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May 8, 2021

Steven V. Roberts: What will Texas tell us?

Michael Wood will tell us something about today’s Republican Party. A major in the Marine Corps Reserves, he’s one of 23 candidates from both parties running in a special election on May 1 in the sixth district of Texas. (The election will fill the seat of the late Rep. Ron Wright, who died from COVID-19 earlier this year.)

But of those 23 candidates, Wood is the only Republican who opposes Donald Trump.

“The Republican Party has lost its way and now is the time to fight for its renewal,” Wood says on his website. “We were once a party of ideas, but we have devolved into a cult of personality. This must end.”

That’s a message many Republicans embrace privately, but are too frightened of Trump’s tantrums to express in public. The question is whether Wood can do well enough to encourage others to free the party from the ex-president’s chokehold.

“It’s a fascinating test case,” Matt Gorman, a Republican strategist, told ABC. “It could provide a blueprint for folks and organizations who would want to do this sort of thing in districts across the country.”

Frankly, the prospects are not great. In the latest Politico/Morning Consult poll, 81% of Republicans and party leaners view Trump favorably. Susan Wright, widow of the previous congressman, is also running for the seat. She has received Trump’s endorsement and remains the favorite.

Sen. Lindsey Graham spoke for many Republican loyalists when he told Fox News: “Donald Trump is the most vibrant member of the Republican Party. The Trump movement is alive and well. … We need Trump.”

There’s lots of evidence to support him. Republican leaders have been making the pilgrimage to Trump’s shrine at Mar-a-Lago and pledging their devotion. The ex-president has amassed a huge war chest of about $85 million, much of it from small donors, and state parties from North Carolina to Nevada have censured Republican officials who stood up to Trump and rejected his lies about the election.

Perhaps the best example of Trump’s continuing influence — backed by his limitless capacity for grudge-holding and revenge-seeking — is Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and ambassador to the United Nations who hungers to run for president.

In an interview with Politico in February, she said of Trump, “We need to acknowledge he let us down. He went down a path he shouldn’t have, and we shouldn’t have followed him, and we shouldn’t have listened to him. And we can’t let that ever happen again.” Just recently, however, she’s scuttled backward, saying she wouldn’t challenge Trump if he ran in 2024 — and would, in fact, endorse him.

But a Trump-led party could be headed for disaster. In the latest average of national polls by Real Clear Politics, the former president’s favorable rating is 39.3%. He received 46.9% of the vote last November, so this represents a fall-off of 7.6% since that high point.

Ed Rogers, a veteran GOP insider, told Tom Edsall of The New York Times: “I don’t think Trump can win a two-person race in a general election. He can’t get a majority. He pulled a rabbit out of the hat in 2016, and he got beat bad by an uninspiring candidate in 2020.”

Trump could also hurt down-ballot candidates, which is why many smart thinkers believe upstarts like Wood represent the brightest future for the Republican Party. For the first three months of this year, Gallup polling shows that 49% of the public identifies as Democrats or Democratic-leaners, while just 40% call themselves Republicans or say they generally favor the GOP.

“That’s the largest gap between Democrats and Republicans in Gallup’s quarterly study of party identification in nearly a decade,” reports CNN. “The last time Democrats had larger lead on party ID was early 2009.”

Denver Riggleman, a former GOP congressman from Virginia who lost a primary to a Trump acolyte, warns his party to reject the temptations of Trumpism. He argues that there’s “a strong contingent of GOP voters who have completely lost themselves in the rabbit hole of conspiracies, disinformation and grievance politics,” reports CNN. Most Republican lawmakers, he added, “want to get reelected, so they would rather have people like me shut the hell up, even though they know I’m right.”

Dissidents like Wood and Riggleman refuse to shut up and go away. But it’s not clear yet who’s listening to them.

 

Steven Roberts teaches  at George Washington University. Email him at
stevecokie@gmail.com.

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