PALM BEACH, Fla. - Former president Donald Trump threw himself back into politics this weekend by publicly endorsing a devoted and divisive acolyte in Arizona who has embraced his false election conspiracy theories and entertained the creation of a new “MAGA Party.”
In a recorded phone call, he offered his "complete and total endorsement" for another term for Arizona state party chairwoman Kelli Ward, a lightning rod who has sparred with the state's Republican governor, been condemned by the business community and overseen a recent flight in party registrations. She narrowly won reelection, by a margin of 51.5% to 48.5%, marking Trump's first victory in a promised battle to maintain political relevance and influence after losing the 2020 election.
In recent weeks, Trump has entertained the idea of creating a third party, called the Patriot Party, and instructed his aides to prepare election challenges to lawmakers who crossed him in the final weeks in office, including Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Rep. Tom Rice, R-S.C., according to people familiar with the plans.
Multiple people in Trump's orbit, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations, say Trump has told people that the third-party threat gives him leverage to prevent Republican senators from voting to convict him during the Senate impeachment trial. Trump advisers also say they plan to recruit opposing primary candidates and commission polling next week in districts of targeted lawmakers. Trump has more than $70 million in campaign cash banked to fund his political efforts, these people say.
The prospect of a divisive battle threatens to widen a split in the Republican Party and has alarmed leaders in Washington, who have been pleading publicly to avoid any new rounds of internecine retribution. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Republican Party Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel are among the leaders who have worked to protect politicians like Cheney, who supported Trump's second impeachment and now faces an internal effort to remove her from her role as the third-highest member of the House Republican leadership.
McDaniel has also spoken out about the idea of a third party split, while repeatedly pushing back against moves by Arizona state party leaders to censure fellow Republicans, such as Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and Cindy McCain, the widow of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who have broken with Trump.
(The Arizona party on Saturday night censured Ducey, McCain and former Arizona senator Jeff Flake, all longtime establishment Republicans.)
"Having differences in the party is fine. Being a party that is adamantly against cancel culture, we need to recognize that purging isn't good. Let the voters make the decision," McDaniel said. "The only way we win in 2022 is if we start getting rid of this purism and cancel culture in our own party."
Graham, a close confidant of Trump, has also been trying to talk him out of attacking Cheney, Rice and Ducey, who earned Trump's ire by recognizing Joe Biden's win in Arizona and refusing to endorse Trump's baseless assertions that it rested on fraud.
"We've got to go together, and be a party together," Graham said. "I'm into winning. I'm into conservatives who can win."
The central issue between the warring party elements is whether Republicans will continue to organize themselves around fealty to Trump or whether a broader coalition should be built in the coming years that can welcome both his most avid supporters and those who have condemned his behavior. The scale and shape of the big tent built by Ronald Reagan, nurtured by George W. Bush and transformed by Trump is once again up for grabs, as the party finds itself without power at the White House, the Congress or the Senate for the first time since 2014.
"What we have seen in President Trump is an incredible politician but one who was limited to getting 46 or 47 percent of the national vote," said Henry Barbour, a Mississippi national committeeman who serves on the board of the Data Trust, a company that manages the party's data infrastructure. "We can win over 50 percent if we grow the party by addition and not division."
As it now stands, the big tent is tearing at the edges. Business groups have called for a Grand Old Party purge of more extreme leaders, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has blamed Trump and other Republicans for provoking the U.S. Capitol riot and McCarthy has said Trump "bears responsibility" for the attack by not immediately denouncing the violence once it began - although he later said he did not believe Trump provoked the riot.
Trump's fiercest supporters in Congress, meanwhile, have continued to threaten and denounce those who criticize the former president, repeatedly raising the prospect of a more fundamental party division.
Adding to the conflict, Republican voters remain overwhelmingly supportive of Trump, suggesting strength in primary races that the establishment figures fear could prompt losses in competitive state and national races. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found six in 10 Republicans believed the party should follow Trump's leadership going forward, rather than chart a new path.
"Here's a warning the GOP needs to hear," tweeted Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., a newly elected member who has embraced Trump's conspiratorial view and made supportive comments about QAnon. "The vast majority of Republican voters, volunteers, and donors are no longer loyal to the GOP, Republican Party, and candidates just because they have an R by their name. Their loyalty now lies with Donald J Trump."
The same tensions are also playing out in the states, where grass roots party apparatuses have rebelled against calls to accept Biden as the duly elected president. The state party of Wyoming, where Cheney serves, previously demanded that the electoral college results be rejected in Congress.
Nowhere is the division more stark right now than in Arizona, where the state Republican Party, run by Ward, has tried to lead the challenge of Biden's victory. Before the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, she filed a failed lawsuit against Vice President Mike Pence in Texas in an effort to force him to rule on the legitimacy of Arizona's electoral votes. She has also recorded conspiracy-laden videos about election impropriety that have attracted legal threats for defamation from Dominion Voting Systems, which makes software used to count ballots in parts of Arizona.
At a state party meeting in Phoenix on Saturday, hundreds of party activists gathered in church for a largely maskless gathering where some members disregarded yellow caution tape on chairs meant to enforce social distancing. Political divisions were often described in near-apocalyptic terms, and chaotic shouting dominated large parts of the proceedings, as different members of the party and individuals who have advocated for a new third party fought over parliamentary procedure during nominating speeches.
"We can't give up, we can't give in, everything is at stake, hold the line," was the rallying cry that ended an introductory video.
"We are on a precipice that has never been seen before since maybe the mid-1800s," said Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., at one point, in an apparent reference to the fight over slavery.
Ward was expected to win reelection, though her margin was surprisingly narrow, after she presented her candidacy as the only option to keep the Arizona party from going "back to the dark days before Trump." She said Trump had asked her to run in a private meeting, and then played the recorded message from him endorsing her candidacy.
"The president is watching today's race very closely," she said.
Her efforts to reject the results of the presidential election, which were run in her state by Ducey and other Republicans, have created a massive backlash among moderate elements of the party and among the business community, which has historically sided with Republicans in the state.
On the day of the Capitol riot, Ward posted a poll on her Twitter account asking, "Can we salvage/save the Republican Party or do we need another option?" "Salvage it!," received 8 percent of the responses, compared to 78 percent who selected "#MAGA Party needed."
Though Republicans performed well down ballot in 2020, they have lost two U.S. Senate seats since 2018. Last year, Biden became the first Democrat in 24 years to win Arizona's electoral votes, narrowly besting Trump by 0.3 percentage points. Many moderate Republican strategists in the state blame the extremism of the party infrastructure for the losses and worry about finding a candidate to field for the Senate seat up in 2022. Ducey, who is term limited, has said he will not run for that office.
"Right now on the Republican side I don't have a word to describe what is going on," Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry President Glenn Hamer said. "Whatever the worst case scenario is, this is worse. There will be a reaction to this. I have no doubt about it."
The divide in the party was evident on Jan. 6, when Republican protests at the Arizona Capitol physically split in two when jumbotron screens showed the riot happening thousands of miles away in Washington. One group of protesters said they supported the raid, while a separate group opposed it.
In the first nine days after the riot, nearly 5,000 Arizona Republicans changed their party registration, compared to 719 Democrats, according to the secretary of state's office. The pattern has continued since then at a reduced scale.
Neil Giuliano, the president of Greater Phoenix Leadership, a group of the state's corporate leaders, says he personally knows more than a dozen people who have left the party after the attack on the Capitol and the decision by Republican lawmakers to endorse Trump's false claims of fraud. The group put out a statement this month condemning as "reprehensible" the behavior of Ward, Gosar and Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., for "disinformation and outright lies to reverse a fair and free election." The two members of Congress were among the most vocal in seeking to deny Biden his electoral victory.
"They all know the truth," Giuliano said about the Republican officials who nonetheless claimed the election result was fraudulent. "I can't remember a time when there was something as serious as this that compelled CEOs to speak so strongly about what was going on in a political party."
Chuck Coughlin, a Republican consultant who worked with former governor Jan Brewer, a Republican, is hoping to raise money for a statewide referendum that could impose nonpartisan primary elections in the state, draining power away from local Republican Party officials.
"They get self-validated through their chat groups, and they think people like Gosar can win statewide elections and there is just no truth to that," Coughlin said. "They would rather worship themselves than work on a cause greater than themselves."
Trump himself is likely to decide how vicious the coming fights will be. Since leaving office, he has played golf in Palm Beach while remaining focused on his political fortunes. In recent weeks, Trump has told advisers that he remains angry at both McConnell and McCarthy and has the popularity to drive down their support within the party. He is encouraging his most loyal Republican lawmakers and advisers to attack other Republicans for being disloyal - and is launching an effort to blanket the airwaves during the impeachment trial, according to a person familiar with his efforts.
At the same time, he has told aides he plans to keep a lower profile over the next few months before ramping his public activities back up to fulfill his vague departing pledge, made at Joint Base Andrews on Inauguration Day, to "be back in some form."
"The president has made clear his goal is to win back the House and Senate for Republicans in 2022," Trump senior adviser Jason Miller said. "There's nothing that's actively being planned regarding an effort outside of that, but it's completely up to Republican senators if this is something that becomes more serious."
Conservative activists have grown concerned about Trump's talk of a third party split, which has been spreading over Facebook and through other messaging apps.
"A third party would lock in for a generation the left's ascendancy in American politics," said Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity and an early tea party organizer. "If you look at what Republicans accomplished during the brief time they were in power - generational tax reform, three Supreme Court justices, deregulation of the economy and energy policies to help America - they had some key successes."
Those hoping for more party unity argue that time, and collective anger at Democratic policies, are likely to heal the current wounds, as it has in past moments of crises for the party, like after the Watergate scandal, the election of Bill Clinton and the total government takeover by Democrats under Barack Obama.
Grover Norquist, a longtime party activist who runs Americans for Tax Reform, said that by the next election, complaints about Democratic proposals will overshadow the current Republican divisions.
"You can count yourself to sleep at night by recounting the number of times the establishment has said that the Republican Party is dead," he said.
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The Washington Post’s Jimmy Magahern in Phoenix contributed to this report.