NASHVILLE (TNS) — Paul Ryan was once seen as the intellectual leader of the GOP. Ted Cruz was its conservative purist. Mitch McConnell was the party’s brilliant strategist, and Rand Paul, its inconvenient but consistent libertarian, pushing to broaden Republican appeal.
But as Labor Day of the president’s first year nears, party officials and veteran operatives concede that the GOP belongs to Donald Trump more than anyone else — and he is reshaping it in ways that will have dramatic implications for the party for a generation.
“Right now, it is his party,” said Peter Wehner, who has served in the last three Republican presidential administrations.
“That’s a political tragedy to me,” he said. “There will be an enormous cost. Ultimately, the Republican Party has got to reclaim its identity apart from Trump. But right now, it’s his party and we can cry if we want to.”
The vast majority of Republican voters are distinctly dry-eyed. Despite historically low approval ratings at this point in the presidency, Trump’s approval among Republican voters is close to 80 percent. While that’s down from earlier in his presidency, it’s an unquestionably strong number given the self-inflicted wounds and controversies this president has suffered.
Perhaps most critically, Trump polls much better with Republicans than the GOP-led Congress does — the congressional approval rating among Republicans is only 16 percent, according to a Gallup survey earlier this month.
And that basic truth has kindled among Republicans in Washington a fear of alienating Trump’s voters, giving the president an extraordinary level of control over internal dissent, even as he shocks and offends GOP officials over everything from Charlottesville to Russia and apparent nuclear threats against North Korea.
“He got a lot of flak for saying he could kill someone on Fifth Avenue. It’s kind of true. He can do anything and it’s OK,” marveled one GOP strategist in attendance at the summer meeting of the Republican National Committee here in Nashville, speaking of Trump’s grip on the base.
“You’re seeing it even with Charlottesville. After two days, his people are still there, they hate Congress more than him. It’s kind of like, what is it going to take for these guys?”
At the meeting of the Republican National Committee, the official party apparatus closely tied to the White House, there is virtually no appetite for anything other than a full embrace of the president.
In conversations with RNC officials from across the country, gathered here at a sprawling resort last week, the vast majority of them expressed positive views of Trump, pointing to his help in fundraising for the party, his work on rolling back regulations and his appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Two RNC members were even overheard in a heated hallway argument over just how strongly one had initially supported Trump.
The right answer in that conversation, clearly, was: from the beginning.
Eric Trump, the president’s son, was greeted warmly at the private RNC dinner Thursday night, where behind closed doors he ticked through all of the times his father had been underestimated during the campaign, and touted the RNC’s strong fundraising as a sign of his father’s popularity, and of the party’s, according to Pennsylvania GOP Chairman Val DiGiorgio and others in the room.
The RNC meeting featured a parade of Trump loyalists, from Brad Parscale, Trump’s 2016 digital director who is now involved in the president’s political efforts; to Trump TV surrogate-turned-RNC spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany; and Michael Glassner, who is spearheading the president’s re-election campaign.
“The party is generally very supportive of his statements and actions regarding North Korea, his recent speech on Afghanistan, great progress he’s made already on regulatory reform,” said Bill Palatucci, the Republican national committeeman from New Jersey. “Those are campaign promises kept that a lot of Republicans are really happy with.”
Certainly, there are plenty of Republicans — some inside the RNC, and many more outside of it — who have been deeply bothered by what they see as Trump’s often-divisive tone, a far cry from the pushes for inclusiveness that lawmakers like Ryan, Paul and Marco Rubio have been making for years.
In a recent op-ed, former Missouri Sen. John Danforth, a Republican, warned that “our party has been corrupted by this hateful man,” calling Trump “the most divisive president in our history” and urging the party to break with the president.
Trump’s equivocating response to the neo-Nazis and white supremacists rallying in Charlottesville prompted genuine disgust among some Republicans — and also stoked fears that efforts to broaden the party’s appeal to more diverse constituencies were destroyed in that moment. Trump’s approach to that incident drew the most significant Republican backlash he has faced in his administration, and strategists predict there is only more to come.
“Even if he’s the president, this party is not defined by the words or inaction of one man,” insisted Clarence Mingo, a candidate for Ohio state treasurer who is considered a rising star, and was the state’s only black delegate to the 2012 Republican National Convention.
“The president is not leading the nation on this issue of race relations, and in the absence of leadership, conservative Republicans have a responsibility to make sure the nation understands what the values of our party are, and what it means to be an American in 2017,” Mingo said.
At the RNC, too, there were a handful of people who were — quietly — troubled by Trump’s response to Charlottesville.
The committee passed a resolution that strongly condemned the “violence and racist beliefs of white supremacists demonstrating in Charlottesville.” Palatucci, who sponsored it, told the AP he thought Trump “got it wrong” on the day that the president, in a news conference, said there were “very fine people on both sides.” And RNC Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel earned a standing ovation when she said rejection of hate should be nonpartisan, though she characterized Trump’s response to Charlottesville as “speaking out strongly against any group that uses hate or violence.”
Others here had qualms about Trump and his attacks on fellow Republicans. But they would only share those concerns privately for fear of alienating the White House.
“We understand the president has disagreements with his own party, but I think a lot of us would like the president to remember Ronald Reagan’s axiom: Someone who votes with you 70 percent of the time is your friend, not your enemy,” one longtime RNC member told McClatchy.
Instead, Trump is prone to tearing into members of his own party, including Sen. Jeff Flake, one of the GOP’s most vulnerable senators running in 2018, as well as McConnell and Ryan. And that was just in recent days.
But for members of Congress, Trump’s lock on the party base means that their fate is tied to his, said Scott Jennings, a former Bush administration official and veteran Kentucky-based strategist who is generally supportive of the president.
“They will rise and fall together,” he said. “If the president is succeeding, it probably means the Congress has passed legislation that largely matches what he wants. If Congress is succeeding, it means Donald Trump is signing into law things they have passed. If you judge success by, are we passing bills, writing legislation that is responsive to campaign promises and enacting them into law, they rise and fall together.”
Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who has served as a top adviser to Rubio, said he expects members of Congress to feel more comfortable breaking with Trump on more issues as they return to Washington from August recess.
“Trump is pretty much out of political capital at this point,” Conant said. “After seven months in office, he has very little to show for his legislative agenda, his poll numbers are at historic lows and we’ve seen his standing amongst Republican voters start to fall. The idea that he’s going to come back and find a unified Congress willing to follow his lead is laughable at this stage.”
But, Conant allowed, “It’s always the Republican primary voters’ party.”
Retirement doesn’t mean Tom Thompson is any less busy.
After nearly 40 years building the Thompson Animal Medical Center from the ground up, starting when he and his wife Jean moved to La Crosse in 1978, Tom retired from the day-to-day operation of the business in January. But he continues in his role as a community leader — on the La Crosse School Board and Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals at Gundersen Health System and the board of Coulee Council on Addictions.
Both vets, Tom and Jean started the animal medical center out of a 100-year-old home on the South Side. The two met at veterinary school at Michigan State University and happened upon La Crosse when searching for a city to start their practice.
“We were driving I-90 past Tomah when we came down to God’s Country,” Thompson, a Detroit native, said about discovering La Crosse. “I said to Jean, ‘This is home.’”
Within a few years of starting the business, they needed to expand and moved to the current location on Mormon Coulee Road and built the business into a 20-employee and four-veterinarian business. Tom sold the practice two years ago to Gary Wiegel, who had been with the animal medical center since 1997, and Tom officially retired in January, even though he has been called in to perform a few surgeries since then, including his favorite, knee surgeries.
“You get such a natural high when working on a knee,” he said. “I love taking something that was perfect and became broken and bringing it back to its original way. It is an awesome thing.”
Community involvement has always been important to Thompson, who volunteered to work with and treat the La Crosse Police Department’s K-9s, as well as working with the animals at the former Myrick Park Zoo. He has plenty of stories from those wild times when he would have to sneak, cheat and find subtle ways to subdue the animals he worked with.
One time, he tried to sneak up on a sick monkey during feeding and ended up jumping in the pool in the enclosure to get to safety. He was covered in a vile pea green soup that had sickened a few of the animals — and he lost one of his daughter’s teeth, which he had promised to get to the tooth fairy. Other times he used nets to pin animals, such as bobcats, so he could treat them, or found unique ways to keep from turning into a pincushion when working with spiny animals such as porcupines.
“Life isn’t complete until you have neutered a porcupine,” he said.
Their family is important to Tom and Jean, who have two adopted daughters, Lynsee, 30, and Chiyo, 27. A daughter, Kristen, and a son, Christopher, died very young from a rare genetic disorder that led Tom and Jean to the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals at Gundersen Health System.
The organization came to La Crosse shortly after the loss of their second child, Tom said, and he has been involved with the group’s board of directors since it was founded 32 years ago. He started the Doggone Golf Tournament 22 years ago, which has raised more than $580,000. The next tournament is scheduled for Sept. 23 at Drugan’s Castle Mound Golf Course.
“He really looks at the full circle,” Heather Gilles, associate director of development with the organization, said. “We’ve been blessed with his great ideas and challenges to look at things differently.”
Volunteering at his daughters’ elementary school led Tom’s 15-year-plus involvement with the Districtwide Parent Committee. That sounding board of involved parents led Thompson to run for school board more than 11 years ago.
During his time on the board, he has been a passionate advocate for students, Superintendent Randy Nelson said. He was closing involved with boundary discussions the board had a few years ago and is a big advocate of promoting the social, emotional and physical health of students.
“He has a good ear to the pavement,” Nelson said, “for our community and our schools as well.”
The impact addiction has on families led Thompson to the Coulee Council on Addictions, where he has been involved with the board of directors and is co-chair of the organization’s capital campaign to build a new center in La Crosse near the Mayo Health System Franciscan Healthcare campus. Cheryl Hancock, the organization’s director and a person who has felt the impact of addiction on her family, said Thompson was instrumental in having raised $2.37 million of a $2.9 million goal.
“He’s really stepped up to the plate and helped ID key benefactors,” she said. “He is really soft spoken but very powerful when he does speak.”
Thompson and Jean have won numerous awards for their volunteerism and fundraising work, including an outstanding volunteer fundraiser award Friday from the Upper Mississippi Valley Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals. But for Tom and Jean, it all comes back to family and building community.
“What the face of our adult lives looks like is the two children we lost and the two we adopted,” he said. “It is what they taught us through their lives and their life experiences.”