Republicans Pushing to Move Past Trump Face His Core Supporters

Trump rallies aren’t where you expect to hear hard-nosed analysis of Donald J. Trump’s chances of winning back the White House. But Chuck Smith, an ardent supporter who recently drove two hours to stand under the scorching Arizona sun to cheer Mr. Trump, was blunt.

“I don’t think Trump is a viable person for re-election,” he said. “I just don’t think it’s a wise decision, especially with the way he was attacked — and the way he’s still attacked — it would be a major risk to the Republican Party.”

But in the next breath, Mr. Smith followed up with a caveat that could define the Republican Party for months to come.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he added. “I would definitely support him if he ran.”

That unwavering support is the most significant reason Mr. Trump will enter a presidential contest as his party’s clear front-runner if he announces his bid, as expected, on Tuesday. Although his dominance of Republican politics has led to three disappointing elections in a row for his party, a solid and devoted core of conservative voters appears ready to follow him wherever he leads again — even if into defeat.

It’s a painful reality for the cohort of Republicans hoping to move on from Mr. Trump. First they have to find answers to two inevitable questions: How many Trump die-hards are there, and can they be persuaded?

“If you lose over and over again to what’s really not that great of a team, you have got to reassess,” Gov. Larry Hogan, a Maryland Republican, said Sunday during an interview on CNN. “In some cases we fired up the base, but we turned off wide swaths of swing voters. And that’s why we didn’t perform.”

Voices like Mr. Hogan’s have grown noisier recently as the party grapples with an underwhelming performance in the midterm elections. The Republican donor class has sent clear signals of its interest in new leadership, and there have been slight cracks in the foundation of support for the former president among elected officials.

Mike Lawler, a New York Republican whose victory over Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, was a bright spot for his party, said he wanted the G.O.P. to be “moving in a different direction” from Mr. Trump in 2024.

“I would like to see the party move forward,” Mr. Lawler said Thursday on CNN. “Anytime you are focused on the future, you can’t so much go to the past.”

As he prepares to announce his next campaign, Mr. Trump and his team have been racing to shore up some of this support. They’ve pushed out some early endorsements from Republican leaders, including Representative Elise Stefanik of New York, the No. 3 Republican in the House, and have discussed bringing Trump-endorsed candidates who won their races to Mar-a-Lago for the announcement.

Mr. Trump has also invited all 168 members of the Republican National Committee. However, it was unclear how many would attend out of concern for R.N.C. rules that it remains neutral in contested primaries.

But Mr. Trump’s base of support has repeatedly proved its durability. At recent Trump rallies in Florida, Nevada, Ohio and Pennsylvania, many of the former president’s most dedicated supporters openly acknowledged there were surer bets inside the party to unseat President Biden, who has indicated he plans to seek re-election in 2024. Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida was frequently mentioned as an alternative, although most rally-goers said they preferred the governor to run after Mr. Trump, in 2028. Gov. Glenn Youngkin of Virginia was suggested, too.

Their support for the former president is often rooted in gratitude. They say Mr. Trump has stood up for them and, as a result, has been targeted with investigations into his company’s finances, his handling of classified documents and his efforts to overturn the 2020 election. “Trump has earned our respect and our support after everything he’s gone through,” said Joanne Chao, a 62-year-old retired physician from Reno, Nev.

That’s a narrative Mr. Trump lays out in his rallies, when he describes the investigations as political attacks meant to silence his supporters.

“They’re coming after me,” Mr. Trump said in Ohio during a rally on the eve of the midterms, “because I’m fighting for you.”

The exact number of Republicans who remain dedicated to Mr. Trump is imprecise. Several of the party’s pollsters have estimated it could be between one-third and 40 percent of their voters. An NBC News poll this month showed that 30 percent of Republicans said they supported Mr. Trump more than the party, a number that hovered around 50 percent for the final two years of his presidency.

According to AP VoteCast, which interviewed more than 94,000 participants in the midterm elections, 66 percent of Republicans said they considered themselves supporters of the Make America Great Again movement, compared with one-third who said they did not.

Another measure of Mr. Trump’s grip on the party was a New York Times/Siena College poll in September that showed 54 percent of Republicans said they had a very favorable opinion of the former president. The same survey showed 45 percent of Democrats said the same about Mr. Biden.

It’s also unclear how much support Mr. Trump would need for his party’s nomination again. In a crowded field in 2016, Mr. Trump won multiple primary states with less than 40 percent of the vote.

There are signs that his voters are opening to alternatives. Mark Roberts, a 67-year-old retired teacher who volunteered at the recent Trump rally in Mesa, Ariz., said his concerns about Mr. Trump’s ability to win had made him open to other candidates.

“I’m not one of these people who is going to tell you Trump is Christ reborn,” said Mr. Roberts, who lives in Desert Hills, Ariz. “Sometimes he pops off and says something and I’m like, ‘Whoa! I wish he hadn’t said that.’ So no, Trump is not a shoo-in with me.”

Mr. Roberts named immigration as his top issue and lamented a lack of civility in politics, although he wore a T-shirt reading “Let’s Go Brandon,” code for a four-letter insult to Mr. Biden.

Mr. Trump has decided to officially declare his candidacy at a time of extraordinary tumult as leaders face internal rebellions in all corners of the party.

Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, is under attack from Mr. Trump. As Republicans appear on track to winning a narrow majority in the House, Kevin McCarthy is facing an uncertain future as the top House Republican.

Some members of the Republican National Committee are privately whispering about whether to try to replace Ronna McDaniel as party chairwoman, according to two people with knowledge of the conversations. One person examining whether to run for the R.N.C.’s top job is Lee Zeldin, the Republican candidate for New York governor whose stronger-than-expected campaign helped Republicans win House seats in the state.

Ms. McDaniel told R.N.C. members on a call on Monday that she intended to run again, according to two other people.

Mr. Trump’s team has urged him to postpone a presidential announcement because of the party’s uncertain future. But the former president has refused, equating criticisms of his party stewardship to the headwinds he overcame to win the Republican nomination in 2016.

But Mr. Trump is no longer an outsider. He endorsed more than 300 candidates for the midterm elections this year and has raised more than $130 million since leaving office. During the third quarter of this year, he raised nearly $25 million online — or about 15 percent of every dollar given on WinRed, the leading online donation processing site for Republicans.

Mr. Trump used that power this year to force Republican candidates to repeat his lies about the 2020 election. He repeatedly insisted that election fraud was the foremost issue for the country, despite polls that showed voters were primarily focused on high inflation and other economic concerns.

In Pennsylvania’s Senate contest, which Republicans lost on Tuesday and ensured Democrats maintain majority control for the next two years, Mr. Trump endorsed Mehmet Oz a day after meeting with David McCormick, the hedge fund executive who was running in the Republican primary but had refused to say the election had been stolen.

“If you don’t deny it, you won’t win,” Mr. Trump told Mr. McCormick, according to two people familiar with the conversation who requested anonymity to discuss the private meeting.

Mr. Trump’s fixation on the 2020 results is one place where Mr. Trump may be out of step with his base. His rally-goers rarely cited election fraud as one of their top issues heading into the polls last Tuesday. Instead, many cited crime, immigration and the economy.

“We’ll become a third-world country if Democrats keep winning, yeah, I truly believe that. We’ll be inundated with illegals and taxpayers are burned out,” said Andrea Crosby, a 52-year-old retail worker from Dayton, Ohio.

Ms. Crosby said she intended to vote for Mr. Trump again, although she acknowledged the risk.

“I know what Trump will do and has done,” she said. “But there are just too many ignorant people out there who voted against him because they didn’t like him.”

Maggie Haberman and Shane Goldmacher contributed reporting.


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