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Week In Politics: The Future Of The GOP In State Politics

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

As we know, the Republicans lost the White House and the Senate and failed to gain control of the House in the 2020 election. Now, traditionally, in the weeks and months after an election, the losing party hunkers down to try and figure out what went wrong. But nothing about 2020 was traditional, and the aftermath of that election has been just as unusual. To be sure, the GOP is trying to figure out what it is, what it stands for, but it's still operating in the shadow of former President Donald Trump.

So let's dig into what's happening with the party, not only in Washington, but also in Ohio and Arizona. This is our Week In Politics segment. And we're joined now by Nathan Gonzales, the editor and publisher of Inside Elections, Ben Giles, correspondent with member station KJZZ in Phoenix, and Andy Chow, reporter with Ohio Public Radio, who joins us from Columbus.

Welcome to all three of you.

ANDY CHOW, BYLINE: Hello.

BEN GILES, BYLINE: Thank you.

NATHAN GONZALES: Thank you for having me.

CHANG: All right, Ben and Andy, I want to start by hearing from each of you what's been happening in your state's Republican Parties. Ben, you're in Arizona, where the state party has taken some pretty aggressive steps against a few notable Arizona Republicans, right?

GILES: Yeah. Just this past Saturday, the Arizona Republican Party held its biennial convention, if you will. They elect the party's leaders for the next two years. But they also considered a couple of censures for top Arizona Republicans. That includes the current governor, Doug Ducey, former U.S. Senator Jeff Flake and also Cindy McCain, the widow of former U.S. Senator John McCain. And the thrust of those censures was that these are Republicans who didn't have enough fealty for former President Donald Trump. Governor Ducey supported Trump but drew his ire when he certified the election results in Arizona that showed Joe Biden won the state. And as far as McCain and Flake, they both endorsed Biden and have spoken out against Trump. And that lack of loyalty brought down the fire from sort of the diehard Republicans who are really involved in state politics here.

CHANG: Well, what about Ohio, Andy? This week, Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman announced that he will not be seeking another term. Other Republicans are making noises about challenging the current governor there, Mike DeWine, when he's up for reelection in 2022. Can you just talk about, who are these Republicans who want to make a run for these offices?

CHOW: Arizona is very similar to what's happening in Ohio, where you do have sort of these factions of Republicans - have people like Jim Renacci, who came into Congress earlier in 2010 on that Tea Party wave. You also have people like Josh Mandel. He used to run - or he used to serve as Ohio's treasurer. And then you have just, again, this in-party fighting between these mainstream establishment Republicans and these so-called Trump Republicans.

CHANG: Well, OK, Nathan, let's bring you in here. When it comes to Republicans, are you surprised by what you're hearing from Andy and from Ben, that Republicans are going after their own in Arizona and the party's getting kind of tugged to the right in some places in Ohio?

GONZALES: I think the tension within the Republican Party right now is that there is this desire to stay loyal to the president but a lack of self-reflection about what happened in the 2020 elections. It appears that Republicans at the state and local level are doubling and tripling down on a Trump coalition that was not large enough to keep the White House, not large enough to take control of the - to keep control of the Senate and not large enough to take back the House.

CHANG: Well, what do you think, Nathan? I mean, this lack of self-reflection that you speak of and these current dynamics in the Republican Party, what does all of that do to what conservative means today?

GONZALES: Well, the conservative label - I tend to shy away from labels because I'm not sure what they mean anymore because I think right now people throw around the word conservative. But when we're talking about Republicans, we're really talking about, are you sufficiently for President Trump? You know, there are some, like Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, who I think is trying to make the distinction between what it means to be a conservative or what a conservative was five, 10, 15 years ago. But all of these terms have become blurred.

And then the Republican Party has come to be the - primarily the following of a person. And now that it comes time for some sort of transition, well, Republicans can't even agree if there should be a transition. And if they do want to transition, it becomes difficult because nobody else is President Trump. I mean, one thing the Republicans, I think, are going to face in the midterm elections is, how do you turn out the Trump coalition that is primarily the following of a person when he is not on the ballot? And there is a portion of the Republican coalition that - they like him. They also don't like Republican politicians. They think they're all part of the swamp. And that's problematic for down-ballot Republican candidates.

CHANG: I want to talk a little bit more about these factions inside the Republican Party. And I want to do that in the context of something we heard earlier this week on this show from Republican pollster Whit Ayres. Let me just play a piece of tape for you. This is something he had said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

WHIT AYRES: January 6 was the opening battle in the war for the soul of the Republican Party. The GOP is seriously split into a governing faction and a populist faction. The governing faction dominated the party for years and still dominates today among elected officials. The populist faction was present before Donald Trump's candidacy, but Trump expanded it and grew it into a dominant force in Republican primaries, although it never became a majority force in the country.

CHANG: I want to turn to Andy and Ben again. I mean, do you agree that some of what Whit Ayres is saying is indeed happening at the state level? Andy, why don't you go ahead and start?

CHOW: I definitely agree. And I think it's interesting the way he puts it as the populist branch and the governing branch. We've been seeing this a lot, especially in the primaries in Ohio, where even current Governor Mike DeWine faced a tough primary against his challenger who was positioning herself as the Trump Republican.

CHANG: Ben Giles.

GILES: I see that happening in different ways at two levels in Arizona. There's elections at the statewide level, where Democrats have now won both of the state's U.S. Senate seats in two years. And Donald Trump obviously lost the state's popular vote in 2020. That's because, for years, centrist politicians have been the winners at the state level and - either a little bit left of center or a little bit right of center - either of those seems to be a fine option for voters statewide in Arizona. But what we've seen is at lower levels, particularly at the state Legislature in those Republican primaries, that Trump populism, that type of candidate is still flourishing.

CHANG: Nathan Gonzales.

GONZALES: If I could add another wing - I don't know if that works with the metaphor - another wing to the party, but another faction is the people who invaded the Capitol on January 6. And all Trump supporters did not invade the Capitol. But I don't think Republicans have really wrestled with - that those people who did that were, by and large, Trump supporters. But what that does to the overall Republican Party is there are Republicans who were Trump voters, and they were in it for the policy. They were in it for the judges. They didn't like Trump as a person or the tweets.

But now that he isn't in power and doesn't have the ability or leverage to deliver on those things, those sort of policy - maybe it's the establishment or governing - Republicans are looking at the people who invaded the Capitol. They're looking at the person who beat a police officer with an American flag and say, is this a group I want to be a part of? And we have to remember, Republicans can't afford to lose voters, right? Their current coalition was not enough to put them in power. So they don't have a lot of margin for error.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, we will have to leave it there. We have been talking with Nathan Gonzales, the editor and publisher of Inside Elections, Ben Giles, correspondent with member station KJZZ, and Andy Chow, reporter with Ohio Public Radio.

Thank you to all three of you.

CHOW: Thank you.

GONZALES: Thank you.

GILES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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