WASHINGTON – Knute Buehler, who led Oregon's Republican ticket as the candidate for governor in 2018, watched with growing alarm in recent weeks as Republicans around the nation challenged the reliability of the presidential election results.
Then he watched the Jan. 6 siege at the U.S. Capitol in horror. And then, to his astonishment, Republican Party officials in his own state embraced the conspiracy theory that the attack was actually a left-wing plot to frame Trump supporters.
The night after his party's leadership passed a formal resolution promoting the "false flag" theory, Buehler filed to change his registration from Republican to independent. "It was very painful," he said.
His exit highlighted one facet of the upheaval now underway in the GOP: It has become a leaderless party, with veterans like Buehler stepping away, luminaries like Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio retiring, far-right extremists like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia building a brand on a web of dangerous conspiracy theories, and pro-Trump Republicans at war with conservatives who want to look beyond the former president to the future.
With no dominant leader, a radical right movement that became emboldened under former President Donald Trump has been maneuvering for more power, and ascending in different states and congressional districts. More moderate Republicans feel increasingly under attack, but so far have made little progress in galvanizing voters, donors or new recruits for office to push back against extremism.
Instead, in Arizona, the state Republican Party has brazenly punished dissent, formally censuring three of its own: Gov. Doug Ducey, former Sen. Jeff Flake and Cindy McCain, the widow of former Sen. John McCain. The party cited their criticisms of Trump and their defenses of the state's election process.
In Wyoming, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., headlined a rally Thursday to denounce Rep. Liz Cheney for her vote to impeach Trump. Joining Gaetz by phone hookup was Donald Trump Jr., who has been working to unseat Cheney and replace her with someone he believes better represents the views of her constituents — in other words, fealty to his father.
In Kentucky, grassroots Republicans tried to push the state party to pass a resolution urging Sen. Mitch McConnell to fully support Trump in next month's impeachment trial. The effort failed.
And in Michigan, Meshawn Maddock, a Trump supporter who pushed false claims about voter fraud and organized buses of Republicans from the state to attend the Jan. 6 rally in Washington, is running unopposed to become the new co-chair of the state party. While marching from the Ellipse to the Capitol on Jan. 6, Maddock praised the "most incredible crowd and sea of people I've ever worked with."
Nothing is defining and dividing the GOP more than loyalty to Trump and his false claims about the election.
"You've got 41% of the country, including a lot of independents, who think the election was stolen," said Scott Reed, former political director for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a veteran Republican consultant. "It takes months for a party that loses a national election to re-gel."
There are still Republicans who are responsible for the party's political interests — but they are preaching unity to factions that have no desire to unite.
Perhaps the most prominent party official right now is Ronna McDaniel, chair of the Republican National Committee and a close ally of Trump's. In an interview Friday, she condemned the "false flag" resolution passed by Oregon Republicans and sounded exasperated at the public brawling in her party.
"If you have a family dispute, don't go on 'Jerry Springer,' " she said. "Do it behind closed doors. It's my role to call them and explain that if we don't keep our party united and focused on 2022, we will lose."
At the same time, McDaniel made it clear that she was not going to impose top-down decisionmaking on the party, noting that the role of the RNC was to stay neutral in primaries.
For some Republicans deeply critical of Trump, the former president's departure has not led to an improved era for the party. Rather, they see a party that doesn't have the leadership to stand up to its most extreme factions.
"Kevin McCarthy has been more critical of Liz Cheney than he has been of Marjorie Taylor Greene," Bill Kristol, the conservative writer and a "Never Trump" Republican, said of the House Republican leader. "That's pretty astonishing. … It's one thing to have party unity, but at some point there have to be boundaries."
Senior Republicans are still figuring out where those are after four years of defending Trump. McDaniel said she was concerned by some of the language that has been used by Greene, who before she was elected to Congress expressed support for executing Democrats like Speaker Nancy Pelosi. McDaniel called the comments "atrocious." But she stopped short of condemning Greene.
Some strategists said that when Democrats begin to try to pass legislation, it would become easier for Republicans to remember they are on the same team. Marc Short, who served as chief of staff to former Vice President Mike Pence, said that "the obituaries of the GOP are premature."