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‘Never-Trumper’ pollster says more Republicans are prepared to turn away from ex-president amid Jan 6 hearings

Controversy over Jan 6 ‘entered into ether’, Sarah Longwell tells Andrew Buncombe

Tuesday 19 July 2022 19:13 BST
Sarah Longwell has long been an outspoken voice in Republican circles
Sarah Longwell has long been an outspoken voice in Republican circles (Getty Images for Teen Vogue)
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Sarah Longwell did not try for even a moment to pretend she liked Donald Trump.

A long-time GOP activist and political strategist, she opposed his nomination to be the Republican presidential candidate back in 2016, arguing that Trump and the things he represented were bad for her and bad for her party. For many years, she has worn the label “Never Trumper” with pride.

Against the backdrop of the Jan 6 committee hearings, Longwell, who is in her 40s, claims an increasing number of Republicans are now ready to “move on” from the former president, and throw their support behind another candidate.

And she says she has the data, in the form of focus group meetings of Republicans that she has been conducting for years.

She says even though few ordinary members of the public have been sitting and listening to the hearings, which have suggested the former president went to extraordinary and even jaw-dropping lengths to hang onto the Oval Office after he lost to Joe Biden, the noise and controversy has “entered the ether”.

“It is very much not, that Trump voters are sitting down and listening to these hearings and being persuaded that Trump is bad. That is not what is happening,” Longwell, 42, tells The Independent.

“The Jan 6 hearings are creating a lot of ambient noise about all the stuff Trump makes people defend that they don’t like. They want to be talking right now about why Biden’s so bad, about inflation. They want to talk about why the world is in such a bad place because of the ‘socialist Democrats’. That’s what Trump voters want to talk about. And Trump wants to keep relitigating the 2020 election.”

Jan 6 committee member suggests Mike Pence could be subpoenaed

Whether it is highlighting the way Trump called officials in Georgia and asked them to “find” an extra 11,000 votes, the fact he thought Mike Pence deserved crowds chanting for his death, or else trying to grab the steering wheel of his SUV to try to join his supportings marching on the Capitol, the hearings have created a backdrop of noise “about this thing that their team did, that they don’t like, that they’re not proud of”.

She says it is not that Trump supporters are sitting down and thinking he is suddenly bad or that they no longer believe he was a good president.

“A key component of this is that there are people they want to move on to, that they’re getting excited about – Ron DeSantis, Mike Pompeo or these people they see on Fox News, Kristi Noem,” she says.  “And they think ‘look at all these other superstars we can have’. They don’t turn away from Trump.”

The insights of Longwell’s focus groups, no matter how limited, might be some of the clearest indications of the impact that that Jan 6 committee hearings are having on the former president’s supporters.

Often dramatically produced and presented more like a television drama than the usual Capitol Hill hearing, the committee’s co-chair, Republican Liz Cheney, has frequently used the final portions to make headline-grabbing  revelations, such as the fact that Trump’s former chief of staff Mark Meadows was among those who sought a pardon, or the committee had passed on to the Department of Justice allegations that the former president had tried to contact a witness before they delivered their testimony.

“The January 6 committee has been so effective, that some Republicans who want to counter-programme have felt like they have to talk about this,” adds Longwell.

“If you look the beginning, the original messaging was, ‘no one cares’ or ‘I’m not watching this garbage’. The problem is they’ve been so effective that everybody’s had to engage, even Fox News,” she says.

“They’re derisive about it, and a lot of these voters are derisive about it. But it’s still breaking through. And that’s the thing, it is still in the ether in a way that prior to the hearings it was not.”

The insights from Longwell are supported by other data, most recently a poll commissioned by the New York Times that found about half of Republicans were ready to vote for someone other than Trump.

While Trump still enjoys high approval ratings among Republicans, he would be the first choice of 49 per cent of respondents to be the party’s presidential candidate in 2024, ahead of Ron DeSantis on 25 points, Ted Cruz on 7 points, Mike Pence on 6 points and Nikki Haley also on 6.

Cassidy Hutchinson testified she was ‘disgusted’ by Trump’s behahiour (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

The poll found Trump retained his primacy, but that he was not perhaps the sure thing that he appeared to be just a few months ago.

The ebb in his support, and the growth in DeSantis’s stature has been pointed to as one of the reasons why Trump may announce his intention to make a third bid for the White House ahead of the November midterm elections.

A recent report in the Washington Post said that for a year or more, the former president’s closest confidantes had counseled him to wait until the fall of the midterms had a chance to settle before announcing – advice that was contrary to Trump’s thinking.

Now, more and more were agreeing with him. “An increasing number of allies are urging him to follow his instincts as a way to shore up his standing in the party and drive turnout to help the GOP take over the House and Senate next year,” the article said.

It cited two sources as saying Trump was now looking at making an announcement in September.

What has certainly been true is that Trump – still off Twitter and Facebook – has been closely monitoring the hearings and what is being said about them on television.

When Cassidy Hutchinson, a 26-year-old former executive assistant, testified under oath about Trump knowing some of his supporters were armed on Jan 6, and throwing his lunch against the wall in a rage, he responded promptly, denouncing her more than once.

“So Cassidy Hutchinson was all set and ready to go to Florida with the Trump Team long after January 6th,” he wrote on his own social media site.

“She knew I did nothing wrong. She was a big Trump fan – but my people didn’t want her. What happened? Why did she so dramatically change? All lies. I guess even she didn’t believe her own bull****.”

House committee is investigating Jan 6 storming of US Capitol that followed speech by Donald Trump (Getty Images)

Longwell included the audio of several of the Trump supporters – either those who had voted for him both in 2016 and 2020 or just in the most recent election – in one of her recent podcasts, The Focus Group.

“Nothing has changed. He is still alienating people every single day. And that was my big problem with him in 2016,” said one woman.

Another said: “I think the other thing that’s been kind of overshadowed is they keep talking about the results of the election. And I feel like even when he’s on his roadshow, he keeps bringing that up, like it’s, you know, a grudge.”

One man said: “I think in the Republican Party, there are other better candidates that should run. And I feel like If Trump were running, it will just dilute and just put a bad taste in people’s mouth.”

Todd Belt, a political scientist at George Washington University, says one reason the hearings have had an impact is that the Republican leadership in the House decided not to be part of them. As a result, with just Trump critics Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger as the sole Republicans, there is little push back or close scrutiny of witnesses whose testimony harms Trump.

Belt says Trump’s most loyal supporters are not, by and large, watching the hearings.

For more moderate Republicans, the hearings are providing a “lot to give them pause as to whether or not Donald Trump should be the next nominee from their party”.

Yet many voices are quick not to write off the 76-year-old Trump, should he decide to run again, particularly given the historically low approval rating of Biden, 79, who would be 86 were he to serve two full terms. (If Trump runs and wins two years from now, he would be 82 years old on Jan 20 2029.)

Professor Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia, says Trump is “still the nominal frontrunner, and if or when he runs, he might well still be nominated”.

He adds: “But the January 6 hearings have hurt him. Democrats and most independents already loathe him but, incredibly at this late date, many Republicans just figured out he’s not very admirable and may very well lose in November if he’s the GOP nominee.”

What does Longwell make of the suggestion that the Jan 6 hearings will hurt Democrats if they believe they have a better chance of beating Trump, as they may expose him to criminal charge?

“That is not a framing I think about,” she says, “The question is, I don’t know about Democrats, but Donald Trump is a unique threat to democracy. I don’t like Ron DeSantis. I don’t think he’d be a good president, based on what I’ve seen from him, but like he and Trump are not the same.”

She adds: “I think that if, if Republican voters decide to move on to somebody besides Trump, that is to the good for all of us, and to the good of democracy and and more importantly, Trump should be held accountable in some way.”

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