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Trump's efforts to punish his Republican critics yield mixed results

·Reporter
·5-min read
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Two Republicans in the House who voted to impeach then-President Donald Trump after the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol won their primaries Tuesday night, while another narrowly lost his.

So what does that tell us about Trump’s continued influence over the GOP ahead of a likely 2024 comeback run? Perhaps not all that much.

“It’s very much muddled,” said Liam Donovan, a longtime Republican strategist, of the picture that emerged Tuesday night.

In Washington state, Reps. Daniel Newhouse and Jaime Herrera Beutler appeared to have staved off Trump’s attempts to replace them with MAGA (Make America Great Again) loyalists. But in Michigan, the freshman Rep. Peter Meijer — who had also been targeted by Democrats eager to flip his seat — lost a close race to a Trump-backed challenger.

Rep. Peter Meijer at the microphone, with posters in the background saying: Vote Meijer Congress.
Rep. Peter Meijer, R-Mich., on primary night Tuesday in Grand Rapids, Mich. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Donovan, nevertheless, said Meijer’s narrow loss against a relatively unknown and underfunded challenger who walked into the race with little more than Trump’s backing suggests that Republicans can oppose Trump and stay in office. It’s not straightforward, though.

“It’s hard to look at these results and gain confidence that pointed public opposition to Trump is a net winner for an ambitious Republican,” Donovan said.

The biggest target in Trump’s ongoing “vengeance” campaign remains Rep. Liz Cheney, who will face Wyoming voters on Aug. 16. Cheney is the top Republican on the House panel investigating Trump’s extensive efforts to overturn the 2020 election results.

Cheney has appeared at times to be fatalistic about her chances against her Trump-backed opponent, Harriet Hageman, in a state Trump won by more than 40 points in 2020. In nearly every poll, Cheney has been trailing Hageman by significant margins. Yet she refuses to make peace with Trump, describing him in a June speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library as “a domestic threat that we have never faced before.”

Rep. Liz Cheney speaks at the hearing with a name plate in front of her saying Ms Cheney.
Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., vice chair of the Jan. 6 select committee, at a hearing on July 12. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

Other Republican lawmakers critical of Trump have held on despite primary challenges, sometimes after attempting to mollify the former president. South Carolina Rep. Nancy Mace criticized Trump repeatedly in the aftermath of Jan. 6, and although she did not vote for his impeachment, that was enough for him to back her primary opponent.

Mace looked to mend fences with the former president, complimenting him at length and filming herself in front of Trump Tower in February. Trump mocked her gesture, but Mace was still able to win her June primary handily.

As for the Republicans who backed Trump’s impeachment, Newhouse and Herrara Beutler are increasingly rare success stories. Four of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach decided to retire rather than face voters again. Of those who decided to run again, two have now lost primaries to Trump-backed challengers.

Of the seven Senate Republicans who backed his impeachment, two retired rather than seek reelection, and four do not run again until either 2024 or 2026. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski is the only GOP senator who will be up against a Trump-endorsed Republican opponent this year.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski pauses during a speech.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Behind the scenes, some Trump advisers have said the former president has grown weary of the kingmaker game. He’s helped some Republican Senate hopefuls win contested primaries, such as Ohio’s J.D. Vance and Pennsylvania’s Mehmet Oz. In Arizona on Tuesday night, Republican primary voters appeared to nominate all the Trump-backed candidates for marquee statewide races this fall.

Other Trump candidates haven’t fared so well, most notably in Georgia, where his handpicked challengers to oust Gov. Brian Kemp and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger both lost. Kemp and Raffensperger had both been close to the top of Trump’s target list after they refused to go along with his scheme to reverse the election results in the Peach State.

But the results of individual primary contests may obscure how much of the GOP remains solidly behind Trump. Matthew Continetti, a conservative Trump critic who has written a new history of the American right, argued Wednesday that the former president remains the undisputed king of the Republican jungle.

“Why does a sizable chunk of the Republican Party remain in his corner, when those voters could back a more disciplined candidate who shares the former president’s policies and attitude?” Continetti wrote in the Boston Globe. “The question assumes that voters are logical and that charismatic leadership is easily transferable. Neither assumption is true. The connection between populist tribunes and their followers is personal rather than intellectual. The leader becomes a symbol of resistance against everything the crowd despises.”

Former President Donald Trump ponders his next move.
Former President Donald Trump at the America First Agenda Summit in Washington, D.C., on July 26. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

Trump, for his part, shows no signs of leaving the field anytime soon, even as he hints at adjustments to his message. In the thick of the Jan. 6 hearings this summer, his team planned a return to Washington, promising a Washington-style “policy speech.”

When he returned to the capital last week for the first time since leaving office, he stuck closely to the teleprompter and hardly mentioned his refusal to concede the 2020 election, which has been his main hobbyhorse since he left office.

The flirtation with other topics may have been short-lived. This week, with the Jan. 6 hearings out of the news and a raft of other items claiming public attention, Trump was back insisting he won in 2020, again pushing the same election lies that led his supporters to storm the Capitol.

“The Unselect Committee of Political Thugs has not devoted one hour to the massive Election Fraud and Irregularities that took place in the 2020 Presidential Election, the reason that hundreds of thousands of people went to Washington on January 6th,” Trump wrote in a statement ahead of Tuesday’s votes.

Whether Trump’s fixation with the last election is a winning message in a 2024 GOP primary remains to be seen. In the meantime, he remains the most formidable, if not invincible, force in Republican politics.

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