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How The Republican Party Could Splinter (Or Stay The Same)

The GOP is in a bit of disarray.

While most of its members continue to display an unwavering loyalty to former President Donald Trump, a smaller but prominent group of more than 100 Republicans are gearing up for a breakaway plan. News of the effort surfaced last week when House Republicans ousted Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney from leadership after she repeatedly challenged Trump for falsely claiming the 2020 election was stolen from him.

It’s not clear yet what Cheney’s exile will mean for Republicans like her who are anti-Trump and ready for the party to move forward without the former president at the helm, but the GOP’s breakup with Cheney once again raises the question of whether the party will experience an exodus (Cheney, for the record, has said she’s running for reelection).

A splintering of the Republican Party has long been speculated, and while it’s hard to know whether this is, in fact, a turning point or an isolated incident that will soon recede from the headlines, these four scenarios are possible.

What would have to happen for a 3rd party to be viable

A breakaway conservative party will form.

Although Cheney hasn’t said publicly whether she’d join this third breakaway party (she previously told the “Today” show she would not leave the GOP over its embrace of the former president), it’s entirely possible that this is her next move. The group of Republicans who have threatened to join if the GOP doesn’t pull back from Trump largely fits the pattern of former officials breaking rank, but it does include some prominent former officeholders and high-ranking Republican staffers.

As far as the ideological leanings of the breakaway coalition go, political scientists I talked with told me to expect it to be composed of “Trump-skeptical moderates” and “anti-Trumpers” — two of the five wings of the Republican Party Perry Bacon Jr. previously described for FiveThirtyEight. That’s to say, this isn’t even close to the majority of the GOP, and reports so far say Republicans on board with this effort are generally fiscally conservative but more centrist on cultural issues. Because of this, we wouldn’t be surprised if some Democrats joined this effort, too. Last year, the Pew Research Center found that conservative and moderate voters make up about half (51 percent) of the Democratic electorate, so if there’s potential for this third breakaway party to have any hope of viability, it needs it to be bipartisan, too.

“For this to work, you’d have to bring on some Democrats, and it’d be the type of people who are at odds with the more progressive … wing of the party,” said Robert Saldin, a political science professor at the University of Montana. That said, Saldin cautioned me that it’s hard to imagine flocks of Democrats moving in this direction, short of the progressive wing gaining control of the party. “The type of Democrat who one could imagine linking up with the signers of that letter already has a big seat at the table in a Biden-led Democratic Party,” he added.

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related: Congressional Republicans Left Office In Droves Under Trump. Just How Conservative Are Their Replacements? Read more. »

And regarding the Republicans likely joining this effort, Saldin said, they do “not constitute the beating heart of today’s GOP” since conservatism now is largely defined by dedication to Trump. 

Another obvious stumbling block for this group is that the zero-sum, winner-take-all dynamics of U.S. elections make it nearly impossible for third parties to gain electoral traction. Plus, members would be running on an anti-Trump platform, and the former president’s approval rating among Republicans is still very high: A February Quinnipiac University survey found that most Republicans (75 percent) still want Trump to play a prominent role in the party even if his standing may be slipping among Republicans. Trump, of course, hasn’t ruled out running for president again either, which could further complicate things for members of the party who are ready to move on. But even if Trump doesn’t run, Republicans who have shown strong support for the former president — like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantishave strong support among the activist base. (It’s still too early, though, for polls to gauge whether they’re actually viable candidates for 2024.) 

“What we’re talking about here is an extension of the ‘Never-Trump’ phenomenon, and that did prove quite effective in carving out a space for itself in the media and op-ed pages and the cable shows, and I could certainly see that continuing,” Saldin said. “The problem is, I don’t see a whole lot of voters who would be attracted to this. That’s the challenge.”

Anti-Trump Republicans will run as independents.

Of course, setting up a third party is hard, so we could likely see an uptick in the number of candidates who run as independents. Cheney, for her part, hasn’t indicated that she plans to take this route either. But if her standing among GOP voters worsens or if party leaders continue to push her aside, the pressure to leave the party could become insurmountable. Consider that she already faces at least six primary opponents and Trump has said he’ll back a Republican challenger to her. In other words, if Trump’s grip on the party remains ironclad, it might make more sense for Cheney — and other Republicans tired of the former president — to run as independent candidates.

Working in Cheney’s favor is voters’ increasing dissatisfaction with the two major political parties, and as Gallup has reported, the share of Americans who identify as independents has surged. This, in theory, provides an opening for someone like Cheney, as independents are more likely than Republicans (by 69 percent to 23 percent, per an April CNN/SSRS survey) to acknowledge that Biden legitimately won the election. So, if some voters are truly dissatisfied with the state of politics and democracy (which polls show is consistently the case), there may be a real opportunity for more independent candidates. 

And while, historically, third-party candidates haven’t fared well, the independent candidates who have won their races (think Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders or Maine Sen. Angus King) were well-known, not unlike Cheney. Plus, she wouldn’t be the first Republican with high name recognition to not run on the party’s ticket: Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, for example, ran as a write-in candidate after losing to a Tea Party-backed candidate in the 2010 primaries — and won reelection

That said, as FiveThirtyEight elections analyst Geoffrey Skelley previously reported, few Americans are actually independent; most Americans identify with one of the two major parties. And, similar to the idea of a breakaway GOP group, it’s also not immediately clear if enough Democrats would support these candidates — which would likely be needed for them to win, Saldin told me — or if this would just cause Republicans to start losing seats because the vote would be split. 

“So far we haven’t seen any form of effectiveness from Never-Trumpers,” said Bernard Tamas, a political science professor at Valdosta State University. “But short of them running against the Republican Party, I doubt that they’re going to have any impact at all.” In other words, trying to change the party from within has completely failed at this point, so in some ways, the only option anti-Trump Republicans have left is to run as independents or third-party candidates — but it’s an open question as to whether there’s enough support among voters for this strategy to work.

If Rep. Liz Cheney doesn’t have a home in the GOP, who does?

Trump (or someone like him) will head a third party.

This scenario was more in vogue earlier this year, when Trump was actively exploring whether to form a third party (he’s since said he won’t). But there’s still a possibility that the former president will break away from the traditional GOP — or that someone like him will lead a “Patriot” or “MAGA”-esque party that more fully embraces Trump’s politics. 

Marjorie Hershey, a political science professor at Indiana University, Bloomington, told me it’s unlikely this will happen, though, due to Trump’s hold on the GOP already. He’s “basically the Republican Party,” she said, “so I don’t see any reason for him to run as a third party.”

Most Republicans in Congress agree that Trump is the undisputed leader of the party, and other Republicans have had trouble emulating him with the same degree of success. (The New York Times’s Elaina Plott made this argument explicitly in her coverage of the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this year.)

But, should the former president decide to take this route and form a party separate from the GOP, he’d certainly have support. A February Suffolk University/USA Today poll found that 46 percent of Trump voters would leave the party in favor of a Trump-created third party. And half of the respondents said they wanted the GOP to take a stronger pro-Trump stance, even if that meant losing the support of establishment Republicans. A separate Politico/Morning Consult poll taken in February found similar support: 54 percent of Republican voters said they would support a hypothetical Trump bid in the 2024 primary, and 59 percent said he should play a “major role” in the party going forward.

Nothing will change, and the GOP will remain the party of Trump.

Of course, it’s also possible that the drama with Cheney is a mere blip and the GOP will continue down its current path where members are judged for their fealty to Trump and those deemed insufficiently loyal are either booted from their leadership roles or forced to navigate their place in the party without strong political allies. 

Based on recent events, this scenario seems the most likely, especially since the GOP barely tried to rebrand itself after suffering losses in 2020 and, in state legislatures, lawmakers still show an unwavering loyalty to Trumpism. Trump continues to dominate the Republican Party’s rhetoric, agenda, and fundraising. For instance, at the state level, Republicans are going all in on pushing restrictive voting bills to perpetuate the “Big Lie,” and at the national level, they are still embracing Trump as their leader. At CPAC, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz even declared triumphantly that Trump “ain’t goin’ anywhere.”

One big reason why Trump will likely continue to influence the party — at least in the short term — is that he’s successfully won over non-college-educated white voters, a powerful bloc of the GOP’s base. Plus, the ousting of Cheney — and subsequent elevation of New York Rep. Elise Stefanik to the No. 3 GOP role in the House — shows that being a congressional Republican today is no longer about possessing conservative bona fides but about blindly adhering to Trumpism. 

“By default we’re stuck with what we have, and the shape of that is pretty clear,” Hershey said. “The Democrats are going to remain a fairly big tent and left of center, and the Republican Party is going to be defined by whether or not its adherents are passionate enough about Donald Trump to accept basically everything he does and says.” 

And, at least right now, it’s hard to imagine any Republican being successful at the national level without having Trump’s backing. Perhaps the most obvious sign of the current times? Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said he would “absolutely” support Trump if he won the nomination in 2024 — even though in February Trump said in a publicly released statement that the senator was a “dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack.” 

Again, only time will tell where the Republican Party will go from here, and not every GOP voter is convinced the party needs to change. But at least in the near future, it’s possible some type of fissure will form between the part of the Republican Party that wants to remain loyal to the former president and the part that thinks it’s time to change. But as Saldin told me, it seems so far that it’s going to be very difficult for the party to move beyond Trump. “[Trump is] not going to willingly depart the scene, that’s for sure, and, at least right now, he’s making it hard for the party to move on.”

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Alex Samuels was a politics reporter at FiveThirtyEight.