What can the not-Trump Republicans accomplish?

The GOP minority opposed to the ex-president has attention -- and challenges.

August 31, 2022, 5:09 AM

The anti-Donald Trump wing of the Republican Party is taking stock of its power -- such as it is -- and gauging what success looks like as it comes into perhaps its most defined form yet in the wake of some major defeats.

Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney's primary loss this month, followed by her formation of a group targeting election deniers and her repeated openness to a 2024 presidential run, anointed her the de facto leader of the sliver of the GOP opposing the former president.

Joining Cheney in pushing for an alternative party leader are figures like outgoing Govs. Larry Hogan of Maryland and Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas -- also floating 2024 presidential bids of their own -- and retiring Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, who launched his own anti-Trump PAC. (Trump, who remains widely revered by the base and who dismisses any criticism as a form of betrayal, has repeatedly cast this group as made up of fake conservatives.)

While the members of this wing have become more prominent, they do not all share the same approach.

As Cheney and her allies stare down long, if not impossible, odds in toppling Trump from his perch as GOP kingmaker and likely 2024 nominee, some of them say they'll settle for trying to make Trump unpalatable to a general electorate in two years instead of a fatalistic bid to wrench the party from his grasp.

"Why couldn't she [Liz Cheney] shift some fundamental dynamic? Not to win a Republican primary, but to peel off voters or to help motivate soft Democrats," Sarah Longwell, the executive director of Republican Accountability Project, told ABC News.

"Politics now is all about margins. It's about convincing people at the margins," Longwell said.

Even before she was voted out of office, Cheney was making it clear what her intentions were going forward -- both while finishing her work with the special committee investigating last year's insurrection, when Trump supporters rioted at the Capitol, and after she leaves the House in January 2023.

"The single most important thing is protecting the nation from Donald Trump," Cheney told ABC in July. "And I think that that matters to us as Americans more than anything else."

PHOTO: In this June 27, 2022, file photo, Asa Hutchinson, governor of Arkansas, speaks on a panel during the SelectUSA Investment Summit in National Harbor, Maryland.
In this June 27, 2022, file photo, Asa Hutchinson, governor of Arkansas, speaks on a panel during the SelectUSA Investment Summit in National Harbor, Maryland.
Ting Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images, FILE

During her concession speech earlier this month to Trump-backed attorney Harriet Hageman, Cheney said that her chief goal was preventing another Trump presidency -- even over seeking the White House for herself.

"We must be very clear-eyed about the threat we face and about what is required to defeat it. I have said since Jan. 6 that I will do whatever it takes to make sure Donald Trump is never again anywhere near the Oval Office," she said.

Anti-Trump Republicans who spoke with ABC News said a narrow focus like that over personal ambition could prove a more worthy endeavor than trying to dethrone Trump in a primary. Skeptics of the idea of the Trump opposition prevailing within the GOP point to his popularity with the base -- which makes him a powerful fundraiser and powerful endorser.

"There have been repeated instances where the party has not been interested in breaking from Trump," said Bill Kristol, a prominent right-leaning commentator who has left the Republican Party.

"I think 'stopping' is the wrong word. Cheney would have some chance of damaging Trump. Cheney's a formidable figure," Kristol added. "I think Cheney could have an effect without being the nominee."

Hogan and Hutchinson have signaled that they have different strategies to achieve similar goals.

Hogan (who failed to persuade Maryland GOP voters to back his chosen candidate to succeed him as governor) has not been shy about weighing a Republican presidential bid and he has taken highly documented trips to early primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire, indicating further ambitions beyond just keeping Trump out of the White House.

"I'm out helping people in this November election all around the country. I've been to 10 or 12 states in the past few weeks. And it's really great to be out there talking to people," Hogan said on ABC's "This Week" this month. "I definitely am going to be a voice and I'm going to try to do what I can to get my party back on track, because I want to win elections instead of lose elections."

And Hutchinson told ABC News in an interview that he's interested in seeking the presidency on a more conservative platform that isn't fueled solely by resistance to Trump -- opposition that alone could be insufficient, he said.

"If you just have a singular message, that we have to defeat Trump, then when we lose in the long-term because we haven't defined our message, we haven't defined where we're going to take the country, and that's what voters are looking for," Hutchinson said.

PHOTO: Rep. Liz Cheney speaks, Aug. 16, 2022, at a primary Election Day gathering at Mead Ranch in Jackson, Wyo.
Rep. Liz Cheney speaks, Aug. 16, 2022, at a primary Election Day gathering at Mead Ranch in Jackson, Wyo.
Jae C. Hong/AP

Yet Trump's Republican critics say aspirations to win a 2024 primary by Hogan, Hutchinson or others -- a contest in which they would likely be challenged by Trump himself -- are more akin to a pipe dream and that running on lofty ideals will do little to halt the former president's attempts at returning to power.

"Liz Cheney is a savvy enough politician to know that she's not going to beat Donald Trump in the primaries, that she is not going to be the Republican nominee. But I think that she would use her candidacy to continue to make a point about the dangers that Trump poses. So, in some ways, it is a kamikaze mission that could potentially do significant damage to Trump's electoral prospects," said Charlie Sykes, another vocal Trump commentator.

"Larry Hogan on the other hand -- who I like -- seems to have the somewhat naive view that there's an anti-Trump lane in the Republican Party," Sykes said. "And I just don't see that as viable at the moment."

Already, Cheney supporters say they see anecdotal evidence that she could be effective in the job she is doing on the House's Jan. 6 committee.

"I went from watching every single group where at least half the group would want Donald Trump to run again in 2024, and after those hearing started, we just had group after group where zero people would want him to run again," Longwell said.

Still, even some "Never Trump" Republicans say there are not enough GOP voters left on the fence about him. And many of those who have already made up their mind chose the former president. Polls have shown him to be the overwhelming favorite to win the GOP nomination in 2024 if he decides to run, as he has long hinted.

"I would say the notion that there is a 'Never Trump' faction within the Republican Party of any consequence has become a complete fiction. The numbers just aren't there," said former Rep. David Jolly, R-Fla., who left the GOP after losing reelection in 2016. "They are showing leadership qualities and patriotic qualities. But there aren't any followers. They're not leading anything. They're just demonstrating leadership, I suppose."

On top of that, Trump's allies argue that he is likely to see Republican voters rally around him after this month's unprecedented FBI search at Mar-a-Lago -- and that pressure from people like Cheney could even backfire.

"The heavy-handed raid on Mar-a-Lago left anti-Trump Republicans with no hope at all to wrest control of the party from the president. Their playbook just closed," said Michael Caputo, a former Trump administration official.

"If there was a lesson to be learned from 2016, it was, especially on the Republican side, that the voters were not going to be told by the elites who they were going to nominate," added a former Trump campaign official. "It's that kind of campaign against the elites, to saying, 'No, we will decide who we nominate and who we vote for, and it doesn't matter what the elites or the dynasties tell us.'"

And even if Trump were not to be elected back into the White House, his influence endures.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis -- who has stayed away from claiming the 2020 election was fraudulent but has adopted the same culture war battles as Trump -- is seen by many as a favorite in a 2024 GOP primary without Trump. Another potential heavyweight could be Trump's estranged vice president, Mike Pence, who has both broken with Trump over Jan. 6 and repeatedly touted their work together.

"Obviously, DeSantis might be the next president of the United States," said Jolly, the former representative, "and I've now been out of office six years."

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