WASHINGTON — Can the traditional Republican Party survive the presidency of Donald Trump?
That existential question, which has nagged at Republicans since Trump's stunning election one year ago, flared up anew Tuesday with Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake's announcement that he is retiring from Congress. One of the GOP's most consistent critics of the president, Flake was facing a tough primary challenge in next year's election from at least one candidate with the backing of some Trump allies.
"There may not be a place for a Republican like me in the current Republican climate or the current Republican Party," said Flake, a conservative who has worked with Democrats on issues like immigration and the Obama administration's detente with Cuba.
The senator's dour assessment of his future in the Republican Party gave voice to worries that have gripped the GOP heading into the midterm elections. Trump has shown little loyalty to some sitting senators, and has openly squabbled with Flake and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Some of the president's ardent supporters — led by former White House senior adviser Steve Bannon — are actively courting GOP primary challengers who are more willing to buck the Republican establishment in Washington than line up behind its leaders.
Andy Surabian, a senior adviser for the pro-Trump group Great America Alliance, said Flake's retirement is part of a trend and "should serve as another warning shot to the failed Republican establishment that backed Flake and others like them that their time is up."
To be sure, intra-party divisions are hardly new for the GOP, which has struggled for years to reconcile its more moderate, pro-business wing with the growing crop of populists and nationalists that ultimately fueled Trump's political rise. Trump's election may have left Republicans with control of both the White House and Congress but it did nothing to heal the divisions. If anything, Trump — a former Democrat with no ideological mooring to conservative principles or deep ties to GOP leaders — has exacerbated the gulf between millions of GOP voters and the congressional leaders sent to Washington to represent them.
Peter Wehner, a Trump critic who served in President George W. Bush's White House, said there's a "struggle going on for the soul of conservatism and the Republican Party." He urged more traditional Republicans to stay and fight for their principles instead of fleeing — though he left open the prospect that it's a fight they ultimately may not win.
"If this party is defined by Donald Trump and Steve Bannon, then a lot of these people aren't going to want to be a part of that party anyway," Wehner said.
The anti-establishment forces already had one victory under their belt after firebrand jurist Roy Moore defeated incumbent Sen. Luther Strange in the Alabama GOP primary last month. Moore is considered an outlier among Republicans and hardly a guaranteed vote for McConnell if he lands in the Senate next year.
Flake's comments Tuesday from the Senate floor came hours after Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican who has also decided not to seek re-election, declared Trump was "debasing" the United States with untruths and name-calling. Last week, Sen. John McCain lamented a climate of "half-baked, spurious nationalism" and Bush bemoaned "bullying and prejudice in our public life" — comments that appeared to be veiled criticism of Trump, though neither man mentioned the president by name.
Privately, many more Republican officials have raised deep concerns about the direction Trump is pulling the party, both on policy and tone. He's pulled the GOP to the right on immigration only to raise the prospect of making a deal with Democrats to allow young people brought to the U.S. illegally as children to stay in the country. He's withdrawn the U.S. from a major Pacific Rim trade pact and threatened to pull out of a long-standing deal with Canada and Mexico. The president has also drawn open support from some white nationalists, a reality that was magnified after he equivocated in his response to clashes between white supremacists and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, this summer.
But aside from occasional criticism of Trump's tweets or most callous comments, most Republican office holders have stayed silent, in part out of fear of alienating the president's supporters. A handful of House Republicans have taken the same path as Flake and Corker, announcing plans to retire rather than run for re-election in competitive districts.
Trent Lott, the former Republican Senate majority leader from Mississippi, blamed much of the GOP discontent on the fact that even with a Republican in the White House, the party has been unable to make good on its promises to voters. Efforts to repeal "Obamacare" have failed in embarrassing fashion. Many see the current debate over a tax overhaul package as their last best chance for a legislative breakthrough before the midterms and predict sweeping losses for the GOP if a bill doesn't pass.
But Lott, too, said the solution for conservatives is to stay in Trump's Republican Party, not walk away,
"You don't complain that there's not room for you in your party, you make room," he said.
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Julie Pace, The Associated Press