Traditional Republicans Feel Unwelcome in Trump’s GOP

Supporters wait for the arrival of Nikki Haley during a campaign rally on February 27, 2024, at the Wings over the Rockies Exploration of Flight Museum in Centennial, Colorado. (Photo by JASON CONNOLLY/AFP via Getty Images)

CHARLESTON, South Carolina—Mike and Kim Brantley are regular Republican voters who pulled the lever for Donald Trump in the last election. They no longer feel welcome in a GOP coalition shaped by the former president and dominated by the newer, populist voters Trump has attracted to the party since 2015.

Trump’s provocative behavior undoubtedly contributed to their backing of Nikki Haley in the Republican presidential primary. “He never changed,” Kim Brantley told The Dispatch while attending a campaign rally for the former South Carolina governor and ex-U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in Moncks Corner, roughly 30 miles northwest of Charleston. “If he just humbled himself to the office of the presidency, we might be in a different place.” But there is a broader issue motivating their abandonment of Trump that transcends the former president and threatens to fragment the GOP, not only this year but far into the future. 

Many traditional Republican voters like the Brantleys, who have supported GOP candidates for years, are backing the longshot Haley instead of returning to Trump because they feel abandoned by the former president. Even more than that, these Ronald Reagan-era Republicans say the voters fueling Trump’s staying power inside the party are treating them with contempt and want them out.

“I don’t like being told that if I don’t believe a certain way, that I’m not a Republican,” Mike Brantley, a 56-year-old Army veteran, said Friday. The Brantleys are residents of Staten Island, a New York City borough where Trump remains popular, and were in South Carolina visiting family. They attended the Haley rally partly to encourage her to keep running even after the former president secures the 1,215 convention delegates he needs to become the presumptive Republican nominee. “I think she’s probably going to be independent at some point,” Mike Brantley said with a sense of hope in his voice.

Down the homestretch of the South Carolina campaign, The Dispatch spoke with several other voters who expressed similar feelings, many of which can best be described as the early stages of political homelessness. And this is not simply because they prefer not to vote for Trump, who turns 78 in June—and can’t imagine backing President Joe Biden, 81. Critically, it’s because they do not believe that Trump supporters generally are willing to tolerate them—or their views on fiscal, social, and foreign policy issues.

Exhibit A, as far as they are concerned, was Trump’s vow issued just after the January 23 New Hampshire primary that any contributor to the Haley campaign would be “permanently barred from the MAGA camp. … We don’t want them and we won’t accept them.” 

Message received. “Unfortunately, the MAGA people are not going to welcome us and they’re not going to like us,” said retiree Debbie Buck, who voted for Trump twice but now supports Haley and attended her final South Carolina rally in Mount Pleasant.

Becky Martin, a retiree who described herself as an undecided voter in the South Carolina primary, spoke fondly of Trump’s presidency and described him in mostly positive terms. But she was doubtful these two factions—traditional, Reagan-era Republicans and Trump-era “MAGA” Republicans—would be able to coexist under the same banner for long. “I don’t think it’s impossible. But I think it’s very difficult,” she said while attending the Haley rally in Moncks Corner. “They have such different beliefs and views on things.”

Despite warning signs for Trump posed by disaffected Republicans ahead of an expected general election rematch with Biden, it’s unclear just how much trouble he is in as he mounts his third consecutive White House bid. Trump has narrowly led Biden in RealClearPoliticsnational polling average for several months; his advantage currently sits at 47 percent to 45 percent. His lead in some surveys of the key battleground states likely to decide the November 5 contest—like Georgia, Michigan, and Pennsylvania—is often more pronounced.

Meanwhile, Trump is on track to wrap up the Republican nomination as early as mid-March. He easily defeated Haley, 52, in the first five caucuses and primaries, racking up a 20-point win on Saturday in South Carolina, where the state’s Republican establishment spurned its former twice-elected governor and marched in lockstep behind the 45th president. Trump, who trounced Haley in Michigan on Tuesday, is likely to perform well in primaries and caucuses this weekend, and, crucially, win big in next week’s lineup of “Super Tuesday” nominating contests across 16 states.

But as Haley emphasized here in Charleston during a defiant concession speech after South Carolina was called for Trump, Republican voters are far from unified around the party’s likely nominee. “I’m an accountant. I know 40 percent is not 50 percent. But I also know 40 percent is not some tiny group,” she said, referencing the share of the vote she received in the Palmetto State on Saturday. “There are huge numbers of voters in our Republican primaries who are saying they want an alternative.”

Indeed, Haley’s not-so-tiny group of supporters is desperate for a Trump alternative: an alternative who embodies Reagan Republicanism and, critically, an alternative who appreciates them.

“The Republican Party right now is less of a party and more of a cult following,” Tom Jacobs, a 72-year-old retiree and Haley voter, said while awaiting her in Mount Pleasant, where she hosted a rally in the shadow of the U.S.S. Yorktown, a World War II-era aircraft-carrier-turned-museum. “I hope when Trump is gone—either way—in four years, the Republican Party will come back to its senses.” 

“She gives you a reason to vote for her,” added Rep. Ralph Norman, the South Carolina Republican who is Haley’s lone supporter in Congress and was on hand to introduce her in Mount Pleasant. “I’ve listened to some of Trump’s rally, and to be honest with you, it’s very divisive. Nikki is a Ronald Reagan; she’s a Margaret Thatcher. Her message—that’s what’s keeping people coming.”

These are the dynamics behind the robust grassroots and financial support for Haley that better resembles a candidate truly in contention for the Republican presidential nomination. 

Usually, candidates who fail to win a caucus or primary in a key early state suspend their campaign if for no other reason than the money dries up and voters stop showing up at events. But attendance at Haley campaign events remains healthy, with several hundred—or more—often there to hear her speak. And rather than an air of resignation about the inevitable, the mood is upbeat and enthusiastic. Even after losing big in South Carolina, the Haley team claims to have raised $1 million in the 24 hours after the primary.

Looking toward the fall, Biden will have his share of political challenges holding together the coalition that delivered him the White House in 2020. There is opposition in some quarters of the Democratic Party to his strong support for Israel in the wake of Hamas’ October 7 attacks and resistance elsewhere to proposals he is floating to crack down on illegal immigration at the Southern border, not to mention general concern about his age. But the danger for Trump is that a significant percentage of traditional Republican voters—those who helped him win the White House in the first place—might never “come home” in November because they no longer feel at home in the GOP. 

When pressed on this dynamic, Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung sidestepped, saying in a text message that “Republican voters have delivered resounding wins for President Trump in every single primary contest.” The former president argued during his victory speech Saturday evening that he has “never seen the Republican Party so unified as it is right now.”

Intra-party consolidation usually occurs because voters on the losing end of a divisive primary eventually decide that the winner shares a majority of their values and conducts themselves as they believe a president should. But given Trump’s polarizing nature—and unique liabilities, such as his four criminal indictments and culpability for the January 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol—that’s not necessarily a safe assumption this time around.

And it’s not just a matter of Trump’s personal foibles, either, that has made the GOP less hospitable to traditional Republicans.

Ideologically, the Republican Party under the former president’s stewardship is more populist, and less conservative, than it was for the decades-long Reagan era that preceded Trump’s election as president in 2016. Consider former Vice President Mike Pence, Trump’s running mate in that and the subsequent election, who just launched a $20 million effort through his political nonprofit organization, Advancing American Freedom, to protect traditional conservative values from assault by Republicans and the modern conservative movement.

“It is not just the party” that’s become the problem, said Marc Short, a senior Pence adviser and veteran conservative activist. “In my mind, it’s the conservative movement.”

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