WASHINGTON — A marquee gathering of conservatives in Orlando, Florida, over the weekend ended with former President Donald Trump cementing his status as the de facto leader of the GOP.
A smaller forum in Washington concluded with a still-unanswered question: For Republicans who despair of his dominance, what should be done?
Many participants at the Principles First summit, which took place Saturday and Sunday, were in one way or another casualties of the MAGA movement. Either they’ve faced Trump’s ire or they’ve lost races for daring to challenge him. As the weekend unfolded, the panels had the feel of a support group for political outcasts.
When Marina Zimmerman stood in the audience and said she was running for Congress in Colorado against Rep. Lauren Boebert, who has positioned herself far to the right of most other conservative politicians in Washington, former Rep. Joe Walsh of Illinois left his panel and went into the crowd to hug her.
“I know this audience,” Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump political strategist who moderated a panel, told NBC News. “This is a tribe for the tribeless and a home for the politically homeless.”
A panel called “Should We Stay or Should We Go?” ended without consensus around either option — staying in the GOP and trying to reform it from within seemed fruitless to many in attendance, while creating a third party risks splitting the anti-Trump vote and helping him win if he runs for president again in 2024.
“I’m wrestling with this myself,” the panel’s moderator, Michael Wood, a Texas Republican and Trump critic who lost a congressional race last year, said in an interview. “If you ask me at different points in the day what I think we should do, you’ll get different answers.”
Adding to the sense of futility was that many of the nearly 500 people in attendance saw no hope for the party so long as it yokes itself to Trump.
“Donald Trump is not going to be president again,” said Barbara Comstock, a panelist and former Republican member of Congress from Virginia. “If he’s the nominee, then we’re going to lose. ... Coalitions and relationships are what winning majorities are about. Trump doesn’t understand that.”
As they talked and networked, the audience members celebrated their heroes, particularly House Republicans Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, both of whom were censured by the Republican National Committee this month for their work on the select committee investigating the assault on the Capitol.
Neither has ruled out running for president — and they would not have an easy time of it if they were to proceed. A straw poll taken at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando suggested that Trump would win a GOP nominating contest, with 59 percent. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis finished second, with 28 percent, and “other” tied with former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for third, with 2 percent. The poll is nonscientific, but it is considered an early measure of popularity of Republican presidential hopefuls.
“I know my fight is to save the soul of the Republican Party,” Kinzinger, who delivered the keynote address at the Washington conference, said in an interview. “But there may be a day when you realize that it can’t be saved. Or there are too many people who feel unrepresented. I don’t know if and when that comes.”
A unifying theme at the conference was how much better off the nation is without Trump in power. One of the speakers was Alexander Vindman, the former National Security Council official who testified in Trump’s first impeachment trial about the phone call in which Trump pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to investigate Joe Biden, then a Democratic rival for president.
In an interview after his speech, Vindman said that if Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had happened on Trump’s watch, “it would be catastrophic.”
Trump, he said, would have been “denouncing NATO, pandering to Russia, pandering to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. It would be catastrophic, because we would be so out of step with the rest of the world.”
(Trump, in a statement Monday, repeated his false claims of a “rigged” election and suggested that if he were still president, Russia’s invasion would not have happened.)
Contrasting Trump and Zelenskyy, who was a comedian before he won the country’s presidency in 2019, Vindman brought up reports of Trump’s taking shelter in a White House bunker during racial justice protests in 2020.
Although he is a ripe target for the Russian military, Zelenskyy has refused to leave Ukraine.
“What’s fascinating is they kind of come from similar roots,” Vindman said. “Both were entertainers. But look at the leadership that Zelenskyy has shown, whereas Trump ran to the bunker when there were some protests outside.”
Participants said they’re at a loss for what Republicans stand for, apart from fealty to Trump.
Heath Mayo, the founder of Principles First, the group that organized the conference, said that as a Republican, “I know what hat I need to wear; I know the memes I need to tweet. But I don’t know what I should believe. I don’t know what I should support. All I know is I’m voting for this guy or this team. That’s a problem for any kind of party that wants to win national elections.”
A few speakers tried to lay out ideas that might garner broad-based support. Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who came out with a book last year called “GOP 2.0,” said in a speech that Republicans need to focus on reducing the national debt, cutting inflation and speaking to voters with more civility.
“Think about how many more conservatives would be elected if we just used a better tone,” he said.
As both conferences wrapped up, Trump sent out a statement demonstrating that it may get even tougher to wrest the party from his grasp. He urged his supporters to fill vacant Republican precinct-level positions, potentially strengthening his hold over the party machinery ahead of the 2024 presidential nomination fight.
In his keynote speech, Kinzinger said he is retiring from Congress but that “I’m not going anywhere.”
Neither, of course, is Trump.