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Will the ‘Trump factor’ continue to roil Republican politics?

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Rep. Liz Cheney speaks to the media during a news conference in Washington, 2017.

Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., speaks with members of the media during a news conference at the Republican congressional retreat in Philadelphia, on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2017. Cheney was dismissed from GOP house leadership last Wednesday.

Matt Rourke, Associated Press

National media pundits have exhausted themselves discussing recent internal Republican Party squabbles. We spend our limited energy opining whether all this turmoil affects Utah politics.

Rep. Liz Cheney was dumped from House leadership because of her ongoing criticism of former President Donald Trump. Some are calling this evidence of a “civil war” within the Republican Party. Is that true and is it happening here in Utah?

Pignanelli: “What is happening inside the GOP feels closer to a purge. Two bigger sides are needed to have a civil war.”— Brendan Buck, adviser to Republican House speakers

Despite multiple references, the term “civil war” is an inaccurate description. The conflict is more of a family fight or tribal dispute. No policy or substance issues are involved. Rather it’s a clash over fealty to a patriarch, without an identifiable leader or group in opposition.

The Cheney situation defies the easy explanation offered by pundits. She received substantial support by her colleagues in a similar vote in February. Cheney’s commitment to conscience is commendable. But the Wyoming congresswoman shares her famous father’s pugnacious demeanor (a kind description) and caused unnecessary friction inside the GOP conference.

While dedicated Trumpistas do abound in Utah, their impact pales in comparison to other regions. Most local Republicans will proclaim strong support of Trump’s policies but use careful language regarding the actual persona. Smart politicians understand the president endures mixed feelings in the state.

In a domestic squabble, some family members wisely remain on the sidelines. Few Utah politicos will pick a fight over temperaments that don’t mesh with our state.

Webb: With advantages in redistricting and the unreliable leadership and leftward tilt of the Joe Biden administration, Republicans should be in great shape to take back the Senate and win control of the House in 2022.

But the battle between the Trump lovers and Trump haters in the GOP divides the party and threatens the prospects of a national GOP resurgence. The schism won’t make much difference in Utah, but it will in close congressional elections in swing states.

As I’ve written many times, Republicans won’t win close elections if they alienate the Trump base, OR if they alienate traditional Republicans who don’t like Trump’s character. Both factions must put aside their disdain for each other and unite in voting against the big-government, high-tax, ultraliberal agenda of congressional Democrats and the Biden administration.

“I hate Trump” isn’t a great political manifesto for a Republican to run on. Cheney and others like her are doing a disservice to their party by continually brooding over Trump and responding to his every social media post. Just ignore him and focus on policy, while encouraging his supporters to stick with the party.

Utah’s congressional delegation was divided on the Cheney removal. Rep. Blake Moore and Sen. Mitt Romney were publicly opposed. Will this be an issue for any of them in the 2022 elections? Does this create challenges for the new GOP party officers?

Pignanelli: Moore will encounter questions from Trump hardliners. Romney, because of the two impeachment votes, will face more aggressive internal opposition. Cheney’s replacement, Rep. Elise Stefanik, is a Trump enthusiast but substantially less conservative than Cheney. Romney, but especially Moore, can claim that their actions are consistent with GOP values. Gov. Spencer Cox demonstrates such a strategy is viable.

Reaction to politicians supporting Cheney’s demotion may depend on Trump’s status in a year. While they may not face significant pushback inside the party, their general election opponents could create entertaining mischief.

The new GOP officers are compelled to comprehend the environment. Donors are hesitant to provide resources to an organization in turmoil. Thus, the Utah Republican Party must signal it is beyond the disputes raging at a national level. These officials are about to gain a crash course in practical politics.

Webb: A Republican incumbent, in Utah or elsewhere, can disagree with Trump, and/or dislike him, and still be OK politically. But it is the unrelenting harping on Trump, and being unable to get beyond Trump’s role in the insurrection of Jan. 6, that grows old and disrupts party unity.

No doubt, Trump’s continual haranguing about the 2020 election being stolen is extremely annoying, even for many who liked his policies. But reacting to his every pronouncement only encourages him.

This problem is not going away. Trump is expected to begin holding rallies around the country. Republicans must learn to live with the immense Trump distraction, while trying to hold the party together. It won’t be easy.   

Will the controversy impact down ballot races (i.e. legislative, school boards, etc.)?

Pignanelli: Usually, local candidates can avoid presidential politics. But, history suggests if voters sense dysfunction within either party they may cast their ballots accordingly.

Webb: Local candidates should certainly explain their philosophy of government and ideological underpinnings. But they are wise to focus on local problem-solving and issues related to the positions they are seeking.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser who served as a Democrat in the Utah state Legislature. Email: frankp@xmission.com.