Reid Ribble votes for Republicans. He spent three terms in the GOP conference of the U.S. House. But because he wrote in Mike Pence for president on Nov. 3, Ribble also fields questions about whether he still belongs in the party he helped mold over the last decade.
Ribble’s refusal to support or even stay quiet about Donald Trump has put the former congressman on the outside of his own party as it figures out what role the former president still plays in Republican politics.
“I think there’s more people like me than I think,” Ribble said on the second day of Trump’s impeachment trial over his role in a violent and deadly attack against the U.S. Capitol, which left five people dead and resulted in scores of injuries.
But unlike all of his Wisconsin Republican colleagues in Congress, Ribble says he would have voted to impeach Trump.
“The party has to recognize that going forward, if they continue to be the Donald Trump party, they’ll have trouble getting (voters) back and the longer they wait, they may not get them back at all,” he said.
But Ribble knows that his criticism of the former president is leveled in luxury, free from fallout with voters in the next primary election. Trump is out of office, but the Republican Party can’t afford to lose the 1.6 million Wisconsinites who voted for him.
Ribble represents one kind of Wisconsin Republican, but Trump is still in the minds and motivations of the so-called establishment — lawmakers and party officials.
During the week of the former president’s second impeachment trial, Republican Party of Wisconsin chairman Andrew Hitt said he just wanted to move on.
“What happened on Jan. 6 was a tragedy, it was something I’ve never condoned — I’ve never supported violence,” Hitt said during a Marquette University Law School event with Ribble. “I don’t think that President Trump should be impeached. I don’t think it moves us forward.”
Wisconsin Republicans in Congress responded to the deadly attack against the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 with condemnation but only one, Ribble’s successor in the 8th Congressional District Mike Gallagher, tied the events to the former president, who told the crowd to go there and “fight like hell” after spending months building a narrative that only a “stolen election” could produce a Biden victory.
Some sought to avoid the topic completely. In monthly newsletters sharing events of January with constituents, U.S. Reps. Scott Fitzgerald in the 5th Congressional District and Tom Tiffany in the 7th Congressional District didn’t mention the insurrection at all.
Party chair sees ‘new energy’ from Trump
Hitt, in the Tuesday interview with Ribble, praised the “new energy” Trump brought to the party.
“It was something that’s pretty phenomenal to see,” he said. “So there’s no doubt that President Trump brought new people into the party and new energy, but I think there are a lot of things, whether you’ve been in the party for a long time or are new to the Republican Party, there’s a lot of things that tie us together.”
But Trump’s appeal to voters who believe and promote conspiracy theories, who are racist, or who are violent, will be the party’s downfall if it isn’t rejected, Ribble says.
“They also have to be willing to get rid of the racist elements, the Proud Boys, the alt-right,” he said. “There’s one thing about having a large tent and another about letting people in the tent who shouldn’t be there.”
Ribble says voters in suburban and exurban areas of Wisconsin, and female voters, could abandon the Republican Party permanently without a wholesale rejection.
Hitt said Tuesday the party welcomes Trump’s ability to continue to bring new voters to the Republican Party, but not the destructive kind. But he acknowledged there’s no gate he can close.
“Do we want Qanon? Do we want white supremacy? Those answers are clearly no,” Hitt said. “We want people who love America.”
All but five House Republicans voted against stripping committee assignments from Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a freshman congresswoman who shared debunked conspiratorial beliefs on social media, including that the Sept. 11 attacks were a hoax, President Barack Obama, who is Christian, was secretly Muslim, a California wildfire was started by a laser beamed from space, and that the Parkland and Sandy Hook school shootings were false flag events.
Greene also posted on social media comments suggesting she would support killing Democratic lawmakers.
“It should have been handled by the party,” Ribble said during the Marquette event about the House vote. “What has happened is now we have created a media circus around one crazy person.”
“I don’t understand it,” Ribble said later about Taylor Greene’s views. “My Christian faith won’t allow me to embrace it. I don’t get it. I am lost on that.”
Ben Wikler, chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, said Republican leaders’ efforts to move on without rejecting the former president is akin to foregoing cancer treatment.
“I think Trump is going to divide and devour the Republican Party from the inside until GOP leaders come to terms with the fact that they have a problem,” Wikler said. “The Republican Party is trying to pretend they can have the charisma without having his cancerous disregard for the constitution.”
Hitt said Tuesday he doesn’t know yet how big of a role Trump will play.
“I expect he’s going to play a bigger role than George W. Bush has played or some of other past presidents, Republican or Democrat, but I don’t know the extent to it yet,” Hitt said.