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Elections Have Consequences: The GOP 1 Year Later


This week marks one year since the American political system was upended when Donald Trump won the presidential election. We wanted to look at what impact that shakeup has had on our political system, and we're starting this morning with the Republican Party. The GOP establishment struggled throughout 2016 to come to terms with Donald Trump as their nominee. Today, Trump's approval ratings hover in the upper 30s - a divisive candidate who remains a divisive president. But inside the Republican Party there's a different view. NPR's Susan Davis joins us to talk about the state of the party one year later. Good morning, Sue.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Good morning, Mary Louise.

KELLY: All right, so where in the GOP did you go to answer this question of how Trump is shaking things up?

DAVIS: I embedded deep right here, inside the beltway...

KELLY: (Laughter).

DAVIS: ...Because this is where there's been so much tension between the Republican Party and this outsider president. But one year into the Trump administration, here in Washington, the party is publicly - publicly - very united, and many are even hopeful about their president and about their party. So I wanted to talk to them.

KELLY: OK, so who did you talk to?

DAVIS: I started with New York Republican Chris Collins, who probably made the smartest bet of his political career when he became the first House Republican to endorse Donald Trump back when nobody thought he could win. He says it pays off every time he goes home.

CHRIS COLLINS: The number of people that come up to me all the times - and I'm most surprised at how many have young kids who say, my 8-year-old son, my 12-year-old daughter love Donald Trump.

DAVIS: It's a good reminder that Trump has always been more popular with Republican voters than he was with the Republican establishment. A year later, Collins says that popularity might also be rising with the establishment.

COLLINS: Well, they're not setting the tone anymore, so he's got them on the edge of their chair. But they all want to go in Air Force One. They all want to go to the Oval Office. Who's in charge? Well, there's no if, ands or buts who's in charge. It's Donald J. Trump.

KELLY: OK, so Donald J. Trump indisputably in charge. But, Sue, what can we say about how the party has actually changed in this year?

DAVIS: The biggest shift - and probably the toughest one for many traditional Republicans - is this embrace of a more nationalist, protectionist worldview. This is Hans Noel. He's an expert on political parties at Georgetown University.

HANS NOEL: What seems to be changed in the Republican side is that the anti-immigrant, ethno-nationalist, identity element is much, much more central than it had been. If anything, it had been slowly fading over the last several decades.

DAVIS: And the resurgence of that is the discomfort you hear from Republicans like Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, especially when they see things like the president's response to the racist violence in Charlottesville. But again, they are leaving the party, and particularly Republicans like Flake acknowledge the Republican Party just may not be as welcoming to him right now.

KELLY: Well, and speaking of not as welcoming right now, what about this concern that Trump is shrinking the Republican tent (ph) and that the party is only home to mainly white voters?

DAVIS: This is why I say the party is publicly very united. There are certainly private concerns about how sustainable this Trump coalition really is. I talked to former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and he thinks - like many Republicans - that Trump won because of Hillary Clinton's flawed campaign and that the party simply can't stop trying to expand.

ERIC CANTOR: Our system is a binary one. It's one or the other. And when this - when the choice on the other side is so bad that the base-only play that Donald Trump's been about is going to succeed.

DAVIS: Let's not forget Cantor lost to some of those insurgent populous forces, but he told me he still considers himself part of this party. But he does warn that Republicans risk losing those college-educated, suburban types if Democrats can offer candidates that better appeal to them.

CANTOR: They're the ones - if given a viable choice on the other side - they're going to opt for that viable choice if the Republican Party doesn't adopt more of an inclusive, expansive mantle.

DAVIS: There are still a lot of Republicans like Eric Cantor who recognize the future of this country is still very diverse.

KELLY: OK. So, Sue Davis, we hear there from Republicans like Eric Cantor who are worried about the future of their party, but their party does keep on winning - and not just Trump. I mean, you know, I don't need to remind everybody that Republicans won full control of Congress last year.

KELLY: And I always like to remind people they were not ready for it. Republicans at this time last year were actively preparing at the highest levels for a Clinton administration. That's why Republicans like Steven Law say it's been an uneasy first year. He runs American Crossroads - that's the Republican top super PAC - and he's a longtime ally of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

STEVEN LAW: The president and Republicans in Congress just kind of circling each other like, you know, wary boxers trying to figure out what the other one's going to be like and how to get the drop on them.

LAW: After their health care bill failure, Law thinks the party is kind of figuring out how to work together and that the real test they should be judged on of this governing majority will be if Republicans can pass this major tax overhaul.

KELLY: Well, and that's the big if at the moment. I mean, what happens if they don't pass it this year? If we're sitting there next year, if we're sitting there on the eve of the midterms a year from now, and they haven't passed the tax bill, what happens?

DAVIS: This is the exact question I put to Tim Phillips. He runs Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers-backed conservative advocacy group.

KELLY: And I should note Koch Industries also gives money to NPR.

DAVIS: Correct. But Phillips says conservative economic policies like this tax bill could seal the party's relationship with Trump. But if they fail...

TIM PHILLIPS: If they fail that tax reform after their failure on health care, then I think their majorities are in peril next year because a lot of voters who gave them a chance, gave them these majorities, gave them the presidency, will feel like they didn't make any use of it.

DAVIS: This is why Republicans like Ohio's Jim Jordan say Trump has the upper hand - because the Republican Party grassroots had already been moving in Trump's direction. For every Jeff Flake leaving the party, there may be plenty other Roy Moores out there who are embracing the party as it is now. Here's Jordan.

JIM JORDAN: Those who say they're for the president, when they say they're for the president, they are really for the president - which is a good thing. I think his - the intensity factor for President Trump is as - probably as strong as anyone that - you know, in modern political times.

DAVIS: And Jordan points to the fact that Trump has also brought a lot of new voters into the party, people who thought the system had forgotten them. He's sort of shaken up this image of the Republican Party as the party of corporate America into a party about working America. And even establishment Republicans like Steven Law say that is a good thing.

LAW: Donald Trump is not the president the Republican Party expected in 2016, but he may just end up being the president the Republican Party needs.

DAVIS: And this is why politics should never cease to amaze you, Mary Louise - because a New York billionaire can now lay claim to being today's champion of working America.

KELLY: NPR's Sue Davis, reporting there on the state of the GOP. Thanks, Sue.

DAVIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.