(CNN)Months after voters ousted Donald Trump from the White House, the fractures within the GOP are in sharp relief as the party wrestles with its post-Trump identity and prominent Republicans who stood up to him after the January 6 insurrection are feeling heat from his base with primaries brewing ahead of next year’s midterms.
Looking to cement his grip on the GOP despite the party’s losses in 2020, the former President is talking up the possibility that he might run for the White House again in 2024, forcing other potential hopefuls like former Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley to tiptoe around the huge shadow he casts within the party.
Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, the third-ranking Republican in the House, who voted to impeach Trump, is once again a target of Trump and his congressional allies after she said that Republicans who objected to the certification of Electoral College results on January 6 should be disqualified from leading the party.
And in a sign of Trump’s enduring clout, many of the 11 Republicans running in Saturday’s special election in Texas’ 6th Congressional District eagerly embraced the former President, despite him only winning the district by 3 points last fall. Republican Susan Wright, who had Trump’s endorsement, will finish first among the 23-person field and will advance to a runoff, CNN projects.
The punitive mood of Trump loyalists was best demonstrated by the GOP delegates at the Utah Republican Party’s organizing convention who booed Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, still angry about his votes to convict Trump in both his 2020 and 2021 impeachment trials. Their jeers grew louder when the Utah Republican told the crowd that he is a person “who says what he thinks” and doesn’t “hide the fact that I wasn’t a fan of the last President’s character issues.”
“You can boo all you like, but I’ve been a Republican all my life. My dad was a governor of Michigan, my dad worked for Republican candidates that he believed in,” Romney said before the audience of party delegates. “I worked for Republicans across the country and if you don’t recall I was the Republican nominee for President in 2012.”
“I understand I have a few folks who don’t like me terribly much and I’m sorry about that,” he added. “But I express my mind as I believe is right and I follow my conscience.”
Maine Sen. Susan Collins, another Republican who has tried to carve out her independence in a party that seems to demand unwavering loyalty to Trump, said Sunday that she was “appalled” to see Romney booed by members of the Utah GOP and she warned that the party should not be led “by just one person,” referring to the former President.
“Mitt Romney is an outstanding senator who serves his state and our country well,” Collins told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union.” “We Republicans need to remember that we are united by fundamental principles such as a belief in personal responsibility, individual freedom, opportunity, free markets a strong national defense. Those are the principles that unite us. We are not a party that is led by just one person.”
Collins, who joined Romney as one of seven Republicans who voted to convict Trump for inciting the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol, also praised Cheney as a “a woman of strength and conscience,” stating that the GOP needs to be more accepting of “differences in our party.”
“We don’t want to become like too much of the Democratic Party, which has been taken over by the progressive left. We need to have room for a variety of views,” said Collins, who won reelection in her state with 51% of the vote last year.
Trump’s approval rating dropped sharply, including among Republicans, after the January 6 attack on the Capitol. But he still commands the loyalty of a significant portion of the Republican Party. About two-thirds of Republicans or Republican-leaning independents said they believed Trump has had a good effect on the Republican Party, according to a CNN poll conducted by SSRS in March, while only 16% said he’d had a bad effect and 16% said he hasn’t made much of a difference.
But the 76% of Republicans or Republican-leaning independents said they did not believe that the Republican Party should penalize officials who have expressed opposition to Trump, and only 20% said they should, according to the CNN poll.
A lonely band of outsiders
The treatment of both Romney and Cheney is a testament to the fact that following one’s conscience in today’s GOP can often lead to unyielding threats to one’s political survival. Romney’s troubles at home and the blowback Cheney is getting from within her conference are emblematic of the precarious position facing nearly all congressional Republicans who rebuked Trump.
At the moment, they are a lonely band of outliers within the Republican Party — and their straddle between standing on principle and staying in power as members of a party where conspiracy theories and lies reign is likely to get more difficult as the 2022 elections heat up.
Trump has promised to punish Cheney and other lawmakers who backed his impeachment in the 2022 midterms and beyond.
But even with that pressure, Cheney, the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, is showing a new assertiveness that could serve as a template for other Trump defectors in the Republican Party, even as many members continue to coddle Trump’s lies about voter fraud and the 2020 election.
Cheney opened the door last week to running for president in 2024 and drew criticism from some conservative GOP critics for fist-bumping Biden before his address to a joint session of Congress.
She has maintained her leadership position, easily surviving on a secret ballot vote in February, even as members privately question whether she can still speak for House Republicans. Last week, when House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy was asked at a GOP retreat whether she was still a “good fit” for leadership, he answered: “That’s a question for the conference.”
Most recently, some GOP members were angered by her rebuke of the lawmakers who supported the former President’s attempt to overturn the election results.
“I think that we’re going to be in a good position to be able to take the White House,” she told the New York Post of 2024 in an interview published Monday. “I do think that some of our candidates who led the charge — particularly the senators who led the unconstitutional charge, not to certify the election, you know, in my view, that’s disqualifying.”
Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, who led the effort to object to the Electoral College results on January 6, told CNN’s Manu Raju in response that Cheney is “on an island” and is “really out of step with GOP voters and members.”
“Obviously she’s got to stand before voters, but I think that she certainly doesn’t speak for the vast majority of Republicans or people in my state,” said Hawley, a potential GOP presidential contender.
While Cheney is being chided by some of her colleagues for standing up to Trump, many GOP members have stayed quiet about the conduct of Trump acolytes like embattled Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia.
Greene, a fount of conspiracy theories and fervent Trump supporter, has managed to raise huge sums of money from supporters despite being stripped of her committee assignments earlier this year.
Gaetz, who is being investigated by the Justice Department over allegations involving sex trafficking and prostitution, has formed a joint fundraising committee with Greene and they are making plans to travel the country together on an “America First” tour. Gaetz has denied all wrongdoing and has not been charged with a crime.
The special election in Texas was an early test of the power of Trump’s imprimatur to sway the results — as 23 candidates vied for the seat vacated by the late GOP Rep. Ron Wright — nearly four months after Trump’s supporters stormed the US Capitol in their attempted insurrection. The field included one GOP candidate, small business owner and veteran Michael Wood, who has called on Republicans to reject Trumpism, conspiracy theories and QAnon.
“I felt like I had to stand up. Somebody needed to stand up and say, this isn’t what the Republican Party should be, and we’ve got to go in a different direction,” Wood told CNN.
As of early Sunday, Wood was not in the running for the second spot in the runoff.
This story has been updated with additional details Sunday.