Inside the GOP civil war on display at the Capitol this week
Josh Hawley / Gage Skidmore

The Republican Party’s engulfed in a civil war of Trump’s making

WASHINGTON—Traditionally both political parties lay down their weapons after a bloody election. This year, in the wake of their embarrassing midterm performance, Republicans are still engaged in battle. Only this time, they’re warring amongst themselves.

Republican leaders have tried to present a unified, anti-Biden front since Election Day, but this week a GOP civil war was on full display at the US Capitol, even as former President Donald Trump jockeyed to get the spotlight back on himself.

In the Senate, restive Republicans challenged the reign of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. On Wednesday afternoon, the Kentuckian easily beat back a challenge from Florida Sen. Rick Scott, who he sparred with over election strategy. As chair of the campaign arm of Senate Republicans during the midterms, Scott was in lockstep with Trump, even as McConnell initially opposed the far-right, Trumplike GOP candidates, many of whom lost their races in key swing states.

Even with all barely concealed acrimony, McConnell put on a smile for the cameras after he won the leadership contest by a vote of 37-10-1.

“Of course, I don't own this job. Anybody who wants to have run for it, feel free to do so,” McConnell told a packed room of congressional reporters after two days of closed-door party infighting.

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McConnell’s power was never in doubt, but it marks the first time in 15 years that any Republicans dared to challenge the Kentuckian. And his opponents vow this won’t be the last McConnell hears from them.

“If Republicans think business as usual is going great then we’re going to be in the minority forever,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) lamented.

The unrest has been simmering for years now between the GOP’s more moderate—-by today’s standard, at least—-old guard and the new, Trump-tinged wing of the party. What were whisper campaigns against the GOP establishment just weeks ago have now erupted into a public feud that risks dividing the party even further.

Over on the House side of the Capitol, Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy locked in enough GOP support to win the party’s backing for his speaker bid, but he’s still far short of the 218 votes he needs to secure by January when the full House of Representatives votes for the next speaker.

The episode is reminding many in Washington of when House Republicans passed over McCarthy in 2015 and instead anointed a begrudging Paul Ryan as their leader. On Tuesday, 31 Republicans opposed McCarthy. Some of them are vowing they’ll never support him.

"Kevin McCarthy couldn't get 218 votes. He couldn't get 200 votes. He couldn't get 190 votes today," Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) told reporters at the Capitol. "So to believe that Kevin McCarthy is going to become speaker, you have to believe he is going to get votes in the next six weeks that he couldn't get in the last six years."

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In a cruel twist of fate, the very Trumpian freshmen class that’s projected to net the GOP the majority is also now the block of Republicans who may block McCarthy from finally securing the Speaker’s gavel he longs to wield. That’s why he’ll now be doling out as many favors and promises as he can to secure the votes needed, but there are only so many committee assignments and rules changes at his disposal.

Still, McCarthy says he’s up for the challenge.

"Look, we have our work cut out for us. We've got to have a small majority. We've got to listen to everybody in our conference," McCarthy told reporters after his victory.

With the full makeup of the House still not even known yet and forecasters projecting a razor-thin House GOP majority, each Republican holds an enormous amount of sway. McCarthy knows where the power lies.

“One thing I'll say about the entire conference: I respect each and every one, I respect them equally, and we'll find a way to make it happen," the leader said.

McCarthy’s other power base is Mar-a-Lago, but even Trump’s endorsement, which McCarthy has secured, is fraught in these divided days. The ex-president launched his 2024 presidential campaign Tuesday evening, yet it seems to have barely registered at the Capitol.

“You know what I was doing last night?” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) asked Raw Story while walking through the Capitol. “I was counting all of the ballots that were still coming in from Alaska, so I wasn’t focused on anybody's presidential announcement, because I’m still working through my election.”

To Murkowski and an increasing number of Republicans, Trump remains far from their minds.

“He’s doing what he’s doing,” Murkowski concluded, “which is Donald Trump.”

While a handful of Republicans tuned in to Trump’s big announcement on Tuesday, the party’s focus remains on the Georgia Senate runoff in early December.

“I’m waiting to see how the field forms up, and I think that’s going to take probably four to six months before we know,” Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) told Raw Story. “We still have an election that comes on Dec. 6.”

Trump surely has his defenders in both chambers of Congress.

“No, it's no distraction. Different campaign, and everybody's got to do what they got to do,” Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) told Raw Story. “And I figured President Trump wanted to get in as soon as possible.”

With Trump focused on 2024, McConnell focused on Georgia, and McCarthy working overtime trying to woo the GOP’s new ranks of election-denying bomb throwers, the Republican Party remains leaderless as it wars against itself.

While it’s still unclear whether the GOP can come together and present a united front to a divided electorate over these next two years, Democrats are banking on discord rueing Republican’s new day in Biden’s Washington.

“The fissures in their party are very fundamental,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) told reporters at the Capitol, “and they’re broadening.”

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