The Democratic Party, which continues to move leftward, isn’t a good ideological fit. Those who want to fight to recapture the GOP from within are vastly outnumbered. Building a third party from scratch requires gigantic sums of money and overcoming a thicket of daunting state laws designed in large part by the two major parties.
“Right now, everybody’s just trying to figure out how to coalesce what is a small fraction of the Republican Party — what do we do with it,” said former Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh, who unsuccessfully challenged Trump for the Republican presidential nomination. “And starting a third party is extremely difficult.”
Walsh said he and others who have left the GOP are “kind of in the wilderness.”
For a small but significant subset of the Republican Party, this is the affliction of the post-Trump GOP: Republicans who break with the former president are not only on their own, they are under attack from a base that remains steadfastly loyal to him.
“What I see in the Republican Party is the next four to eight years are going to be a civil war that is going to leave many people homeless,” said Hendren, who is the nephew of Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
Hendren’s divorce from the party made a splash in dissident circles because, unlike former officials who’ve left the GOP, he was the rare example of one currently holding office. And Hendren is trying to bring people along with him. Last week, Hendren announced the formation of a group, Common Ground Arkansas, to “provide a home” for people disaffected with existing party politics. It isn’t a third party, he said, though eventually “it may come to that.”
Republicans nationally are having similar conversations. Earlier this month, Evan McMullin, who ran against Trump as an independent in 2016, and more than 100 other Republicans and former Republican officials and strategists held a widely publicized meeting at which they discussed the prospect of a third party or organizing as a faction within the GOP.
Miles Taylor, the former chief of staff in Trump’s Department of Homeland Security who started a group of administration officials and other Republicans working against Trump’s reelection last year, said he and McMullin, with whom he is coordinating, are not “dead set on a third party.”
Rather, he said, “What we are dead set on is that something dramatic needs to happen, and there needs to be a very, very clear break from what the GOP has been for the last four years.”
Taylor suggested the effort could take a form similar to that of the Tea Party circa 2010, “but less to the right” — what he called a “nationwide movement to bring the party back to the center.”
“That’s a potential model,” he said. “It’s very, very doable.”
For Taylor and like-minded Republicans and former Republicans, there are some reasons for optimism. According to Gallup, nearly two-thirds of Americans, including 63 percent of Republicans, say a third party is needed. That’s the highest level of public support for a third party since Gallup began asking the question in 2003.
Between that public sentiment and the democratizing influence of social media and small-dollar fundraising, the existing party structure has never appeared weaker. Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent running against the Democratic Party establishment, made a credible bid for winning the Democratic nomination in 2016. Trump, who did win, ran as a party outsider before co-opting the GOP.
“What is happening is the devolution of the party system,” said Mike Madrid, a Republican strategist who was a co-founder of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project — which is now itself imploding — before stepping down in December. “This has been quaking for 20 years.”
Even in their diminished state, the Democratic and Republican parties remain the dominant force in politics, with party affiliation tightly tied to voter preferences and legislative voting behavior. And more than 150 years of two-party rule in Washington and the nation’s statehouses have created conditions designed to keep it that way, with strict ballot access rules and an ecosystem of political professionals largely organized around — and dependent on — the existing party system.
For Republicans who want out, said John Thomas, a Republican strategist who works on House campaigns across the country, “That’s the whole problem: Where do they go?”
Talk of a third party, he said, “is not going to last, because you get tired of having no influence. … At the end of the day, parties are gathered because, collectively, they wield influence. That’s the point. If you can’t wield influence, it doesn’t matter how good you feel about it. It’s about power.”
One big problem for anti-Trump Republicans and former Republicans is that, among conservatives, the power still rests with the former president. Trump’s approval rating among Republicans is holding at about 80 percent, with a majority of Republicans hoping he continues to play a major role in the party. Politicians who have crossed him, including Sens. Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, and Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, have been censured by party officials in their home states.
In the opposition movement, Walsh said, “We’re primarily talking about strategists and consultants and former Republicans, conservative thinkers who are unhappy, obviously, with the Trump-y party. … But there’s no grassroots.”
He said, “Until we develop some sort of constituency, I mean, real voters, it’s just going to be all of us meeting and writing papers and articles, and that’s about it.”
Walsh thinks Republicans who are leaving the party should “plant our flag right now and start a viable third party,” understanding it will take eight to 12 years to grow its membership and accepting Democrats will win elections in the meantime. But he acknowledged “most of us don’t have great options.”
That was evident on the call this month among Republican and former Republican thinkers, which — though highlighting the possibilities of breaking away from the GOP — also laid bare the limitations of such an effort. Participants were divided about whether to start a third party or work as a faction within the party. And whatever form the effort takes, it’s unclear who would join. That’s because the Republicans who are dissatisfied with the GOP’s devotion to Trump are not otherwise entirely ideologically aligned.
“Part of what bubbled up on that call is that there is not anything that unites that group on policy,” said Lucy Caldwell, an independent political strategist who served as an adviser to Walsh. “They’re sort of united in a common form of suffering and sacrifice, but that does not a political movement make.”
It’s that analysis that is one reason Republican Party loyalists are largely dismissive of third party discussions. Wayne MacDonald, a New Hampshire lawmaker and former state Republican Party chair, said, “The big question about a third party is, what are they going to stand for that the other two parties don’t?”
“That’s always the question,” he said, “and frankly, maybe it’s because I’ve been in party politics so long, I don’t take it that seriously.”
A new Democratic president and a Democratic-controlled Congress could also work to pull wavering Republicans back into the fold. Compared to Trump, Joe Biden was appealing to a significant number of Republicans who voted for the Democrat for president but Republican down-ticket. But Pat McCrory, the former Republican governor of North Carolina, predicted that before the midterm elections, Democrats “will overplay their cards and unite us. It’s just a matter of time.”
In the meantime, the constellation of groups that sprung up in opposition to Trump last year — and that are now morphing into their post-Trump iterations — will be trying to establish themselves as something that outlasts the 2020 election. Daniel Barker, a former Arizona Court of Appeals judge who started a PAC of Republicans supporting Biden during last year’s campaign, said his goal of removing some of Trump’s most loyal House members in Arizona may involve supporting Republicans or independents — “whoever best represents the center-right.”
In most cases, Barker said, “Politically, it makes significantly more sense to me to stay within the party, because if you can win the party, like Trump has done, you’ve got all the structure that goes with it.”
However, he added, “To be candid, it’s how much can you stomach? When you’ve got [Senate Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell using a procedural point of questionable value to vote against impeachment, you have people believing the big election lie, it’s just hard to keep associating yourself with that group. That’s the difficulty.”
That’s the conclusion that Hendren came to in Arkansas. He acknowledged that “when you go from being the president pro tem in the majority party to a caucus of one, there’s going to be a corresponding change in your ability to influence legislation.” And he said, “If my No. 1 goal in life was to win a statewide office, I’d have stayed a Republican.”
But Hendren, who is considering running for governor in 2022 as an independent, said, “To me, it’s about beginning the process of building something that gives my adult kids … some hope that there’s some normalcy and a place for them to fit in politically, because for them, they just don’t see it.”
He said, “‘I do think there’s a tremendous hunger for a center lane and a return to decency.”