With sudden rift, Republicans divide into two camps: with Trump or against him
NEW YORK — Senate Republicans blame the Republican National Committee. The RNC blames two Republican House members. They blame former President Donald Trump. And Trump blames Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.
In the midst of the GOP's first major election year blowup, each bloc believes it represents the real Republican Party and its best interests in the bid to regain control of Congress.
The Republican rift over a symbolic RNC vote to censure Trump's two GOP House critics has exposed in stark contrast the competing forces fighting to control the party. The sudden burst of infighting shattered a period of relative Republican peace just as party leaders insist they need to come together to defeat Democrats in the looming midterms.
But this week, at least, Republican unity is hard to find.
"Mitch McConnell does not speak for the Republican Party, and does not represent the views of the vast majority of its voters," Trump said in a statement Wednesday. Instead of fighting President Joe Biden's agenda, the former president said, McConnell "bails out the radical left and the RINOs" — shorthand for Republicans In Name Only.
To drive home his point, Trump issued another statement later in the day saying McConnell's position is "so against what Republicans are about."
At issue were McConnell's comments a day earlier in which he criticized the RNC for censuring Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois at the party's winter meeting in Salt Lake City. The two Republicans sit on a Democrat-led House committee that is aggressively investigating the violent Jan. 6 siege at the U.S. Capitol and has subpoenaed many in the former president's inner circle.
The RNC resolution accused the House panel of leading a "persecution of ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse" — words that drew outrage from Democrats and firm pushback from several GOP senators.
The fight has quickly emerged as a proxy for the larger political tug-of-war between Trump and the party's establishment wing. While Trump's allies believe there should be no limits in their loyalty to the former president, McConnell and other establishment leaders believe there is a line Republicans should not cross.
McConnell, for example, has refused to amplify Trump's baseless claims of voter fraud, even as polls suggest a vast majority of the Republican electorate wrongly believes that Biden did not legitimately win the 2020 election.
The Senate Republican leader said he opposed the RNC's vote to censure Kinzinger and Cheney, who are Trump's fiercest Republican critics in Congress, because the committee was "singling out members of our party who may have different views than the majority."
"That's not the job of the RNC," McConnell told reporters this week.
Sens. John Cornyn of Texas, Richard Shelby of Alabama, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Susan Collins of Maine and Mitt Romney of Utah were among those Republicans who also raised concerns about the RNC vote.
But Sen. Josh Hawley, the Missouri Republican who led the Jan. 6 push to block the certification of Biden's victory, said McConnell and like-minded Republicans were hurting the party's midterm ambitions by speaking out.
"Whatever you think about the RNC vote, it reflects the view of most Republican voters," Hawley said. "So I'm just telling you, in my state, it's not helpful to have a bunch of DC Republicans commenting on the RNC."
For many Republicans, the emerging choice heading into the midterm elections is clear: Either you're with Trump or against him. That's especially the case as Trump indicates he's likely to seek the presidency again in 2024.
Keith Kellogg, who served as national security adviser to then-Vice President Mike Pence, outlined the situation quite simply Wednesday on Twitter: "As midterms draw close and 2024 looms large, choices will have to be made and lines will be drawn," Kellogg wrote. "For me — it's Trump."
Trump's former communications director Alyssa Farah slapped back: "Put me squarely in the Pence/ McConnell camp. Certain denunciations must be unequivocal."
Democrats, meanwhile, tried to enflame the Republican divisions from afar.
"Take your party back from this cult," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a message to Republicans at her weekly news conference. "It has been hijacked."
Republican officials approached the rift with great sensitivity Wednesday. Many declined to speak publicly for fear their comments might upset one wing of the party or the other. And there was a common belief among strategists that the intra-party dispute was an unhelpful distraction from the party's planned focus on Biden's struggles.
The RNC hoped to move past the controversy after Chair Ronna McDaniel released an op-ed late Tuesday that blamed the media for taking the resolution out of context, while defending the committee's decision to discipline Cheney and Kinzinger for essentially legitimizing the Democrats' Jan. 6 investigation.
But she was asked about the resolution Wednesday on Fox News.
"Disagreement in our party is welcome. It makes us great. We can have a big tent," McDaniel said, before describing Cheney and Kinzinger's decision to join the Jan. 6 committee as "a step too far."
"And that's where the RNC members who represent the grassroots came down on this issue," she said.
Indeed, party strategists and Republican officials beyond Washington suggest the party's grassroots, which represent the heart of the GOP, beat squarely with Trump, regardless of what some Senate Republicans might say.
"The anti-Trump constituency is one out of 10 Republican voters — on a good day," veteran Republican pollster Gene Ulm said.
McConnell is standing up against "a circular firing squad," Ulm said, but Cheney and Kinzinger long ago ensured their political demise by crossing the former president so forcefully.
"There simply is no constituency for what they're doing," Ulm said.
The RNC, meanwhile, is desperate to project a unified front with control of Congress at stake in less than nine months.
"Republicans in both chambers of Congress and across the country remain united in our efforts to hold Democrats and Biden accountable for their failures to take back the House and Senate come November," said RNC spokesperson Emma Vaughn.