By Brian Howey
Take President Reagan’s “11th Commandment” (Thou shalt not criticize another Republican) and shove it.
The Big Tent GOP is following Ringling Brothers into oblivion. There is a civil war brewing in the Republican Party and the revolt is fomenting — in the warrens of Vice President Mike Pence.
Ever since that early summer day in 2015 when Donald Trump descended on an escalator to declare his bid for the presidency, the Republican Party has been torn. Trump won a hostile takeover nomination in the Indiana presidential primary in May 2016 with only Rex Early and Sullivan County Chairman Bill Springer as his conspicuous Hoosier advocates. When Pence joined the ticket, Hoosiers came around.
When Pence was governor, he got to know Nick Ayres, a 24-year-old wunderkind who became executive director of the Republican Governor’s Association. Along with Marty Obst, a former driver when Jim Kittle was Indiana GOP chairman who then headed up the Pence era foodchain, the two accompanied the veep to Washington.
Ayres and Obst formed the American First Policies PAC which has become the enforcer of Trumpian policy, no matter how misguided it is. Trump’s tax reform plan adds $10 trillion to the budget deficits in the coming decade? Deficits schmeficits!
Last summer, when vulnerable Nevada Sen. Dean Heller wavered on a deeply flawed Senate health repeal/replace, American First aimed $1 million of TV ads against the Republican with all the subtlety of Tony Soprano. Allies of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell termed the move “beyond stupid,” the ads were pulled and that health bill went down in flames. Ditto for Graham/Cassidy. Trump/Pence seethed in indignation. The fact that Graham/Cassidy had a 20 percent approval in a Fox News Poll was beside the point. The mantra in the White House starts with the phrase “how dare they?”
And now the knives are out for Republicans Heller, Arizona’s Jeff Flake, Mississippi’s Roger Wicker and Tennessee’s Bob Corker until he decided not to seek reelection. McConnell and Speaker Paul Ryan have become the GOP version of Nancy Pelosi.
A couple of weeks after former Trump senior adviser Steve Bannon headed back to Breitbart and launched a “revolution” aimed at Ryan and McConnell, Ayres ended up addressing a Republican National Committee and queued up a corresponding insurrection. In an audio tape obtained by Politico, the Pence chief of staff said, “Just imagine the possibilities of what can happen if our entire party unifies behind him?” The “him” is, of course, President Trump. “If — and this sounds crass — we can purge the handful of people who continue to work to defeat him.”
An attendee asked how pressure could be applied on Ryan and McConnell. “I’m not speaking on behalf of the president or vice president when I say this,” Ayres responded, “but if I were you, I would not only stop donating, I would form a coalition of all the other major donors, and just say two things: we’re definitely not giving to you, No. 1. And No. 2, if you don’t have this done by Dec. 31, we’re going out, we’re recruiting opponents, we’re maxing out to their campaigns, and we’re funding super PACs to defeat all of you.”
Then Ayres said this: “Because, look, if we’re going to be in the minority again, we might as well have a minority who are with us as opposed to the minority who helped us become a minority.”
So team Pence is manning the circular firing squad.
It comes as data brews of a Grand Old Debacle next year. A Quinnipiac Poll puts congressional approval at 15 percent, with some 61 percent of Republicans disapproving. Quinnipiac found that 56 percent of Americans don’t believe Trump is “fit to serve as president.” A CNN poll puts approval of the Republican Party at 29 percent, down 13 points from March.
This all is reflected in the emerging Indiana Republican U.S. Senate race where Rep. Todd Rokita has targeted Republican “elites” and Rep. Luke Messer’s campaign manager Chasen Bullock acknowledges, “We’re running against the Senate.”
Somewhere amongst the gathering flotsam and jetsam is a smiling Sen. Joe Donnelly, who won that office during the last circular firing that deposed Sen. Richard Lugar.
The Republican Party is a house divided, and you know what ol’ Honest Abe said about that.
Brian Howey is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at howeypolitics.com.