'Unafraid to Lose'
Anti-Trump conservatives consider their path forward despite bleak electoral prospects.
This weekend’s Principles First Summit concluded the way it began: with the admission that anti-Trump Republican candidates likely will continue to lose elections for the foreseeable future.
“It’s not about whether we win elections,” Principles First founder Heath Mayo told a crowd of Never Trump grassroots activists, pundits, and lawmakers Sunday evening at the National Press Club in downtown D.C. “It’s about it being the right thing to do.”
Mayo launched Principles First in 2019 alongside “a few Republicans concerned about the health of conservatism,” per the organization’s mission statement. Coalition organizers know that publicly criticizing former President Donald Trump comes at a cost, particularly at the ballot box. “Everyone in this room is unafraid,” Mayo told the audience Saturday morning. “Unafraid to lose.”
But to grow their movement beyond the roughly 300 people who attended, volunteered, or spoke at this summit, Principles First-aligned Republicans know they’ll have to craft a message and policy agenda that resonates with a wide audience. To navigate this dynamic, Mayo rallied a slew of high profile anti-Trump Republican politicians, policy experts, and pundits to speak at this weekend’s conference, including Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a handful of Bulwark editors, and retired Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who testified during Trump’s first impeachment trial.
Panelists discussed a wide range of issues during the two-day summit, from constitutional conservatism and the Russia-Ukraine crisis to big tech censorship and election security. But lurking behind every panel discussion was one underlying question: Is the Republican Party salvageable?
This year’s summit coincided—as it did in 2020—with the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Florida, a gathering of GOP activists where 2022 congressional candidates made their pitch to a Trump-loyal Republican base.
Perhaps the most striking difference between both conferences was audience reaction to any mention of Republican Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, two pro-impeachment House Republicans who joined the House Select Committee investigating January 6 and bookended the Principles First Summit with opening and closing keynote addresses. Cheney’s prerecorded remarks were short and focused mainly on Ukraine.
Kinzinger also made reference to the geopolitical conflict, but dedicated most of his remarks Sunday afternoon to the Capitol riot and the future of the anti-Trump movement. “I think they’re gonna write history books about what we did,” said Kinzinger, who is not seeking reelection this year. “And it may not be charging a mountain, or sitting in a foxhole and fighting off the enemy. But it will be fighting off evil, darkness, lies, and the temptation to do things for the moment.”
“I’m done with this job in about a year and I’m actually pretty excited about that,” he said. “But I gotta tell ya, I’m not going anywhere.”
Audience members were so enamored by Kinzinger’s presence Sunday afternoon that his speech triggered a standing ovation. Minutes after he concluded his closing remarks, conference attendees headed downstairs to attend what the weekend agenda described as a “Special Post-Summit Event”: a Principles First birthday celebration for Kinzinger.
If Cheney and Kinzinger were lauded as heroes of the conservative movement at the Principles First Summit, they were derided as enemies of the Republican Party at CPAC. Josh Mandel, the leading GOP candidate for U.S. Senate in Ohio, used his CPAC panel slot on Friday to call both pro-impeachment House Republicans “traitors.” Those comments got a boost this weekend from GOP Rep. Jim Banks—chairman of the Republican Study Committee—who also attended CPAC and commended the RNC for censuring both lawmakers last month. “They deserve it!” Banks said, triggering a round of applause from the audience.
Principles-aligned conservatives are at a crossroads. Even though they stand united against the former president and his grip on the Republican Party, the coalition is so disillusioned with the state of American politics that leaders can’t decide whether they should try to reform the GOP, vote for Democrats and independents, or launch a third party.
“We can make alliances with progressives without becoming them,” Bulwark columnist Charlie Sykes said during one Sunday panel on illiberal threats to democracy at home and abroad.
Others aren’t so sure. Former GOP Congressman Barbara Comstock, for example, is unwilling to give up on the GOP. “I was here first. I was here before Donald Trump was,” said Comstock, a Virginia Republican who lost reelection in 2018 during the Democratic Party’s blue wave. “This fever will break,” she said during a Sunday panel titled “Should We Stay or Should We Go: The Practical Politics of Principle.”
Timing is an important qualifier for others. “This fever will not break anytime soon,” said podcast host and former GOP congressman Joe Walsh.
Walsh insists the Republican Party is a lost cause at this point and that the base will not change during his lifetime. “To me the simplest answer is plant your frickin’ flag and start a new party,” Walsh told The Dispatch in a brief interview on Sunday. “Right now, we’re all kinda, we’re disparate, and everyone’s doing their own thing. And most people truthfully don’t want to leave the Republican Party, don’t want to give up on it.”
That reality leaves anti-Trump Republican congressional candidates in a tough position. They can’t govern unless they win elections, but they probably won’t win many elections unless they convince Republican constituents to abandon their loyalty to the former president. That’s a tough pitch to make to the current Republican base, in which election denialism still thrives.
Just ask Principles First panel moderator Michael Wood, an anti-Trump Republican who competed last year in Texas’ 6th Congressional District special election Republican primary. He finished in ninth place and carried just 3.2 percent of the vote.
His electoral defeat hasn’t dissuaded conference attendee Marina Zimmerman from running a long-shot bid to unseat freshman GOP Rep. Lauren Boebert in Colorado’s 3rd District. She came to this weekend’s summit with a stack of campaign business cards tucked in her back pocket, ready to deliver her campaign pitch to anyone who would listen. But she’s not naive, and acknowledged to The Dispatch on Sunday that “funding is a struggle.” The numbers speak for themselves: FEC filings show that Boebert raised $3.6 million in 2021 and ended the year with roughly $2 million on hand. Zimmerman, raised only $42,000 and ended 2021 with $15,000.
“Nobody’s gonna put money behind that nice woman who’s running against Lauren Boebert, that’s not gonna happen,” Walsh told The Dispatch Sunday afternoon. Hours earlier, he’d run down from the stage and hugged Zimmerman before the audience to cheer on her congressional bid.
Bulwark editor-at-large Bill Kristol insists that electoral strategizing shouldn’t be the main driver of the anti-Trump coalition and that the movement’s diversity of opinion should be thought of as an asset. “We’re against the cult of personality,” Kristol told The Dispatch on Sunday. “People have to make up their own minds.”
But as the midterms draw near, Principles First Republicans will have to continue asking themselves a question Mayo posed during his opening remarks Saturday morning: “Is there really a hunger for a movement like this?”
His closing remarks the following day projected optimism about the movement’s future, even if anti-Trump candidates’ electoral chances look bleak heading into 2022. “The speakers up here, they’ve been taking action. Congressman Kinzinger has been organizing, he’s been trying to start a movement,” Mayo said. “We got to go find more people who will take action with us.”