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As Republicans weigh Trump's future, polls show GOP voters want him to lead

Former President Donald Trump waves to supporters as his motorcade drives through West Palm Beach, Fla., on his way to his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach after arriving from Washington aboard Air Force One on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. (Damon Higgins/The Palm Beach Post via AP)
Former President Donald Trump waves to supporters as his motorcade drives through West Palm Beach, Fla., on his way to his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach after arriving from Washington aboard Air Force One on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. (Damon Higgins/The Palm Beach Post via AP)
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When former President Donald Trump departed Washington on the morning of his successor’s inauguration last month, he had just been impeached for a second time for inciting a riot at the U.S. Capitol, Republican leaders in the House and Senate were casting blame on him for the attack, and his role in the party going forward was uncertain.

As he prepares to deliver his first public address since leaving office at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando Sunday, Trump is basking in his second acquittal by Senate Republicans, welcoming visits from prominent GOP lawmakers at Mar-a-Lago, and reportedly aiming to position himself as the Republican Party’s presumptive 2024 presidential nominee.

Since Trump’s defeat in November, there has been much speculation about his political future, and his long-term plans are still unknown. However, his latest moves have made clear he has no intention of quietly ceding his influence over a party he has fundamentally reshaped since descending the Trump Tower escalator in 2015.

According to Axios, Trump aims to use the CPAC speech as a “show of force” to assert his control of the Republican Party. The former president also plans to meet with advisers at Mar-a-Lago this week to plot upcoming political activities, including a prominent role in the 2022 midterms.

"Trump effectively is the Republican Party," Trump senior adviser Jason Miller told Axios.

The CPAC lineup reflects that sentiment. In addition to the former president, Trump’s son and a number of ardently pro-Trump politicians will be speaking, and several panels will be devoted to promoting dubious claims of election fraud. Former Vice President Mike Pence reportedly declined an invitation to speak.

“He simply did what he said he was going to do, so why not have him speak?” CPAC organizer Matt Schlapp said Monday, defending Trump’s presence. “It seems to me that it makes perfect sense that he would come back, and talk to his followers and faithful, and talk about what's going to happen in the future.”

Recent polls indicate Trump’s grip on the party’s base remains firm, and those who defy him place their political futures at risk. The handful of GOP House members and senators who voted with Democrats on impeachment have faced a fierce backlash at home, and several have been censured by their local and state Republican Party organizations.

According to an Economist/YouGov poll released Tuesday, only 23% of Republicans say they would vote for a candidate who had criticized Trump, and 61% said an endorsement from the former president would make them more likely to support someone. Nearly three-quarters of Republicans believe President Joe Biden stole the 2020 election.

A survey of Trump voters conducted by Suffolk University and USA Today last week found 46% would abandon the Republican Party to follow Trump if he formed a new party. The poll also showed most of the former president’s supporters believe the Jan. 6 riot was primarily “an antifa-inspired attack” and do not believe Biden was legitimately elected.

Democrats and some Republicans had hoped Trump’s impeachment would tarnish his legacy and hobble any potential political comeback, but there is little evidence that has occurred. According to the USA Today poll, nearly half of Trump voters say the trial strengthened their support for him, and 76% would vote for him for the 2024 GOP nomination if he ran.

“This is a misappropriation of historical norms where defeated incumbent presidents have less influence moving forward as rational political parties search for ways to win,” said Michael Cohen, CEO of Cohen Research Group. “The grassroots GOP at this point is not acting rationally to win state and national elections.”

Republican backing for Trump slipped in the immediate aftermath of the Capitol siege, but it has largely rebounded. In a Morning Consult/Politico poll released last week, 59% of Republicans said the former president should play a major role in the party going forward, up 18 points since Jan. 7.

However, among all registered voters in the same survey, majorities approved of Trump’s impeachment by the House and disapproved of his acquittal by the Senate. The findings underscore the challenges Republican officeholders and candidates face as they attempt to retain the millions of new voters Trump brought into the party while winning back moderates who fled the GOP tent over the last five years.

“One thing that the president did well was reaching out to blue-collar workers across the United States of America that the Republican Party thought we'd lost,” Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, told CNN Monday. “And we got it back. And I think we take the good things from the administration and perhaps leave behind the not-so-good things.”

The stakes for the Republican Party are high, having lost control of the House and Senate during Trump’s term. Republicans are well-positioned to take back both in the midterms, with Democrats holding narrow majorities and historical trends favoring the party out of power, but internal divisions over the former president threaten that objective.

House Republicans appear to recognize that danger, and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and Minority Whip Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., traveled to Florida in recent weeks to confer with Trump and ease tensions. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has been more equivocal, indicating he would openly oppose Trump-backed candidates in 2022 primaries if he does not believe they can win.

“Mitch is a dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack, and if Republican senators are going to stay with him, they will not win again,” Trump said in a statement last week after McConnell criticized him on the Senate floor, vowing to back “America First” primary challenges against GOP incumbents he deems weak.

Those primaries could represent the first true test of Trump’s continued influence, and supporters of the former president are already lining up to run against Republicans who voted to impeach and convict him. Despite Trump’s defeat and the events that transpired after the election, many within the party are eager for him to step up and lead again.

“If we could get behind President Trump and follow his lead, we will win in 2022,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told Fox News host Sean Hannity Monday. “If we argue with ourselves, we’re going to lose, and there’s no reason to lose.”

Not all GOP leaders have welcomed the prospect of former President Trump’s return to the political spotlight, but his critics have struggled to gain traction in their bid to distance the party from the former president. Some Republicans believe the party and the country are better off moving on, even if they support some of Trump’s policies and accomplishments.

"He has a loud megaphone, but we have to have many different voices and, in my view, we can't let him define us for the future, because that would just further divide our country," Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said on CNN's "State of the Union" Sunday. "And it would hurt our Republican Party."

On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” former GOP Rep. Will Hurd stressed many Republican candidates outperformed Trump in the 2020 election. He also cautioned that Trump’s lies and conspiracy theories could derail the party’s hopes of retaking control of the House in the midterms, suggesting the former president should have little or no role in future campaigns.

“This is a president that lost the House, the Senate, the White House in four years,” Hurd said. “I think the last person to do that was Herbert Hoover and that was in the Great Depression.”

Through most of his first month outside the White House, Trump was mostly silent in public. Banned from major social media platforms and absent from media airwaves, he issued a handful of subdued written statements through his newly-established “Office of the Former President” and dispatched lawyers to speak to the press on his behalf during his impeachment trial.

He has been more vocal since the trial concluded, conducting several interviews with conservative outlets last week in the wake of radio host Rush Limbaugh’s death and releasing a scathing statement attacking McConnell. After the Supreme Court ruled New York prosecutors can obtain his tax returns Monday, Trump issued another statement ranting about political persecution, witch hunts, and “Crazy Nancy” Pelosi.

In interviews and statements, Trump has continued to assert falsely that he won the 2020 election, rhetoric that McConnell and others believe cost the party the Senate majority in Georgia runoff elections last month. Republicans aim to make 2022 and 2024 referendums on President Biden’s leadership, but placing Trump at the forefront could complicate their pitch.

Cohen expects Trump will be able to boost his favored candidates in GOP primaries, but the party’s open embrace of him could hurt Republicans in close general election races. Opposition to Biden’s agenda might bring together the pro-Trump and anti-Trump factions of the party, but maintaining that unity will be difficult as long as the former president is actively involved.

“‘Never Trump’ means never Trump, and at the GOP grassroots, the vast majority are Forever Trump,” Cohen said. “It’s irreconcilable.”

According to The New York Times, voting records show nearly 140,000 Republicans in 25 states have left the party since the Jan. 6 riot. Earlier this month, a group of prominent former GOP officials and strategists met to discuss forming an independent party or organizing a new bloc within the party similar to the Tea Party movement.

A Gallup Poll conducted late last month found a sharp increase in Republican support for the formation of a third major political party, with 63% saying one is now needed. Still, 68% of Republicans want Trump to remain the leader of the GOP, although a majority of Republican-leaning independents would prefer new leadership.

Politico reported Monday that Trump has confirmed he will attend the Republican National Committee’s spring donor retreat in April. Several potential 2024 presidential candidates are already scheduled to speak at the event, but any remarks Trump makes are certain to overshadow their presence.

As long as the former president dangles the possibility of a 2024 run, the rest of the field will be essentially frozen, with donors and operatives waiting to see what he does. According to Cohen, the first month of Trump’s post-presidential life has made clear he will decide his place in the future of the Republican Party, for better or worse.

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“The one thing Trump can almost bank on at this point, ahead of any new information, is the nomination in 2024,” he said. “It’s his if he wants it.”

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