Terri Burl was an early member of Women for Trump. As chair of her local Republican party branch in northern Wisconsin, she twice campaigned vigorously for his election in the key swing state. By the time Trump left office, Burl rated him the greatest president since Ronald Reagan. Maybe even better.
But now Burl has had enough.
She viewed the prospect of Trump announcing another run for the presidency – as he did in Florida on Tuesday evening – with trepidation. Burl predicts “a lot of blood on the floor” if it comes to a fight with rightwing Florida governor Ron DeSantis for the Republican nomination, and defeat in the 2024 election if the former US president is the candidate.
“I will back whoever the Republicans choose to run in 2024. That’s a given. But I want them to go through the primaries and I hope it’s not Trump. He has too much baggage now. We need new blood because it’s obvious that he can’t get to business now without doing things to make people angry. His behaviour hasn’t changed,” she said.
Burl, a substitute teacher, is not alone.
The Republicans’ failure to deliver the much promised “red wave” in the midterms was a significant blow to Trump’s claim to be the voice of his party’s voters, not least because of the defeat of key candidates endorsed by him. But backing from the grass roots, which gave him a tight grip on the Republicans for years and kept its hostile leadership at bay, has been eroding for months.
Republican county chairs and activists say support for the former president has diminished as a result of his continued pushing of election conspiracy theories, the investigations into his businesses and political actions, and his attacks on his most threatening challenger, DeSantis. Above all, there is a deepening fear that Trump is now even more divisive than he was two years ago when he lost the popular vote to Joe Biden by more than 7m votes, and is therefore unelectable.
But local Republican leaders also say that Trump retains a substantial and virulently loyal following within the party that will fight to the last and could still decide the primaries.
In rural Iowa, Neil Shaffer, chair of the Howard county Republican party, said he would rather see DeSantis as his party’s candidate in two years but that the membership of his branch is split.
“Honestly, Trump’s got a lot of baggage, self-inflicted. Had he taken the loss gracefully, and held his tongue, and didn’t further these conspiracy theories, he probably could have been a president again, with an interim of Biden,” he said.
“People that came to the Trump bandwagon, there were a lot of independents, a lot of first-time voters, a lot of everyday people. They did overlook some of the issues. Since then, a lot of the people that I’ve talked to that were first-time Republican voters would have a very difficult time being as enthusiastic for Trump this time around just because of how he didn’t gracefully take an exit. He lost a lot of political capital between November 2020 and January 6, and unnecessarily. All self-inflicted.”
Shaffer said he has faith in the electoral system and that Biden legitimately won the election.
Like Burl, Shaffer wants to see other candidates challenge Trump for the Republican nomination.
“I honestly am a big fan of Governor DeSantis and have been for several months just following through this last campaign. Fresh face. Has the same kind of agenda as Trump without all the baggage,” he said.
But Shaffer, speaking before Trump’s announcement, said he doubted Trump could be beaten.
“If Trump runs, I’m 99% sure he’ll have the nomination. I know how caucuses and primaries work. You don’t have to have that many people show up and he has a very loyal and dedicated following,” said Shaffer.
Burl is not so sure that Trump would win the primaries but she predicts a bitter fight that could further damage the Republican party.
“If these two guys are the ones that are left, going back and forth, I think it’s gonna be brutal. There will be a lot of blood on the floor,” she said.
A YouGov poll in the days immediately after the midterms gave DeSantis a seven-point lead over Trump among Republican primary voters, including independents. That’s a shift from a month before the elections when Trump had a 10-point advantage. However, among “strong Republicans”, Trump retains a narrow lead.
Burl administrates a private Facebook group, American Patriots. She polled its members and found that Trump had a slight edge in support. In other social media forums, some of his supporters say he is a “proven fighter” who can connect with the public in ways no other politician can. Others say the time has come to “dump Trump”.
“I love what DJT did for America. But … is he even electable?” asked one of his supporters.
Others questioned his judgment after he backed weak candidates in the midterms solely because they were loyal to his claim that the last presidential election was stolen.
Trump’s deriding of his Florida rival as Ron “DeSanctimonious” days before the midterms was a last straw for some. Then he took to Fox News to warn off DeSantis from running for the presidency, saying “he could hurt himself very badly” and threatening to “tell you things about him that won’t be very flattering”.
“I think he would be making a mistake. I think the base would not like it. I don’t think it would be good for the party,” said Trump.
Burl said she was “shocked” by the former president’s attack on DeSantis.
“Trump is starting to call him names and that really disappointed me. And then he said that if DeSantis tries to run against him, he’s got some dirt on DeSantis that he’s going to bring up. That’s not the way to do things,” she said.
Burl said some Republicans were concerned that while they saw Trump as his own man, DeSantis was too much of an accomplished politician whose decisions are calculated according to what he thinks will play well with voters.
“Some people are saying that they don’t trust DeSantis because they think that he will cross into the establishment side. I’m not establishment. I don’t like establishment candidates. I like people like Trump,” she said.
“But even though some people might look on DeSantis as establishment right now, I think he is coming out as his own type of Republican and really doesn’t want to cavort with all of the establishment Republicans and do what they say.”
Shaffer is concerned about the damage Trump will do to the Republican party, and its presidential nominee, if he loses and goes down fighting.
“How does Trump run and not tarnish the other candidates?” he said.
And if Trump is the nominee? Shaffer said he would still campaign for the former president, but doesn’t relish the prospect.
“If Trump got the nomination it will be a much more difficult for him this time around than it was in 2020. We’re gonna have to work very hard, much harder than in 2016 or two years [ago],” he said.