What Does the Future Hold for the GOP after Trump?
Read Time: 4 Minutes
President Donald Trump’s time as president ended with the shocking January 6 riot that saw pro-Trump demonstrators breach the Capitol building, shocking people on both sides of the political spectrum. Meanwhile, both Republican senators in Georgia lost their elections. With all this, what does the future hold for the GOP? GLG spoke to Scott Jennings, a CNN Political Contributor who has advised former President George W. Bush, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and scores of other Republican politicians, for his insights. Below are a few select excerpts from our broader discussion.
What’s your reaction to the unrest at the Capitol and the late-night Electoral College vote certification?
I was mortified, angry, enraged, sad, and embarrassed all at the same time as I watched what unfolded at the Capitol. First, the president clearly fomented the insurrection. In the aftermath, he’s taken no responsibility for it, and he has shown no contrition or understanding of the consequences of his actions. I think he violated his oath of office. Regarding the Electoral College count, I’m glad they finished their business. I thought it was disgraceful that after the insurrection ended and the Capitol reopened, that members of the Senate and House continued to process their objections in a futile effort to overturn the election. I was happy to see that several Republicans who were planning to object backed off and decided not to participate.
Do you expect any long-term damage to the GOP’s brand and political prospects, or is there a way for the party to distance itself from what happened and rise above?
Yes, of course. To the extent that when you have the president of your party do something so historically and galactically terrible, it is bound to reflect on its image. If you wanted to find a silver lining, though, this does provide the cleanest, clearest break point for people who have gone along with Trump. There will obviously be a percentage of Republicans who continue to believe Trump is right that the election was stolen, but his standing has drastically diminished. There’s virtually no way he could come back in 2024 now as a matter of general election viability, although I doubt he’ll see it that way. He remains viable, unfortunately, as a potential GOP nominee, which would severely limit the party’s chances of winning.
Do you expect this to be a kind of black mark on those Republicans who rejected the results when they do attempt to run in the future?
Absolutely. If most of the House Republicans who voted to object spoke candidly, they’d say they don’t really believe the election was stolen. They just needed to ward off a primary. Prior to the vote, Donald Trump Jr., Eric Trump, and the rest of the Trump surrogates told the crowd that they intended to primary any Republican who didn’t stand with Donald Trump on this vote. Congresspeople, especially in the House, have not been profiles in courage very often. They voted for self-preservation because they thought, This is more of a protest vote. This isn’t going anywhere. The Senate will save us. The trouble is it did cause real damage to them, their party, the country, and the Capitol, both from an image perspective and from a physical perspective.
Republicans lost both Senate races in Georgia. What are your thoughts on that election?
I’m not terribly surprised they lost. Donald Trump made himself the center of the election, and we have a lot of empirical evidence over the past several years that when Trump is at the center of an election, Republicans don’t win, or at least don’t win the popular vote. In Senate races, winners have to get the popular vote. By inserting him and his conspiracy theories into the middle of the Georgia runoff, it really complicated the path for Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler. It was clear to me the best message to appeal to people was the check and balance on Biden. But what made that argument hard for them was they’d have to admit that Trump lost. Essentially, Trump’s engagement in the race and his unwillingness to accept the results took the best Republican argument off the table.
As we head into the midterm cycle or the 2024 presidential cycle, will recent events continue to retain their salience to voters?
Prior to all this, I thought Trump was actually the frontrunner for the Republican nomination in 2024. He may still be, although his already low political ceiling is lower now given what happened. Second, Senators Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz disgraced and disqualified themselves for ’24. It doesn’t mean they won’t try, but they have proved to be unworthy of national office. Third, I suspect right out of the gate, Democrats under Joe Biden will aggressively pursue their agenda. There’s nothing like a Democrat agenda item to unify Republicans around a common enemy. For instance, if the Democrats were to try to erase the Trump tax cuts, I would expect widespread Republican party unity against that. Biden’s early executive orders may also engender some GOP unity against what Republicans will see as a left-lurching agenda.
From now on when we discuss the Trump presidency, all the conversations will begin and end with the act of insurrection. That won’t fade or be forgotten. It will be hard for people to say, “Other than that, it was fine.” It will linger and be important for the next four years.
If Trump won’t be the frontrunner in 2024, who do you think will come up and try to claim that spot for themselves?
Hawley and Cruz will run if Trump doesn’t. Mike Pence probably has designs on this, although his relationship with Trump is now fraught and complicates the way he probably thought about it. There are some people who have distinguished themselves in the Trump years by being able to speak to the issues that Trump brought to the fore, but also retain some personal credibility. Those include Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Tim Scott of South Carolina.
I teach a class on presidential campaigns, and I always throw in this caveat. We always think of politicians as being future candidates, but we need to start thinking about people with audiences as future candidates. If we learned anything from Trump, it’s that you don’t have to hold office to run for office, and if you have an audience, you can certainly make a go of it. There are wildcards out there in our culture. For example, Dwayne Johnson or Tucker Carlson from Fox News. Trump continues to have an audience, and I am still personally coming to grips with the number of people willing to believe abject lies and conspiracy theories that have become his core message.
What are things that people aren’t paying enough attention to or that we haven’t touched on that would be helpful to keep in mind going forward?
A new administration often leads to new opportunities, at least in the beginning. If things happen in Washington, it’s more likely to get done this year than next. And even though it’ll be stated in the news media that Democrats have full control, a 50/50 Senate is hardly full control. Yes, they have the majority leader, but most legislation (but not all) needs almost 60 votes to pass. One of the things Biden has to do is manage expectations on the left side of his caucus and his party who are going to want and demand a lot of progressive action. There are Senate Democrats such as Joe Manchin and Mark Kelly who I don’t think will be on board with some of the more progressive pieces of the agenda coming from the more liberal House Democratic conference. Biden’s ability to manage expectations in his own party will frankly be a big definer of how he does in the first two years.
About Scott Jennings
Scott is the Founding Partner of RunSwitch Public Relations, Kentucky’s largest PR and public affairs firm, providing senior-level communications, media relations, and crisis management counsel to clients the world over. Scott’s unique ability to analyze data and reconcile it with gut-level political instincts makes him a valuable contributor to clients and to CNN, which made him an on-air Political Contributor in June 2017.
The foundation of Scott’s career is journalism and understanding how information flows in our complicated media ecosystem. He started over 20 years ago as a reporter and news anchor in Louisville, Kentucky, and today, in addition to his work for CNN, he writes columns for the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and the Louisville Courier-Journal, among others. Scott has appeared on countless radio and television programs and is one of the most quoted political analysts in the country.