A Breakaway Third Party of Ex-Republicans? Don’t Count on It.



“A house divided against itself cannot stand,” Abraham Lincoln declared in 1858, just two years before he assumed the mantle of the recently formed Republican Party. “It will become all one thing or all the other.”

A century and a half later, in the wake of a presidency driven by personality politics that ended with a violent assault on the Capitol building, the G.O.P.’s House conference is deeply divided against itself. The question is what it will become.

A group of traditionalist Republican figures — virtually none of whom currently hold elected office — are threatening to ditch the party and start a new one, saying that the G.O.P. is on the verge of becoming “all one thing”: a cult of personality.

But some insiders say that the threat is mostly hollow, given how staunchly pro-Donald Trump the Republican base now is, and how unfriendly to third parties the American political system has always been.

“A third party isn’t going to happen,” Sarah Chamberlain, the director of the pro-business Republican Main Street Partnership and a longtime Trump critic, said in an interview. “But stay within the party, and it changes. Elect people that are more to your liking.”

Doing that may be tough. On Wednesday, Republican lawmakers in the House booted Representative Liz Cheney from her leadership post because she wouldn’t stop calling out Mr. Trump for promoting the false narrative that the 2020 election was stolen from him.

A day later, a group of more than 100 anti-Trump Republicans pushed back on Ms. Cheney’s behalf, releasing a letter — titled “A Call for American Renewal” — warning that they might decamp to a new party if the G.O.P. didn’t reject Mr. Trump’s lies and, as they put it, “rededicate itself to founding ideals.”

But today, House Republicans made clear just how unimpressed they were by the threat: They voted to replace Ms. Cheney with Representative Elise Stefanik, a moderate from upstate New York who recently threw in with Mr. Trump’s baseless claims about election fraud.

It’s maybe the clearest reminder yet that conservative ideology matters less to the Republican base these days than does loyalty to Mr. Trump’s narrative. It’s possible to be a center-right legislator and still be welcomed into the party. The price of entry is fealty to Mr. Trump.

Barbara Comstock, a former Republican member of Congress from Virginia who signed on to the letter, said that for many, that’s a bridge too far. “There’s a lot of Republicans out there who say, ‘I don’t have a party anymore,’” she said. “And we’re trying to let people know there’s a lot of us — just rank-and-file people out there that don’t want to be Democrats, that want to support center-right policies, but they can’t go to Trump.”

Ms. Comstock and her allies see a ray of hope in a proposed bipartisan commission to investigate the Capitol attack on Jan. 6, and lawmakers today took a major step toward getting it off the ground. Representative John Katko, the ranking Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, agreed to drop his party’s demand that the commission look into left-wing violence at racial justice protests as part of its investigation, a move that Ms. Comstock hailed as a sign of progress.

By establishing clearly what role Mr. Trump and his allies on Capitol Hill played in enabling the attack, she said, the commission could make it harder for Republicans to continue supporting “the big lie” that Mr. Trump is the victim of a vote-stealing conspiracy.

“That will be very important, to get this very much out in the open,” Ms. Comstock said.

Still, conservative media — the apparatus that has most consistently aided and abetted Mr. Trump’s distortions — has shown less and less interest in condemning the rioters as Jan. 6 has receded in the rearview mirror. And at least for now, Republican voters remain mostly supportive of the former president.

In a CNN poll from March, Republicans said by a 2-to-1 margin that they approved of how Mr. Trump had handled the events of Jan. 6.

But does that really mean a disaffected minority of Republicans will start a third party? For now, Ms. Comstock acknowledged, that remains a threat more than a realistic possibility.

“I’m focused on finding good Republicans — like John Katko, like Liz Cheney, like Adam Kinzinger — who will run for next cycle,” she said. “Reject that big lie and put together a coalition.”

And as Ms. Chamberlain pointed out, although the House Republican Conference is now led entirely by a pro-Trump team, many of the top G.O.P. lawmakers on House committees have quietly resisted his takeover of the party.

“If we get back the majority, we have a lot of our members leading committees,” Ms. Chamberlain said, referring to House lawmakers who belong to the Republican Main Street Partnership and have no love lost for Mr. Trump.

This, of course, could spell only more dissension and division ahead of the 2024 presidential election, when the party’s voters will have to decide whether to nominate a Trumpist candidate — maybe even the former president himself — or a more traditional Republican figure. For now, the house remains divided.

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