently has been keeping his options open. Would he like to be Speaker? It is hard to imagine him cooped up in the Capitol when he would rather be campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Lining up for 2024

Add to all this the familiar friction between potential presidential contestants already running shadow campaigns for 2024. Most, if not all, still say they will defer to Trump if he runs. This crew includes former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Senators Ted Cruz of Texas, Josh Hawley of Missouri, Marco Rubio of Florida and Tom Cotton of Arkansas.

Also rising in national polls are the pro-Trump governors of the nation's second and third most populous states — Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida — although neither is nearly as popular in his home state as the Republican governors who have broken from Trump.

But not everyone in the field is promising to step aside for another Trump bid. Take for example Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor who ran against Trump in 2016, then worked hard to elect and re-elect him.

In recent weeks, while eagerly supporting "Trump policies" in TV appearances, Christie has been suggesting it was time to replace Trump at the helm. He and others speak in a kind of code, using phrases such as "time to move on" and "focus on the future."

So why were Republicans known for unity?

To date, GOP unity has been both a virtue of necessity and a function of longstanding habit. The party has since the 1930s been routinely called the "minority party" in the U.S., meaning only that a plurality of Americans were more likely to call themselves Democrats. This "minority" status clung to the party even when its presidential candidates were winning in landslides and its members had clear majorities in Congress.

But over the years, as the nominally smaller group, the GOP nurtured the image of a tested, hardened cadre with fierce demands on members' loyalty. Like Gideon's army in the biblical Book of Judges, they saw their strength not in their numbers but the righteousness of their cause. This implied a certain virtue, perhaps, but also communicated the absolute necessity of sticking together in a fight.

Some of this was myth, of course, as the GOP always had its share of disagreements and dissension – not to mention competing egos. Ronald Reagan used to cite what he called "the 11th Commandment: Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican." But Reagan also ran hard in the primaries against his party's incumbent Republican president, Gerald Ford.

But myth or not, this impression has been powerful, helping to goad even marginal Republicans to turn out in November and to vote for whomever the party nominated. Trump himself was a major beneficiary of this habit and discipline in 2016, and he suffered when it weakened somewhat in 2020.

GOP cohesion has also proven limited when it might have mattered most. At the start of their control in Congress in 1995 or the start of George W. Bush's second term a decade later, Republicans had a big agenda they could not quite rally their ranks to support in full. And in the very next election cycle, the voters reined them in.

Nonetheless, clichés die hard. And the motif of D's in disarray and R's in lockstep is likely to live on in the popular imagination, and in the media, for a long time to come.

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Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for