PROVIDENCE — Dawson Hodgson, a former Republican state senator, on Monday tweeted a Lincoln Project video that claims President Donald Trump “isn’t a conservative — he’s weak.”
Gary S. Sasse, who was administration director for former GOP governor Donald L. Carcieri, made a video for Republican Voters Against Trump, saying, “I’ve been a Republican for 40 years, and I’m not going to vote for Donald Trump.”
And state Representative John W. “Jack” Lyle Jr. of Lincoln left the Republican Party on June 23 to run as an independent, saying that he doesn’t respect Trump and that “the Republican Party has left me.”
In Rhode Island, as around the nation, the so-called “Never Trump” rebellion is roiling, with disaffected Republicans releasing an increasing number of personal testimonials and scathing ads that troll Trump.
To disaffected or former Republicans, the attacks represent an attempt to reclaim the party and the principles that they say Trump has trampled. But to party leaders, the sniping represents meaningless, misguided attacks that play into the hands of Democrats attempting to regain power.
And now, with less than 100 days until the Nov. 3 election, the tension is mounting.
Hodgson — a North Kingstown resident who served in the Senate from 2011 until 2015 and ran for attorney general in 2014 — said that when they handed out superlatives in his elementary school, he was deemed “most likely to be a Republican,” and he became chairman of the Federalist Society at his law school.
But on Monday, Hodgson tweeted a Lincoln Project video in which former US Navy SEAL Dr. Dan Barkhuff says that although he’s a conservative who disagrees with Biden on many issues, Trump shows no respect for the Constitution and is “the most easily fixable problem in America today.”
“The veteran in that ad spoke for me,” Hodgson said.
In 2016, Hodgson supported then-Ohio governor John Kasich for president, serving as co-chair of his Rhode Island campaign team. Trump ended up winning the nomination, and Hodgson ended up leaving the GOP and becoming an unaffiliated voter.
Hodgson said he did not like Hillary Clinton, so he voted for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson. But this year, he plans to vote for the Democratic nominee, Joe Biden. Though they disagree on some policies, he believes Biden “wants the best for our country” while Trump wants what’s best for himself.
Hodgson said he feels personally betrayed — not by the loud voices “parroting Fox News chatter” — but by GOP intellectual leaders who remained mum as Trump made a mockery of conservative principles such as “personal responsibility, respect for the Constitution, and the rule of law.”
Local Republicans loyal to Trump push back, noting that after the 2016 election, Hodgson expressed interest in being nominated by the Trump administration as the U.S. Attorney for Rhode Island, but he didn’t get the job. Hodgson said he believed he could set aside his differences with Trump and do a good job as the top federal prosecutor in the state.
Hodgson said his brother resigned as a lieutenant commander in the Navy after the 2016 election because he didn’t want to serve with Trump as commander-in-chief. At the time, he thought his brother was overreacting. But now, he said, “I realize how right my brother was.”
Former House minority leader Brian C. Newberry, a North Smithfield Republican, said that in Rhode Island, Never Trumpers represent a small group that lash out online and hold little sway.
“Since 2016, there has been a handful of individuals that, for whatever reason, can’t help themselves and keep trying to signal their virtue on social media that they’re not in favor of Trump,” he said. “It’s kind of sad.”
Newberry said Trump can be a “colossal jerk.” But, he said, “I’m not electing him to be Mr. Nice Guy.”
Rather, he said, he plans to vote for Trump because of the policies he has enacted, including his “tax reform package” and conservative judicial appointments. He said Trump has governed as more of a conservative Republican than former president George W. Bush.
“I think Donald Trump has been a very good president policy-wise,” Newberry said. “I look at his actions, not his words.”
He said if Republicans dislike a nominee for any position, there is a process set up for that: A primary challenge.
Newberry blasted the Lincoln Project ads, saying the group amounts to “a few so-called Republicans raising a ton of money from Democrats.” And he said the group’s support for Democrats in Senate races undercuts its claim to care about conservative principles.
Before Trump won the 2016 nomination, Newberry and Sasse were two of the leading local supporters for US Senator Marco Rubio. But unlike Newberry, Sasse won’t be backing Trump in November.
Sasse recently taped a testimonial for Republican Voters Against Trump.
“I’m Gary Sasse. I’m from East Greenwich, Rhode Island,” he says in the video. “If you ask what Donald Trump cherishes, Donald Trump cherishes loyalty — but not loyalty to the United States of America; he cherishes loyalty to Donald Trump.”
In an interview, Sasse said he has not decided whether he will vote for Biden or write in the name of someone, such as Mitt Romney or John Kasich, whom he sees as standing for traditional Republican principles.
Sasse — founding director of Bryant University’s Hassenfeld Institute for Public Leadership and former executive director of the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council — said the national debt was massive, even before the coronavirus hit.
The Trump administration has antagonized allies, placing the country at greater risk in foreign affairs, he said, and the administration’s response to the pandemic has been “inadequate.”
Sasse noted the country is facing an unfortunate “trifecta” with a health crisis, an economic crisis, and racial unrest hitting all at once. “You would expect a leader to try to do everything he or she can to bring us together, not divide us,” he said. “Trump is dividing us.”
Rhode Island Republican Chairwoman Sue Cienki said that if Sasse is concerned with fiscal responsibility, he should focus on what the state’s Democratic congressional delegation is doing about federal spending and how much Democratic leaders are spending in the state budget.
Cienki said some might find Trump “bold, brash and combative with his tweets,” but his policies led to tax cuts and “the greatest explosion of job growth we have seen in a long time.” While the economy has taken a hit amid the pandemic, she argued that Trump is better positioned to rebuild the economy than Biden because he has done it before.
Rhode Island Republicans are solidly behind Trump, Cienki said, and GOP candidates are hearing a lot of support for his policies as they campaign door to door: “I think you have a lot of the silent majority out there.”
If Representative Lyle were still a Republican, he would face a primary against John Cullen, but now he plans to run as an independent against Cullen and former representative Mary Ann Shallcross-Smith, a Democrat.
Lyle, 70, said he has been a Republican throughout his life, and his father helped build a strong Republican Party in Lincoln. So, he said, he had “mixed emotions” about his decision to leave the GOP.
But, he said, “I really felt the Republican Party has left me, as a person who has prided himself on being fiscally responsible, mostly conservative, and moderate on social issues.”
Lyle said his Republican Party is the party of Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, of former congresswoman Claudine Schneider and former US senator and governor John H. Chafee. But he said Trump is not his type of leader.
“I don’t respect him as a man,” Lyle said. “He was a bully on ‘The Apprentice’ — he showed his stripes then and he continues to wear those stripes.”
So who will he vote for in November? “I am very interested in who Biden picks as his running mate,” Lyle replied. “I would love to see Kamala Harris and Biden on a ticket.”
Cienki said Lyle lives in a “Republican-leaning district” in Lincoln, and he “got pushback” for some of his votes. For example, he voted for legislation that aims to protect abortion rights in case the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, and for legislation that keeps municipal union contracts in force indefinitely if a new agreement has not been reached.
Lyle said some have suggested he’d be better off running as a Democrat because of his “support for women’s rights and workers’ rights.”
But, he said, “There’s no way I could do that because my father would have killed me. He’s been dead 20 years, but he would have thrown a lightning bolt at me.”
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org