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GOP Strategist On The Party's Future In The Post-Trump Era

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

After the insurrection at the Capitol, for a moment, it looked like Donald Trump's lock on the Republican Party might have been weakening. Republican leaders told lawmakers to vote their conscience on impeachment. The top Republican senator, Mitch McConnell, accused the president of feeding the mob lies.

Now, many of those who broke with the former president are being punished for it. In Wyoming, there are calls for Congresswoman Liz Cheney to resign after she voted to impeach Trump. In Arizona, the state GOP censured Cindy McCain for opposing Trump in the election. And today in the Senate, nearly all of the Republicans, including McConnell, voted that putting a former president on trial for impeachment is unconstitutional. For a look at the future of the party, Whit Ayres joins us now. He is a longtime Republican pollster and president of North Star Opinion Research.

Hi there.

WHIT AYRES: Ari, good to be with you.

SHAPIRO: Donald Trump is no longer in the White House. He's not even on Twitter. So why are so many Republicans across the country remaining deeply loyal even now?

AYRES: Ari, January 6 was the opening battle in the war for the soul of the Republican Party. The GOP is seriously split into a governing faction and a populist faction. The governing faction dominated the party for years and still dominates today among elected officials. The populist faction was present before Donald Trump's candidacy, but Trump expanded it and grew it into a dominant force in Republican primaries, although it never became a majority force in the country. Almost all the condemnation from the GOP about the events of January 6 has come from the governing wing of the party. Very little has come from the populist wing.

SHAPIRO: But that condemnation has been so quickly, if not squelched, then at least slapped down. Is there a place for what you describe as the governing wing of the party in today's GOP?

AYRES: That is a major question going forward. We've seen many of the stalwarts of the governing wing in the Senate decline to run for reelection.

SHAPIRO: You're talking about Rob Portman of Ohio, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Richard Burr of North Carolina.

AYRES: And Lamar Alexander, who did not run again in 2020. All four of those gentlemen were core parts of the governing wing of the Republican Party in the Senate. And all four are going to be gone.

SHAPIRO: You know, you're describing it as the governing wing and the populist wing, but you could also accurately describe it as the reality-based wing and the wing that believes in hoaxes and conspiracies that is willing to deny reality.

AYRES: The populist faction is mainly the Tea Party movement of 2010 with a famous and inflammatory leader. It's the 21st century version of populism - anti-elite, anti-intellectual, anti-establishment, anti-media, anti-immigrant, anti-Wall Street. The populist faction is not going away, even if Donald Trump does.

SHAPIRO: You've been a Republican pollster for a long time, and you've witnessed other splits in the party. There was a split over the Iraq War. There have been splits over budget deficits. Does this seem fundamentally different from those?

AYRES: This is fundamentally different from those. We have had populists in the past in America, but none of them became president of the United States. So this is a fundamentally different sort of challenge, I think, for the Republican Party to face.

SHAPIRO: You're describing it as a challenge to the Republican Party. Do you also see it as a challenge to America as a democracy?

AYRES: Our government works better when we have two vibrant, competitive, responsible political parties. And if the Republican Party splits apart, it's going to be a problem for our government, I think. The Biden administration needs an effective and loyal opposition. We work better that way.

SHAPIRO: Fair point. But I was actually thinking about it in a slightly different context, which is if the Republican Party does coalesce around this message that says free and fair elections can be overturned if you don't like the outcome, is that a threat to American democracy?

AYRES: The Republican Party is not going to coalesce around that message, Ari. There are too many folks who have too much respect for democracy and too much respect for our government to coalesce around that sort of message.

SHAPIRO: I appreciate your confidence. What makes you so sure?

AYRES: (Laughter) Because the governing faction dominates the party among elected officials. It always has. It did throughout the Trump years. And those elected officials are not going to somehow forsake their fundamental oath to the Constitution of the United States.

SHAPIRO: Republican pollster Whit Ayres, thank you for talking with us.

AYRES: Ari, good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.