Here’s How the GOP Can Move Beyond Trumpism

Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu did what so many Republicans claim privately they’d like to do—he took on Donald Trump, calling him “crazy.”

Sununu added, “I don’t think he’s so crazy that you could put him in a mental institution. But I think if he were in one, he ain’t getting out!»

Sununu got a lot of laughs for his profane and comedic takedown of Trump at the Gridiron Dinner, a century-old tradition where journalists and politicians roast each other. But the governor didn’t just open the door to mocking his party’s leader—he blew it off its hinges at a very high-profile public gathering.

Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland said he hadn’t heard a Republican drop that many f-bombs since the Nixon administration. He also praised Sununu as the vanguard of a new GOP that dares to speak the truth, then assailed him for taking credit for federal spending in his state passed by Democrats while simultaneously denouncing Washington politicians for their free spending. The crowd of media and political professionals, as evidenced by their enthusiastic response, seemed to sense that something significant had shifted with this fresh face grabbing the spotlight and saying the emperor has no clothes.

“I don’t know a single Republican who was surprised by what Sununu said. He said what they were thinking,” Republican pollster and media maven Frank Luntz told The Daily Beast. “They won’t say it [in public], but behind his back, they think he’s a child. They’re laughing at him. That’s what made it [Sununu’s comments] significant.”

When the mockery begins, the fear falls away. “Trump isn’t the same man he was a year ago,” Luntz says. “Even many Republicans are tired of going back and rehashing the 2020 election. Everybody else has moved on and in Washington everyone believes he lost the election.”

“If you’re asking me is Gov. Sununu a player? Yes.”

Sununu is running for his fourth two-year term as governor, having resisted Mitch McConnell’s strong push to run for the U.S. Senate. “I like getting stuff done,” Sununu explained at the time, saying he’d be “a lion in the cage” in a Senate where they talk and debate and nothing gets done. “That’s not the world I live in, and I think the citizens deserve a lot more.”

In a videotaped message to the Gridiron, regretting his absence while knowing he’d be “on the menu,” President Biden thanked Sununu for “helping Democrats keep the Senate.” The gregarious 47-year-old is the son of former Gov. John H. Sununu (who was also President George H.W. Bush’s chief of staff) and the brother of former Sen. John E. Sununu, who lost re-election in 2008 to Democrat Jeanne Shaheen. The elder Sununu is a grumpy, in-your-face politician, known for his toughness, not his charm and charisma. By contrast, Luntz said, Chris is “probably the most likable Sununu.”

Praising the younger Sununu’s “amazing pedigree,” Luntz added, “He learned from his father how to be tough, and, from his brother, how to articulate issues.”

“He’s a from-the-heart Republican, which we haven’t seen in a while, which makes him very real and authentic,” says Republican pollster Ed Goeas. “He’s from a political family but he comes across as sincere.” Goeas is working on a book with Democratic pollster Celinda Lake titled A Question of Respect… Bringing Us Together in a Deeply Divided Nation.

“One of the points I make in the book, we need a leader who approaches politics with respect,” he says. Asked if it matters that Sununu went after Trump the way he did, Goeas replied: “It depends on how much is poking the bear, and how much is trying to move the conversation.”

Sununu has a safe sinecure in New Hampshire from which to challenge Trump and to help shape a post-Trump party, if he’s serious about that.

“We have to begin somewhere,” said Goeas. “I see the shift in the national numbers. After the 2020 election, 60 percent of Republicans believed anything Trump said. There’s been about a 20 percent shift away from that to more of a safe haven if you will—they don’t particularly like the way he says things, but they like his policies. Now a majority of Republicans are saying that.”

Goeas and Lake are the bipartisan directors of the Georgetown University Battleground Poll, and in their forthcoming book, Goeas told The Daily Beast, “I go after the filibuster,” the 60-vote rule that has paralyzed the Senate. He supports the Founding Fathers’ concept of the Senate as the cooling saucer for the passions of the House, “but not to stop everything.”

The extent of Trump’s hold on the electorate will become clearer once we see how his endorsed candidates fare in the primaries, and then in the general election. Michigan Republican Rep. Fred Upton last week decided not to seek re-election. He is the fourth to step down of the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump after the Jan. 6 attempted insurrection.

Upton would have faced a Trump-endorsed candidate in a newly drawn district. He has served with distinction, working across the aisle since 1987. “Even the best stories have a last chapter,” he said announcing his retirement. “This is it for me.”

In his speech at the Gridiron, Sununu repeatedly invoked the slogan of his state, “Live Free or Die,” as evidence of the stakes his constituents place on their politicians. Asked if Sununu was showing the way forward or committing political suicide, Republican pollster Whit Ayres told The Daily Beast: “Neither. It would be a different situation if he were running for the Senate, but he passed on that, so he’s far more free because he’s not facing a Republican primary.”

The lesson is obvious, said Ayres: “Other Republicans learn that popular governors who don’t have to fear Republican primaries can say anything they want.”

Beyond that, we’ll have to wait until the primary results roll to accurately measure Trump’s hold on the electorate. “His hold is not what it once was,” Ayres insisted, citing a NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll question that asked Republicans if they’re closer to Trump, or to the GOP.

In January 2019, the Trump/GOP number was 51/38, and got up to as high as 54/35. By January 2022, it was 36/56. It bounced back a bit in a March 2022 poll to 40/53. “So we know based on that question, his hold is slipping. And not having access to Twitter is a big deal, too. A lot will be determined whether we get mainstream candidates in primaries,” Ayres added.

Republicans may be laughing at Trump behind his back, as Luntz indicated, but making fun of the former president could backfire. When President Barack Obama ridiculed Trump at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2011, the putdown was so stinging that some believe it prompted the real-estate tycoon’s 2016 bid for the presidency.

This time around, we will learn when the votes are counted in the nearly 130 races where Trump has endorsed a candidate, testing his strength in the Republican Party to pick governors and senators and even state legislators—and testing the theories of those who say his best days are behind him, and the fortitude of those who mock him.

Gov. Sununu could be the one to show Republicans the road that leads past Trumpland.

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