Donald Trump has a growing problem: His grip on the Republican Party depends on an air of both invincibility and inevitability, both of which are waning almost daily.
One of the first notable signs of Trump’s fraying power came at the federal level when establishment-wing Senate Republicans dared to publicly counter is 2020 election fraud lies. It started last month when Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota admitted on national television that the 2020 election was "fair" and "we simply did not win." Trump came unglued over Rounds' defiance while Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his allies came to Rounds' defense.
As I wrote then, "You know the political winds are shifting when today's GOP lawmakers suddenly start telling the truth."
The break suggested that McConnell's cohort was seeing danger signs in the polling and suddenly decided to try to distance itself from Trump's all-consuming obsession with 2020 (aka, “the past”).
Then, sure enough, several weeks of polling suggested Trump's grip on the GOP base was slipping. Trump's weakened state is also starting to show at the state level, where he generally continues to be very popular with the GOP base but some Republican Party leaders and donors are breaking with him.
The Washington Post zeroed in on Trump's endorsement for Michigan attorney general, Kalamazoo attorney Matthew DePerno, who pushed the now-thoroughly debunked conspiracy theory that Dominion voting machines in Antrim County had flipped votes in Joe Biden's favor.
Despite a GOP-led Senate investigation finding zero evidence for that claim (complete with referrals of its proponents for criminal investigation), DePerno persists, with both him and his allies painting party leaders as a corrupt band of thieves.
“It’s Trump versus the establishment again,” DePerno explained. “There are a lot of people in the state party who—they don’t like Donald Trump. They never liked him.”
David Chandler, GOP chair of the more rural Iosco County, told the Post the state party leadership was just “a bunch of corporate folks that are more interested in making money than the integrity of this country.”
“We all hate the state party,” added Iosco organizer Maureen Rudel, who's still convinced Trump won Michigan in 2020.
In some ways, it all seems par for the course, but DePerno isn't running as strong as he would have when Trump reigned supreme. While DePerno ended 2021 with just over $61,000 in his war chest, his GOP establishment rival, former Michigan House Speaker Tom Leonard, came in just shy of $666,000.
“The challenge that Matt DePerno has is, if he is the nominee, it is not a referendum on [Democratic Attorney General] Dana Nessel. It is a referendum on Matt DePerno,” argued Jason Cabel Roe, a former executive director of the Michigan GOP.
But again, DePerno—Trump's guy—seems anything but inevitable at the moment. That chink in Trump's armor is also playing out in several other races across the country, including those for North Carolina's open Senate seat (where Trump failed to clear the field for his pick), Alabama's open Senate seat (where an establishment candidate is crushing Trump's pick, Rep. Mo Brooks, in fundraising), and a Tennessee congressional seat (where Trump's pick drew a grassroots revolt). In fact, many Trump endorsees are sucking wind in the fundraising battle.
The Post's story of a "weakened Trump" is brimming with backroom GOP discussions of discontent and hopes that Trump won't run in 2024. But Republicans' willingness to air some of these battles more publicly does appear to mark at least a slight break with the past—after Republicans spent some five years in a bunker complaining about Trump "privately."
The GOP's highly public intra-party rift over the Jan. 6 Capitol assault between McConnell allies and Trump and the Trump-aligned Republican National Committee might just mark a turning point in the go-along-to-get-along relationship between the GOP establishment and Trump.
For Trump—who has led the party for a handful of years like a quintessential strongman—the fact that he's increasingly chasing the base while failing to keep his political foes in line suggests that his hold on the party could start disintegrating very quickly.