Kris Eng, the Republican Party chair in Centre County, is ready to move on. Not from former President Donald Trump — but from Pennsylvania’s Republican U.S. senator, Pat Toomey.
“He should just leave,” Eng said of Toomey, who called Trump a “demagogue” after the Capitol attack this month that left five people dead. “I don’t feel like he represents us. We know he’s not going to run again. I don’t think he’s speaking on behalf of his constituents right now.”
She said Republican voters are also disappointed in GOP leaders in the state legislature, two of whom live in her central Pennsylvania county, for not doing more to investigate Trump’s claims of widespread voter fraud, which have been thoroughly debunked. GOP leaders asked Congress to delay certification of Biden’s victory, and some urged lawmakers to reject the results altogether.
“People were very upset they did not come out earlier to make a statement in support of the president, and that they made a point of not helping answer questions about fraud in Pennsylvania,” Eng said.
In 2017, Democrats were out of power in Washington and had no clear leader. They were shocked by Trump’s election and divided over what led to it. Just a day after Trump’s inauguration, however, there were signs of the broad coalition that would ultimately help elect Joe Biden: hundreds of thousands of people protesting in Washington, and more around the country, as part of the Women’s March.
Elected officials, party activists, and people who were never involved in politics before saw Trump’s presidency as a national emergency and united around resisting him.
Four years later, at the dawn of Biden’s presidency, the Republican Party is now facing a different sort of reckoning. Its leader left office refusing to concede defeat and inciting a deadly insurrection that disrupted the peaceful transfer of power. Rank-and-file GOP lawmakers have largely stood by Trump, but it’s harder to take cues from him now that social media platforms have banned or suspended him. And while Trump proved to be a unifying force for Democrats, Biden has never inspired the same level of passion among supporters or intense anger among detractors.
Interviews with Pennsylvania Republican activists and party officials suggest the GOP is loosely connected by fear of the progressive left’s cultural ascendance, deep mistrust in the news media, and a determination to tighten Pennsylvania’s voting laws.
“It’s not going away,” Eng said of demands for election law changes. “People are watching to see.”
As a practical matter, the Senate impeachment trial set to begin next month will decide whether Trump can ever seek federal office again. But the process by which GOP voters will determine whether they want more Trump and his brand of politics will take years to play out. The first big test comes next year, when Pennsylvania holds elections for open seats in the U.S. Senate and governorship.
To understand the party’s competing visions, consider two young Republicans from opposite sides of the state: U.S. Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, 37, from Southwestern Pennsylvania, and former U.S. Rep. Ryan Costello, 44, of Chester County.
Reschenthaler, a former Navy lawyer who is seen as a possible candidate for statewide office, voted this month with eight of Pennsylvania’s nine Republican House members to throw out the election results. There is no evidence of widespread fraud in Pennsylvania’s presidential election. Republicans argue the rules used to administer the election were unlawful, but courts, including Trump-appointed judges, have rejected that claim.
“We need Republicans to stick together,” Reschenthaler told the right-wing TV network Newsmax last week. “The Republicans in the House, by and large, are holding the line. We’re supporting President Trump, dare I say the once and future president. We need to hold the line more so than ever, and we need Republicans in the Senate to circle the wagons.”
“Both due to the way Trump governed — which was requiring complete submissive allegiance — as well as the base of the party accepting a cult of personality, there’s going to be those that wish to continue down that path, and there’s going to be a more built-in resistance to how to be something other than that,” Costello said in an interview.
“I know there’s a piece of the party that’s ready to turn the page,” he said. “That’s a fact. If Republicans want to be a majority party, the people that get them to the majority are people that are ready to turn the page.”
Costello isn’t alone, but he’s one of the few Pennsylvania Republicans with aspirations for statewide office publicly calling for the party to break with Trump. Other Republicans who have condemned Trump’s conduct, like former Gov. Tom Ridge and Bucks County Commissioner Gene DiGirolamo, are elder statesmen.
“When a new leader stands up and says we gotta move on from Trump, what do you mean by move on?” asked Bob Howard, a Republican activist who lives in suburban Pittsburgh. “Are you talking about a personality or are you talking about moving on from the policies and the things that he did?”
Then there’s Toomey, who announced in the fall that he would not seek reelection next year. After the Capitol insurrection, he said Trump had committed impeachable offenses and called on the president to resign.
That hasn’t gone over well with some Republicans.
Vince Matteo, chairman of the local party in Lycoming County in northern Pennsylvania, said many Republican activists believe Toomey “betrayed” Trump, “going on CNN of all places calling on the president to resign without due process.”
The county GOP passed a motion “expressing our extreme dissatisfaction and concern that he would do that,” Matteo said.
Toomey has long been one of the most conservative senators on fiscal issues. That a GOP stalwart like him could become persona non grata for so many Republicans shows how much Trump has transformed the party.
And making any post-Trump introspection more difficult for the GOP is the fact that, apart from Trump’s loss, Republicans had a strong year, winning statewide elections for auditor general and treasurer and retaining majorities in the state legislature.
The state Republican Party is not as fractured as the GOP in Arizona or Georgia — two states with Republican governors who have fallen out of favor with party activists after they refused Trump’s demands to block certification of Biden’s victory.
In Pennsylvania, Republicans have largely directed their ire over the election at Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, the top elections official, and the majority-Democratic state Supreme Court.
But Republican leaders in the GOP-led legislature also face pressure to repeal or tighten a 2019 law that allowed any voter to vote by mail. After Trump’s months-long effort to overturn the results, and his repeated false assertions that the election was stolen, some voters still don’t trust the outcome.
“There are so many people that somehow believe ... this election is going to be reversed,” said Al Lindsay, the GOP chairman in Butler County, north of Pittsburgh. “They still believe it. They believe so strongly that the election was not proper.”
Lindsay said the local party is largely focused on “dealing with election irregularities.”
“We’re not talking about claiming fraud or that the election would have been different,” he said. “What we are suggesting is some of the things that occurred have caused many people to question the integrity of the process.”
GOP lawmakers in Harrisburg have taken note. Last week a state House panel held the first of 14 hearings on the election, and the Senate is also expected to undertake a review.
Whatever divisions the party will have to resolve in the next few elections, Republicans say they’ll unite against the policy agenda pushed by Democrats in Washington. “The loyalty to Trump is not so much to his personality but the profound antagonism for the [Democratic] agenda,” Lindsay said, adding that Republicans also have “profound mistrust of the news media.”
Eng, the Centre County GOP chair, attended the Jan. 6 rally in Washington but condemned the attack on the Capitol that day. She said she doesn’t think the country will heed Biden’s call for unity in his inaugural address.
“We might be Americans, but are we fighting for the same America?” she said. “I don’t know where that common ground is between globalists and people who want to keep our Constitution and believe that is a worthy document to uphold and to fight for.”