Orlando, Florida, the United States — Regardless of whether Donald Trump mounts a third campaign for the White House in 2024, it became clear over the weekend that the former United States president still holds a firm grip on the Republican Party. However, despite overwhelming support, there are signs that some die-hard Trump backers are open to seeing somebody other than Trump become the future of his political movement.
Over four days, culminating in Trump’s first post-presidential speech on Sunday, Republican officials, lawmakers and activists gathered with Trump’s most ardent backers at the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, the nation’s largest annual Republican political gathering. In his speech, Trump teased that he’s open to another run for the presidency, but vowed that he would not leave the Republican Party to do so.
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The conference was full of signs that Trump has already remade the Republican Party in his image. Attendees donned Trump hats, T-shirts and bags. They posed for photos with his son, Donald Trump Jr, and Trump’s former campaign advisers. During panel discussions, speakers argued, falsely, that Democrats stole the presidential election, a belief that is widespread among Trump supporters.
Before Trump arrived Sunday, thousands of people wearing “Make America Great Again” garb and waving Trump flags gathered on sidewalks lining the route of his approaching motorcade. A life-sized golden statue of Trump that had been featured inside the conference was wheeled out to a nearby corner among the crowd. An advertising truck rolled through like a parade with a sign that read “JANUARY 6TH REUNION!” a reference to the Washington rally that culminated with Trump supporters storming the US Capitol building and attacking police.
Some ready to move on
A secret ballot straw poll of conference attendees showed that 55 percent would support Trump if he ran again, when matched up against more than 20 other possible Republican candidates.
Trump’s 55 percent figure struck political observers as surprisingly low, considering 97 percent of attendees expressed approval for Trump’s presidential term. The poll also revealed that only about two-thirds of attendees said they wanted to see Trump run for president again. Instead, some said they wanted to see a new candidate carry on Trump’s policies instead.
When asked who they would support if Trump did not run, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, who have opposed lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic, topped the list with 43 percent and 11 percent respectively. Support for all other potential candidates, including such well-known Republicans as former Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Ted Cruz, fell in the single digits.
“I support the movement that Donald Trump has created. The reality is, Trump as a candidate is an 80-year-old man,” said Cliff Vandenbosch, a Trump supporter from Venice, Florida, who wore a black T-shirt that read, “I’d Rather Get COVID-10 Than Biden-20” while he waved an American flag attached to a fishing pole. (Trump will be 78 at the time of the next presidential election in 2024.) “He will come and go. I believe that the movement that he has created can do a lot more.”
Sandy Stegmaier, a Trump supporter who came from Madeira Beach, Florida, said she would vote for Trump again in 2024, but is also open to finding a new candidate to carry on his legacy.
“What I like about Trump is he says it like it is, he’s not censored,” Stegmaier said. “We’re not going to be able to replace Trump, but you need someone with that passion.”
Trump’s hold on GOP
Even if he does not run, Trump, who received more than 74 million votes in November, can still wield enormous power over the party’s nominating contest. Trump signalled Sunday that he would channel that energy against Republicans who were disloyal to him.
“It’s not Donald Trump the Republican Party should be afraid of. It’s his base,” said Russell Lane, a college-aged Trump supporter who travelled to Florida from southern California with his father to see the former president. “The 70 million people that stand behind him. You’re not taking Trump on, you’re taking on his base, his frustrated, pissed-off base.”
During his speech, Trump called out individual Republicans who have publicly criticised him, including Representative Liz Cheney and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell – referring to them as “RINOs” or “Republicans In Name Only” – and urged his supporters to work to end their political careers.
“The RINOs that we’re surrounded with will destroy the Republican Party and the American worker and will destroy our country itself,” Trump said Sunday night to a packed conference room. “Get rid of them all.”
Many Republican leaders seemed to have gotten the message. Speakers at the conference, including lawmakers with possible future presidential ambitions, poured adoration on Trump and appeared to adopt his signature unapologetic style. They on stage punctuated speeches with declarations that they would never “retreat,” or “apologise.”
“He’s back!” said Nancy Freeman, a GOP activist from Collier County, Florida. “He went after the RINOS and gave us our marching orders, to go after them.”
Supporter Sandy Stegmaier, who said she attended the “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington on January 6 that preceded the US Capitol riot – although she noted she did not enter the Capitol – declared that she would never support a Republican candidate who says that President Joe Biden legitimately won the election.
“It’s now Trump’s Republican Party,” she said. “The RINOs are gonna be gone. We are not going to vote for RINOs. It’s got to be Trump’s conservative party, whether he runs in 2024 or not.”