Updated Feb 5, 2022 - Politics & Policy

The making of a modern Republican

Illustration of an evolution diagram of three elephants, with the middle one showing surprise

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Paths to power and winning elections inside the GOP are changing rapidly and radically, spawning a new generation of kingmakers while diminishing the clout of many who lorded over the party for years.

Why it matters: Fourteen of the Republican Party's top consultants and operatives across the country spoke in detail with Axios about how profoundly primary races have changed since 2014 — the last pre-Donald Trump midterm election and the last midterms in which a Democrat occupied the White House.

What we found: Those sources — whose clients range from as Trumpy as they come to establishment Republicans — described a clear shift in the party's power brokers. They spoke of changes to the ecosystem across four categories: institutional upheaval, endorsements, conservative media and donors.

  • Axios granted them anonymity so they could speak with a degree of candor that's not possible on the record because of personal and business relationships. Here's what they told us:

Who had the power:

  • The U.S. Chamber of Commerce
  • The NRA
  • The Koch network
  • Heritage Action
  • The Drudge Report
  • National Review
  • Conservative movement groups such as Tea Party Express, FreedomWorks, and the Senate Conservatives Fund.

Who has power now:

  • Donald Trump
  • Tucker Carlson
  • Family and former aides to Trump
  • Fox News
  • Club for Growth
  • Daily Wire
  • Breitbart News
  • Online influencers including Candace Owens, Ben Shapiro, Dan Bongino, Joe Rogan, Jack Posobiec, Charlie Kirk and Marjorie Taylor Greene.
  • Steve Bannon
  • Susan B. Anthony List

Between the lines: Most of these changes weren't gradual. They were triggered by the shockwave of 2016.

  • Much of the institutional GOP worked against Trump in 2016. Much of the heft they believed their endorsements carried evaporated as voters saw in real time how Trump had little need for them and ultimately obliterated them.
  • Said one top consultant: "You wouldn't know that these groups were paper tigers — unless you ever ran against one of them."

INSTITUTIONAL UPHEAVAL: Several GOP institutional titans in the 2014 cycle have since receded.

The Koch network: The vast operation established by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch was almost a parallel Republican Party. Candidates and their consultants regularly pitched themselves at Koch donor retreats and worried how the Kochs viewed them.

  • But its high-profile breaks with Trump on issues such as immigration and free trade polarized GOP attitudes toward the network working across the aisle on foreign policy and criminal justice reform, and on traditional advocacy around taxes and regulation. 
  • David Koch died in 2019, at 79; Charles is 86.
  • The Koch network's political arm says it broke records in 2020, making nearly 60 million voter contacts in 272 races, with a win rate of 78%. Despite that footprint, none of the operatives we interviewed considered Koch support to be important in 2022.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce: In 2014, the Chamber was heavily involved in Republican primaries. "Chamber Republicans" competed against "Tea Party Republicans," claiming greater appeal to the business community than insurgent conservatives and better prospects in the general election.

  • A Chamber endorsement was the gold standard and came with an expectation of meaningful outside financial support. These days, most Republicans in primaries — including establishment figures — want to stay as far away from the Chamber as possible.
  • "The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is not a wing of a political party," a spokesperson for the business group told Axios. "We are an association advancing the business community’s priorities that drive economic growth. On that front, we are doing quite well: tax reform is law, infrastructure is law, and Build Back Better is not law.”
  • The Chamber's direct donations to political candidates have remained fairly steady since then, according to OpenSecrets data, and it's beefed up its digital advocacy operation as well.
  • But its late-cycle political advertising — broadcast buys in the pivotal weeks before voters go to the polls — declined dramatically, from more than $35 million in the 2014 cycle to under $6 million six years later.
  • During the past year, the Republican Party has effectively banished the Chamber for its increased support of Democrats. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has said he wants nothing to do with the Chamber if the GOP flips the House. And even establishment GOP primary candidates are steering clear of it.
  • "If the U.S. Chamber of Commerce calls you and says 'we want to endorse,' You're like, 'please don't,'" said a GOP consultant who works for some of the country's highest-profile Republicans.

Conservative movement groups: Some of the most sought-after brands on the right pre-Trump are no longer considered as important.

  • In 2012, primary contenders coveted endorsements from the Tea Party Express, FreedomWorks and the Senate Conservatives Fund (SCF). In the 2014 Nebraska Senate primary, Republicans considered it a coup when FreedomWorks un-endorsed Shane Osborn and switched its support to Ben Sasse.
  • A GOP operative who worked in those cycles — and today works for some of the top Republicans competing in 2022 primaries — recalled: "People were putting these endorsements in their ads, 'endorsed by Tea Party Express,' 'endorsed by the Senate Conservatives Fund.' I mean, think about how wild that is in relation to today."
  • "When you're courting one of these D.C. Beltway conservative organizations today, it's not for voters at all," the operative continued. Whereas their brand mattered to voters then, the operative said, now it's "hopefully they'll help you raise some money, or let you get in front of their donors."

SCF's executive director, Mary Vought, rejected this analysis, saying, "Our endorsement is sought after now more than ever because candidates know we do the hard work of raising money for their campaigns. Some groups only give them a press release, but SCF actually raises and transfers hundreds of thousands of dollars directly to their campaigns."

  • FreedomWorks said it "has averaged several candidate interviews per week" this cycle. "Candidates and consultants come to us because they are interested in both our endorsement and the grassroots muscle that we bring to the table," Mac Stoddard, the group's political director, said in an interview.

The NRA: In his campaign to become governor of Virginia, Glenn Youngkin declined to even fill out the NRA's candidate questionnaire. As a result, the NRA didn’t endorse him. Nobody seemed to care, and he won the race. 

  • The storied gun rights organization points to its down-ballot wins in Virginia, where it backed Attorney General Jason Miyares and Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears, as well as candidates that helped the GOP flip the state legislature. It's also remained active in policy and judicial fights, including its successful effort to scuttle President Biden's nomination to lead the ATF last year.
  • The group says candidates continue to line up in the hopes of winning an endorsement — and backing from its millions of members.
  • GOP operatives acknowledge the NRA's continued influence, but say it's a shadow of its former self due in large measure to its well-documented financial and management struggles.
  • Operatives said they like their candidates having the NRA stamp of approval — but gone are the days when the gun lobby had the money and organizational power to be a game-changer in Republican politics.

Institutions that still matter: The relationships between many candidates and groups are now explicitly transactional. A prominent consultant who's working for candidates in several GOP primaries this cycle advises clients when they meet with conservative groups to ask specifically what their endorsement comes with.

  • "What do you provide? Do you do door knocking? Do you do ballot access? Do you do voter education? Do you go after my opponents in the primary?" the consultant said. "Because honestly, if it [only] comes with 'I've been endorsed by FreedomWorks'… it ends up being too much work and too much trouble for the return on investment."
  • The groups that still matter are the ones that can offer tangible benefits: They have money to spend or staff and volunteers to organize voters. Their brands don’t matter at all, operatives said.
  • Nearly every GOP operative Axios interviewed said the Club for Growth remains relevant for one reason: They have plenty of money and are willing to spend it in Republican primaries.
  • Operatives also singled-out the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List as an organization that is still worth courting. "They've got money, they've got people, they've got boots on the ground…that matters," said another top operative for multiple 2022 GOP candidates.
  • Operatives think about support from leadership in the same way. Support from Kevin McCarthy in the House and Mitch McConnell in the Senate still carries substantial financial benefits.
  • But with McConnell's approval ratings especially low with the Republican base — and Trump attacking McConnell constantly — candidates are assiduously courting him in private while avoiding being publicly associated with him.

The bottom line: Many movement conservative brands are shadows of what they used to be. Many of the major conservative think tanks supported policy positions — such as reforming Social Security or free trade — that Trump obliterated and proved elderly GOP voters didn’t actually support.

2. ENDORSEMENTS: Every operative said the only endorsement that really matters is Trump's. But there are nuances. His endorsement alone is not enough; what he actually does for a candidate matters, too.

  • "In a primary, having Trump as a credential is good, obviously, but it doesn't do shit standalone," said one top GOP operative. "He can endorse whoever he wants and if that's all it is, and they don't have much money to promote it, they don't have much money to use it, and he doesn't come in the state or whatever — people are quite comfortable loving him and not loving who he's with."

Some recent polls pointed to those limits. A recent poll by Cygnal, an analytics firm for GOP candidates, found just one in four North Carolina likely primary voters said they'd definitely vote for a Trump-endorsed candidate. A January poll by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found less than half of Georgia Republicans say a Trump endorsement would make them more likely to vote for that candidate.

  • GOP operatives told Axios that Trump's endorsement can be a game-changer only if candidates have enough money to promote it.
  • "If every Republican primary voter were aware of President Trump's endorsement," one GOP operative said, "his endorsement would be tantamount to nomination. I can't think of a time that has ever happened before."
  • Trump can occasionally clear a field. In Wyoming, a decent-sized field was lined up to challenge Liz Cheney. Then Trump announced he was endorsing Harriet Hageman and almost immediately three candidates suspended their campaigns.
  • If a candidate can't get Trump's endorsement, their operatives will want a "patina of Trump," as one consultant put it. This is why Republican candidates are scrambling to hire former Trump aides and get endorsements from former Trump officials and members of the Trump family.
  • Operatives said that of the Trump associates and family, Don Junior's endorsement is the most valuable, because he has the Trump name and will do more than just send out fundraising emails. "Don Junior will actually get out, travel and campaign for your candidate," said one operative.

Operatives also said endorsements can matter in conferring ideological credibility. If you need to convince voters your establishment-seeming candidate is genuinely hardline on immigration, having an endorsement from Ted Cruz or Tom Cotton or praise from Tucker Carlson or Stephen Miller can help.

  • In the same vein, candidates still hunt for local endorsements to give them credibility — small business owners, law enforcement groups, local farm bureaus. Glenn Youngkin ran this playbook effectively in the Virginia gubernatorial race.
  • One operative summed it up this way: "In short, endorsements don't matter much at all. There's Trump. His endorsement matters, although less than many think. The top Fox hosts matter a bit, but more because of the venue they offer a candidate than because of their own ability to impact voters.
  • "Endorsements from interest groups with real money matter, but again, much more because of the money than because of any cachet connected to the group. Some groups have useful symbolic importance because their very name has ideological heft, e.g. the Fraternal Order of Police. That's about it. Most voters don't care about endorsements."

The bottom line: The GOP operatives we interviewed unanimously said that after Trump, they don't put a ton of stock in the power of endorsements to shape a primary race in 2022.

3. CONSERVATIVE MEDIA: As the news media fragmented overall, traditional conservative media was usurped in GOP primaries by New Wave populist-nationalist media — and some once-influential institutions have died or faded. The Weekly Standard shuttered.

  • The Drudge Report used to be able to shape multiple conservative news cycles with one headline alone. These days, after a long fight with Trump, it's viewed skeptically if not unfavorably by many Republicans.
  • Republicans used to covet the cover of National Review. But after the publication opposed Trump in 2016, every operative we asked told Axios it's become irrelevant in GOP primaries. "Courting the National Review doesn't matter at all," said one with several high-profile GOP primary candidates. "I would argue there's more people who'd be turned off by NR writing positive pieces…"
  • "I don’t know who said that," National Review editor Rich Lowry told Axios, "but I guarantee you if we ran a negative item of any sort on one of his or her clients — whether a 1,000-word article or a brief comment — we would hear from that campaign pushing back almost immediately."
  • Lowry said he sees "an element of wish-fulfillment in some of these attacks" on National Review: "A fringe wants us gone, so they pretend it’s so, when they actually read us as closely as anyone."

Fox still dominates. GOP operatives work as hard as ever to book their candidates on Fox. Getting on the evening prime time shows like Tucker Carlson Tonight, Hannity, and The Ingraham Angle nets low-dollar donations and visibility with primary voters and Trump himself.

  • "Fox News is still a very important deliverer of conservative Republican primary voting audience," said one operative. "There's not a lot that gets close to it."
  • Many of the operatives said a meaningful proportion of the base lost some trust in Fox after Trump went to war against the network after it was the first to call Joe Biden's victory in Arizona.
  • Some of these disgruntled Trump fans have turned instead to the even more fervently pro-Trump networks, OAN and Newsmax. But those two networks face growing distribution problems as providers cut them from their services.

Tucker Carlson is the king of the GOP's media wing — the person whose support GOP primary candidates most want and whose opposition is to be desperately avoided because it can "move numbers," in the words of one operative who has seen the Tucker effect up close.

  • One operative told Axios there are two other media entities candidates do not want working against them in GOP primaries. "You don't want Bannon on your f---ing ass" and "you don't want Breitbart on your ass. Those are kind of the big ones."
  • Several operatives distinguished between Carlson and Fox's other prime time star Sean Hannity. Every operative Axios interviewed regarded Carlson as more influential than Hannity in a GOP primary and more dangerous if he attacks their candidates.
  • "That's why, when Tucker does a segment on you, why it's Code Red, Ted Cruz goes on his show the very next day begging for forgiveness," the operative continued. "I don't think I've seen a more influential cable news anchor on the right. I think that even includes Bill O’Reilly in his heyday. I don't think Bill O’Reilly ever had the effect on Republican voters that Tucker has."

An important shift is accelerating online. Many GOP primary voters now get their information directly from influencers including Candace Owens, Dan Bongino, Joe Rogan, Dave Portnoy, Charlie Kirk, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and websites like Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire and Breitbart, which dominate Facebook.

  • The hardest core of Trump's election-denying base listen to Bannon's War Room — a podcast that has become an audition stage for GOP candidates and a venue that consultants say is a goldmine for their candidates' digital fundraising.

Between the lines: Several operatives said they could easily go a whole primary without needing to engage at all with the mainstream media. When they do, they're often trying to provoke outlets the GOP base despises — such as CNN — to gain street cred with primary voters.

The bottom line: The media landscape is so diffuse now — "fragmented, severely sliced and diced," as one operative put it — that GOP operatives aren't leaning on one source overall, or the mainstream media at all, in primaries.

4. THE DONOR LANDSCAPE: The recent passing of Republican mega-donors Sheldon Adelson and Foster Freiss were significant in their own right. At the same time, newer donors are cutting the big checks, with people like tech investor Peter Thiel and industrial supply magnate Richard Uihlein single-handedly underwriting high-dollar super PACs.

  • Trump's unprecedented success in GOP small-dollar fundraising has also driven party leaders to invest more in donor prospecting, list acquisition and data projects that can hone the party's grassroots money game — and make it less reliant on top donors' six- and seven-figure contributions.
  • While Republicans remain eager to court corporate lobbyists and executives for campaign cash, the party's increasing divergence from the Reagan-era tax cutting and deregulation agenda threatens to further split the GOP from its longtime corporate patrons.

Editor's note: This story was originally published on Feb. 4.

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