But almost all of those up-and-comers have one common trait: they have embraced Trump. And for others in the party, that fealty is a sign of a party contracting, not expanding. The fear is that, as Trump lingers on the scene, aggressively intervening in internal party disputes and openly flirting with running again in 2024, it will only get more pronounced.
“There is a lost generation of conservatives and I think it’s because they’re forced to tie themselves to Trump,” one Republican operative said. “There was an anti-Romney backlash, anti-Bush backlash… When you lose the presidency — whether an incumbent or challenger — the party distances themselves and that is absolutely not the case here.”
Political parties have gone through concerns about talent drains before. At the end of Barack Obama’s presidency, Democrats warned that the bench of up-and-coming lawmakers he left behind was painfully thin as the party suffered tremendous setbacks in Congress and the statehouses. Trump, too, oversaw the loss of seats down-ballot. But unlike Obama, he has not receded from public view after leaving office. And his continued presence has sparked fears — mainly, but not exclusively, from the GOP diaspora — about the narrowing of the party.
“If the conservative cause depends on the populist appeal of one personality, or on second-rate imitations, then we’re not going anywhere,” former House Speaker Paul Ryan, who left Washington for Wisconsin two years ago, said last week on the first night of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum’s “Time for Choosing” series. “Voters looking for Republican leaders want to see independence and mettle. They will not be impressed by the sight of yes-men and flatterers flocking to Mar-a-Lago.”
In a clear sign Trump was listening, the ex-president responded with a four-paragraph critique the next day. “Paul Ryan has been a curse to the Republican Party,” Trump said. Ryan didn’t respond back.
Ryan’s fear about Trump’s grip on the party is shared by top operatives who believe that few aspiring presidential candidates will choose to run if Trump ultimately does make a bid. So far, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is the only potential 2024 contender who said he wouldn’t wait around for the ex-president to make a decision first. Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley has flatly said she’d defer to her former boss before deciding on making a run.
As one close adviser coolly remarked: “They’re all so afraid [of] going first maybe? Or saying something that sounds like they’re moving on from the Trump years.”
On the congressional level, Trump’s impact on the composition of the party has been visible in obvious and subtle ways. He helped orchestrate the ouster of Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney from leadership ranks, and either directly or indirectly drove numerous lawmakers to retirement. As FiveThiryEight noted, “of the 293 Republicans who were serving in the Senate or House on Jan. 20, 2017 — the day of Trump’s inauguration — a full 132 (45 percent) are no longer in Congress or have announced their retirement or resignation.”