About halfway through his rally in Texas on Saturday night, Donald J. Trump pivoted to the teleprompter and moved away from a meandering set of grievances to rattle off a well-prepared list of President Biden’s failures and his own achievements.
“Let’s just compare the records,” Mr Trump said, as supporters in “Trump 2024” shirts cheered behind him, perfectly framed in the televised shot.
Mr Trump, who then spoke of “this beautiful, beautiful house that happens to be white”, has left less and less doubt about his intentions, plotting an influential role in the 2022 midterm elections and another potential race for the White House. But a new round of skirmishes over his endorsements, rifts with the Republican base over vaccines — a word Mr. Trump evidently glossed over at Saturday’s rally — and new polls all show how tight his grip on longtime over the Republican Party faces mounting tensions.
In Texas, some rank-and-file conservatives are frustrated with Mr. Trump’s support for Governor Greg Abbott, even booing Mr. Abbott when he took the stage. In North Carolina, Trump’s behind-the-scenes efforts to narrow the Republican field to help his favored Senate candidate failed last week. And in Tennessee, a recent endorsement by Trump has sparked an unusually public reaction even among his most staunch allies, both in Congress and in the conservative media.
The Tennessee episode, in particular, showed how the Make America Great Again movement that Mr. Trump spawned is maturing to the point where it can sometimes exist separately from and outside of – and even at odds with – Mr. Trump himself. same.
Mr. Trump remains, overwhelmingly, the most popular and powerful figure in the Republican Party. He is the poll favorite in 2024, an unrivaled fundraising force and still capable of filling fairgrounds with huge crowds. But after issuing around 100 endorsements in races nationwide, Mr Trump will face a gauntlet of proxy tests of his political strength in the coming months, just as public polls show his influence on the GOP electorate isn’t what it used to be.
“Things seem to have changed,” said Patrick Ruffini, a Republican pollster who regularly surveys Mr. Trump’s standing in the party. “It’s a strong bond. He’s the one who would most likely win a Republican primary today. But is it the same ironclad, monolithic, Soviet-style attachment we saw when Donald Trump was the incumbent president? No, this is not the case.
In a recent Associated Press poll, 44% of Republicans said they did not want Mr. Trump to run for president again, while a potential GOP rival in 2024, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida closed the gap in another way. first snapshots of a hypothetical primary – new signs of potential vulnerability for the former president.
Unlike Mr. Trump’s time in the White House, an NBC News poll in late January found that 56% of Republicans now define themselves more as Republican Party supporters, compared to 36% who said they were supporters first. of Mr. Trump.
The Trump-first faction had represented 54% of Republican voters in October 2020. Since then, erosion has affected all demographic groups: men and women, moderates and conservatives, people of all ages.
Among the biggest swings was a group widely seen as Mr. Trump’s most loyal constituency: white Republicans without a college degree, who fell from 62% identifying first with Mr. Trump to 36% .
Frank Luntz, a prominent GOP pollster, said Republican support for the former president is shifting in complex ways — both rising and falling.
“The Trump Group is smaller today than it has been in five years, but it is even more intense, more passionate and more ruthless towards its critics,” Mr. Luntz said. “As people slowly walk away – which they are – those who are still with him are even stronger in their support.”
Mr. Trump faces other complications upon his return, including an ongoing investigation in Georgia into his attempt to pressure state officials to void the election and an investigation in New York into his business practices.
Betting against Mr. Trump’s grip on the GOP has been a losing proposition for both pundits and Republican rivals alike for much of a decade, and he retains broad support in the party apparatus himself. same. As the Republican National Committee holds its winter meeting in the coming days in Salt Lake City, the party’s executive committee is expected to discuss behind closed doors whether to continue paying some of the former president’s personal legal bills.
Even some Republican strategists skeptical of Trump note that any easing in support came after a year in which Mr. Trump did not seek to capture the public’s attention as fully as possible.
He was back in the spotlight at Saturday’s Texas Rally, an event that looked like a music festival, with anti-Biden chants of “Let’s go Brandon!” burst spontaneously. Amid the ‘Trump Won’ flags, however, some Tory activists complained about Mr Abbott’s endorsement, criticizing early Covid-19 lockdowns by the governor and border management..
On stage, Mr Abbott himself faced shouts of “RINO” – for “Republican in name only” – and boos, which he overwhelmed as he led the crowd in a chant of “Let’s go Trump!”
In his remarks, Mr. Trump appeared to protect his far-right flank when he said ‘if I run and I win’ he would consider pardoning those who took part in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Last year.
A key split that has emerged between Mr. Trump and his base concerns vaccines. He’s been mocked in past appearances – both when he urged his followers to get vaccinated and after he said he got vaccinated himself – and he’s now focused on opposing the federal mandates, while simultaneously trying to take credit for the rapid arrival of vaccines.
Mr Trump notably avoided the word “vaccine” on Saturday, referring only to “Operation Warp Speed” – his administration’s effort to produce a vaccine.
Jennifer Winterbauer, who has “We the People” tattooed on her forearm, arrived at the Trump rally – her sixth – days early, sleeping in her truck to be among the first in line. She said she believed Mr Trump was “sent by God to save this country”. Yet she disagrees with him on the vaccine.
“I don’t think he should promote it at all,” she said. “I had Covid and I had the flu, and the flu was much worse.”
Vaccine and Covid policies have also been the subject of latent tension with Mr DeSantis, who declined to say whether he had received a vaccine booster. Mr Trump said “courageless” politicians dodge such questions.
Mr. Ruffini questioned Mr. Trump against Mr. DeSantis last October and again this month. Next, Mr. Trump led by 40 percentage points; now, margin is 25. But among Republicans familiar with the two men, the gap was just 16 points, and narrower still, just nine points, among those who liked them both.
“His constituents are looking for alternatives,” Mr. Ruffini said of Mr. Trump. While there’s little evidence of any desire for an anti-Trump Republican, Mr. Ruffini said, there is an openness to what he called a “next-generation Trump candidate.”
At the Texas rally, David Merritt, a 56-year-old private entrepreneur wearing a cowboy hat, described himself as “more of a Trump guy” than a Republican. But if he should not appear in 2024?
“Probably Ron DeSantis would be my next choice,” Mr. Merritt said. Because he looked the most like Mr. Trump of the Republican candidates.
In Washington, Republican congressional leaders have diverged sharply in their approaches to Mr. Trump.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the House Minority Leader, showed concern, snuggling with Mr. Trump for about an hour last Tuesday at Mar-a-Lago to talk about House races and the landscape politics, according to people familiar with the meeting. Mr McCarthy is seen as keeping Mr Trump close as he seeks to win a majority for his party this fall and the presidency for himself.
In the Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is not on good terms with Mr. Trump, and his allies continue to woo Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland, an avowed anti-Trump Republican, to run for president. Senate.
Beyond the polls, Mr. Trump has repeatedly held up his “nearly spotless record” of primary mentions as a barometer of his power. When Lou Dobbs, the pro-Trump media personality, asked Mr. Trump last week if the GOP was still united behind him, he replied, “Well, I think so. Pretty much everyone I approve of wins.
In North Carolina, Mr. Trump promoted his endorsed Senate candidate, Rep. Ted Budd, by trying to convince Rep. Mark Walker to drop out of the primary and run for the House again. Mr Walker is threatening to split the pro-Trump vote and help a third candidate, former Governor Pat McCrory, a more traditional Republican.
On Thursday, Mr Walker announced he was staying in the Senate race anyway.
While Mr Trump’s endorsements have been hit and miss at times, despite continued efforts to formalize the process, few have receded faster than his support for Morgan Ortagus, who was an aide to the former secretary of state. Mike Pompeo and has previously been touted as a possible White House Press Secretary.
Ms. Ortagus, accompanied by her family, met with Mr. Trump at Mar-a-Lago last Monday and discussed a Tennessee House seat for which she is not even an official candidate yet, according to three people familiar with the meeting. ; the following evening, Mr. Trump had approved his unannounced run.
“Trump is dead wrong,” Candace Owens, a prominent pro-Trump media figure, wrote on Twitter.
Ms Owens has thrown her support behind Robby Starbuck, a rival candidate linked to the Trump activist movement. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia was also quick to endorse Mr. Starbuck, and Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, usually a staunch Trump ally, promoted one of Mr. Starbuck’s videos.
Gavin Wax, an outspoken pro-Trump activist and president of the New York Young Republican Club who has criticized Ortagus and Abbott’s endorsements, said the political environment now allows such grievances to be aired. “It’s much easier to get these divisions to start growing when he’s not in power,” Mr. Wax said of Mr. Trump.
“He’s still the best dog by far, but who knows,” Mr Wax said. “It’s one of those things where, a million cuts – eventually it will start to do damage.”
J. David Goodman contributed reporting from Conroe, Texas.