“Part of what bubbled up on that call is that there is not anything that unites that group on policy,” said Lucy Caldwell, an independent political strategist who served as an adviser to Walsh. “They’re sort of united in a common form of suffering and sacrifice, but that does not a political movement make.” Common Ground Arkansas, to “provide a home” for people disaffected with existing party politics. It isn’t a third party, he said, though eventually “it may come to that.”
However, he added, “To be candid, it’s how much can you stomach? When you’ve got [Senate Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell using a procedural point of questionable value to vote against impeachment, you have people believing the big election lie, it’s just hard to keep associating yourself with that group. That’s the difficulty.”
That’s the conclusion that Hendren came to in Arkansas. He acknowledged that “when you go from being the president pro tem in the majority party to a caucus of one, there’s going to be a corresponding change in your ability to influence legislation.” And he said, “If my No. 1 goal in life was to win a statewide office, I’d have stayed a Republican.”
Talk of a third party, he said, “is not going to last, because you get tired of having no influence. … At the end of the day, parties are gathered because, collectively, they wield influence. That’s the point. If you can’t wield influence, it doesn’t matter how good you feel about it. It’s about power.”
For Taylor and like-minded Republicans and former Republicans, there are some reasons for optimism. According to Gallup, nearly two-thirds of Americans, including 63 percent of Republicans, say a third party is needed. That’s the highest level of public support for a third party since Gallup began asking the question in 2003.
A new Democratic president and a Democratic-controlled Congress could also work to pull wavering Republicans back into the fold. Compared to Trump, Joe Biden was appealing to a significant number of Republicans who voted for the Democrat for president but Republican down-ticket. But Pat McCrory, the former Republican governor of North Carolina, predicted that before the midterm elections, Democrats “will overplay their cards and unite us. It’s just a matter of time.”
In most cases, Barker said, “Politically, it makes significantly more sense to me to stay within the party, because if you can win the party, like Trump has done, you’ve got all the structure that goes with it.”
Taylor suggested the effort could take a form similar to that of the Tea Party circa 2010, “but less to the right” — what he called a “nationwide movement to bring the party back to the center.”
Rather, he said, “What we are dead set on is that something dramatic needs to happen, and there needs to be a very, very clear break from what the GOP has been for the last four years.”
“That’s a potential model,” he said. “It’s very, very doable.”
Tens of thousands of Republicans across the country have changed their registrations in the weeks since the riot at the Capitol — many of them, like Hendren, becoming independents. Other former party officials are discussing forming a third party.
Between that public sentiment and the democratizing influence of social media and small-dollar fundraising, the existing party structure has never appeared weaker. Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent running against the Democratic Party establishment, made a credible bid for winning the Democratic nomination in 2016. Trump, who did win, ran as a party outsider before co-opting the GOP.
Republicans nationally are having similar conversations. Earlier this month, Evan McMullin, who ran against Trump as an independent in 2016, and more than 100 other Republicans and former Republican officials and strategists held a widely publicized meeting at which they discussed the prospect of a third party or organizing as a faction within the GOP. were divided about whether to start a third party or work as a faction within the party. And whatever form the effort takes, it’s unclear who would join. That’s because the Republicans who are dissatisfied with the GOP’s devotion to Trump are not otherwise entirely ideologically aligned.
One big problem for anti-Trump Republicans and former Republicans is that, among conservatives, the power still rests with the former president. Trump’s approval rating among Republicans is holding at about 80 percent, with a majority of Republicans hoping he continues to play a major role in the party. Politicians who have crossed him, including Sens. Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, and Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, have been censured by party officials in their home states.
In the meantime, the constellation of groups that sprung up in opposition to Trump last year — and that are now morphing into their post-Trump iterations — will be trying to establish themselves as something that outlasts the 2020 election. Daniel Barker, a former Arizona Court of Appeals judge who started a PAC of Republicans supporting Biden during last year’s campaign, said his goal of removing some of Trump’s most loyal House members in Arizona may involve supporting Republicans or independents — “whoever best represents the center-right.”
But Hendren, who is considering running for governor in 2022 as an independent, said, “To me, it’s about beginning the process of building something that gives my adult kids … some hope that there’s some normalcy and a place for them to fit in politically, because for them, they just don’t see it.”
For Republicans who want out, said John Thomas, a Republican strategist who works on House campaigns across the country, “That’s the whole problem: Where do they go?”
Even in their diminished state, the Democratic and Republican parties remain the dominant force in politics, with party affiliation tightly tied to voter preferences and legislative voting behavior. And more than 150 years of two-party rule in Washington and the nation’s statehouses have created conditions designed to keep it that way, with strict ballot access rules and an ecosystem of political professionals largely organized around — and dependent on — the existing party system.
It’s that analysis that is one reason Republican Party loyalists are largely dismissive of third party discussions. Wayne MacDonald, a New Hampshire lawmaker and former state Republican Party chair, said, “The big question about a third party is, what are they going to stand for that the other two parties don’t?”
“That’s always the question,” he said, “and frankly, maybe it’s because I’ve been in party politics so long, I don’t take it that seriously.”
Miles Taylor, the former chief of staff in Trump’s Department of Homeland Security who started a group of administration officials and other Republicans working against Trump’s reelection last year, said he and McMullin, with whom he is coordinating, are not “dead set on a third party.”
“What is happening is the devolution of the party system,” said Mike Madrid, a Republican strategist who was a co-founder of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project — which is now itself imploding — before stepping down in December. “This has been quaking for 20 years.”
When Jim Hendren, a longtime Arkansas state legislator, announced on Thursday that he was leaving the GOP, it marked the latest in a flurry of recent defections from the party.