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GOP elites want to turn from Trump. Will the base let them?

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Vendors sell Trump merchandise before former President Donald Trump's rally Friday, Sept. 23, 2022, in Wilmington, N.C. (AP Photo/Chris Seward)

Republican power brokers may be ready to break from former President Trump, but he still has the loyalty of a significant bloc of GOP primary voters. (Chris Seward / Associated Press)

Forget the scathing editorials from conservative media blaming former President Trump for the GOP’s mediocre midterm. Never mind their underwhelmed reception to his 2024 presidential launch. Disregard the major donors who are bailing this time around.

Keith Korsgaden is firmly on board for a Trump reprise. He’s quite sure he’s not alone.

“There are 74 million people that voted for Donald Trump in 2020, and those 74 million of us still feel the same way — that he’s one of us,” Korsgaden said. The Visalia restaurant owner has been a Trump supporter since that momentous descent down Trump Tower’s escalator in 2015.

There may not be quite the unanimity that Korsgaden predicts, but his loyalty underscores a stark reality: Republican power brokers may be ready to break from Trump, but a significant slice of Republican voters? Not so much.

As the 2022 midterm election wheezes to an end, the start of the 2024 campaign feels both uncharted and uncannily familiar. Trump began his bid for a comeback — the first attempt by a former president since Herbert Hoover — as the front-runner for the Republican nomination who nonetheless appears vulnerable to a serious intra-party challenge.

The fundamental question facing the Republican Party during this long run-up to the next election is who truly is in control: the elected officials and opinion leaders who have shaped their party’s agenda from the top, or the grassroots bloc of Trump faithful who have ruled from below. The latter may have shrunk in numbers since the former president left office, but they still command outsize influence in GOP primaries — and there may be just enough of them to propel Trump forward in a crowded field of competitors.

Republicans face daunting scenarios: an ugly primary battle that could aggravate ideological tensions within the party, or an easy waltz to the nomination by a candidate with proven unpopularity among crucial voters such as women and independents.

“I don’t believe he is completely intractable from the Republican Party,” said Mike Madrid, an anti-Trump GOP consultant. “Here’s what I do believe — I believe the Republicans have so swallowed the hook that when you rip it out, it’ll bring up all its guts and probably kill it.”

Republican elites have been here before, publicly breaking from Trump after the predatory vulgarity of the leaked “Access Hollywood” tape, his equivocation in denouncing white supremacists in Charlottesville, and the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol that was catalyzed by his false allegations of election fraud. But so long as Trump was able to mobilize infrequent voters to back him or his endorsed candidates, his influence on the party was never in doubt.

It may be different this time. In tones typically reserved for Trump, media personalities are speaking reverently about Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ 19-point romp to reelection. The party’s strong performance in Florida’s congressional races also enhanced DeSantis’ reputation for carrying down-ballot candidates to victory. By contrast, top party figures have pointedly noted, Republicans have struggled in three consecutive national elections since Trump won the White House in 2016.

“If a political party can’t stay committed to their central premise, which is winning elections, then what’s the point?” said David Kochel, a veteran Republican strategist.

There is some evidence the GOP is ready to move on. A recent NBC poll found that 62% of Republicans said they considered themselves more a supporter of the party than of Trump, the highest number since the question was first polled in January 2019. Club for Growth, a conservative group once allied with Trump, circulated polls showing DeSantis with a healthy lead over the former president in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states on the path to the GOP nomination, as well as Florida and Georgia.

Christine Matthews, a pollster who has Republican clients, said the sense that primary voters ready to look beyond Trump is “very real,” driven by their belief that he is hobbled by his antagonistic relationship with the media.

“They’re able to justify moving on from him by saying, ‘The media will never give him a fair shot. They’ll always be against him. So even though we really like him and think his policies were great, it’s probably time for someone new,'” Matthews said.

Donald Trump stands and points in front of a row of flags and his wife

Former President Trump this week announced a third run for president at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. (Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

So far, the consensus pick for that someone new is DeSantis, who offers the former president’s instinct for culture war combat in a less chaotic presentation.

“DeSantis is the stock to buy, Trump is the stock to sell in politics,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Texas-based GOP strategist.

The most pressing challenge for DeSantis will be how to parry Trump’s attacks, Mackowiak said. The Florida governor “has survived a lot of attacks from a lot of people, but Trump is different. He just is.”

By announcing his bid before the Senate runoff race in Georgia next month, Trump risks even more of a rupture with his party if Republicans end up losing that race.

Many GOP operatives still smart over the Georgia Senate runoff in January 2021, when Trump’s fixation on his election loss dampened turnout among his supporters and Democrats went on to win the two races and control of the Senate.

One of those victors, Sen. Raphael Warnock, is hoping Trump will have a similar effect on the electorate this time around. On Thursday, his campaign released an ad that is solely footage from Trump’s 2024 announcement, in which the former president endorses Warnock’s GOP challenger, Herschel Walker. The commercial ends with two taglines: “Stop Donald Trump” and “Stop Herschel Walker.”

Some of Trump’s onetime allies in conservative media have been withering in their criticism about his drag on the party after his preferred candidates flopped in key Senate and House races in last week’s election. The New York Post has been especially lacerating; the day following his 2024 kickoff, it tersely teased “Florida Man Makes Announcement” on the cover and buried the story about the speech on page 26 with the headline, “Been there, Don that.”

Other outlets greeted Trump’s candidacy with similarly unenthused headlines. “Trump 3.0 is a changed man — he’s now a loser,” said the Washington Examiner. “Oh, Trump Believes in Yesterday,” opined Karl Rove in the Wall Street Journal. The National Review’s take was simply titled, “No.”

“The way and force [with which] they’ve turned on him has blown my hair back,” said Howard Polskin, whose daily newsletter, TheRighting, rounds up headlines from the conservative media ecosystem.

But recent GOP history is full of cautionary tales about the challenges of reorienting the party, especially if its most committed voters aren’t on board.

In 2012, after two consecutive bruising presidential losses, party stalwarts decided it was necessary to remake Republicans’ image. Fox News’ Sean Hannity said he “evolved” in his thinking on immigration and endorsed a pathway to citizenship. The Republican National Committee commissioned what was widely called an autopsy, which prescribed softening stances on social issues and promoted immigration reform as a way to attract voters of color, young people and women.

The Republican grassroots felt differently. Conservative shock jock Rush Limbaugh railed against the document. Four years later, the party backed a candidate whose hard-line immigration stance could be summed up with the phrase, “Build the Wall.”

“We were projecting what we thought was going to be best for the party onto the voters, rather than listening to what the voters wanted and trying to fashion a party that appeals to them,” said Tim Miller, a former RNC official who worked on the report.

For years, party leaders tried to steer conservatives to more electable candidates, leading to John McCain and Mitt Romney becoming the GOP nominees. Both lost in the general election.

“Donald Trump broke the mystique” of that strategy, Miller said, by being a candidate who gave the grassroots what they wanted and still won a general election. Now, “it’s hard to see them buying an electability argument again,” said Miller, who has been a fierce Trump critic.

Despite myriad commentators and editorials decrying Trumpism as a cause for the most recent GOP disappointments, some supporters of the former president haven’t been persuaded.

“Blaming President Trump is preposterous,” said Celeste Greig, a longtime GOP activist from Northridge. She said the fault lies more with poor campaign efforts by local and state parties.

Greig said that in her wide network of conservative stalwarts, “I haven’t found any of my friends, any of my acquaintances, that said he shouldn’t run.”

For all the high-profile breaks from Trump, others were quick to show their support. Grassroots favorites such as Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia swiftly endorsed Trump’s 2024 bid. Sen.-elect J.D. Vance of Ohio, who won the primary thanks to the former president’s backing, penned an op-ed titled, “Don’t Blame Trump.”

“What will be critical to watch will be how Fox News prime time treats him,” said Polskin, who tracks conservative media. “They are by far the biggest megaphone in the biggest right-wing media universe.”

The crowded right-wing media ecosphere may also pressure some of the bigger outlets to return to Trump’s camp. When Fox News recognized Biden’s 2020 win, Trump publicly bashed the channel and urged his supporters to move to smaller, more hard-line channels — OAN and Newsmax — and Fox’s ratings plunged.

Even if this current antagonistic tone persists from major outlets, a vast array of podcasts, streaming shows and conservative websites will continue to generate plenty of Trump-aligned content.

“We’re in a new media terrain,” said Heather Hendershot, professor of film and media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, contrasting the monolithic audience in the network era to the current fractured media landscape. “You can’t point back to as splintered a moment as it is today.”

That’s a reason Korsgaden, the committed Trump fan, has not been swept up in the DeSantis fervor of the major conservative outlets. He is not a fan of Trump’s swipes at the Florida governor, but he thinks DeSantis has plenty of time for a White House bid in the future. And good luck to any media personality or party leader who tries to convince him otherwise.

“I’m very skeptical of teachers and doctors and politicians. … You know who I trust?” he asked. “The big mouth with the orange hair.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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