The election of 2020 ended for Republican Party leaders a lot like the election of 2016 began: As much as they may want to move on from Donald J. Trump, he won’t let them — and neither will the voters.
After losing the White House to Joseph R. Biden Jr. and the popular vote in seven presidential elections since 1980, and facing the possibility of defeat in Arizona and Georgia where losses were once unthinkable, Republicans were grappling with how to untangle the man from a movement that is likely to dictate party politics for years.
Even in defeat, Republicans saw clear indicators of the enduring power of Trump-style populism. By the time Mr. Biden gave his victory speech on Saturday evening, Mr. Trump had received 7.4 million more votes than he did in 2016 — one million more in the battleground of Florida alone. Republicans cut into the Democratic majority in the House with wins in several swing districts from Iowa to New York, where they followed Mr. Trump’s slash-and-burn playbook of branding his opponents as far-left hysterics.
No one seems to be under the illusion that Mr. Trump will fade quietly. All week, as he launched an extraordinary, baseless attack on the integrity of the election, few in his party challenged claims that he was being cheated of a victory. Privately, some began discussing the possibility that he might not concede, which would put them in the awkward position of having to choose whether to defend him until Mr. Biden’s inauguration in two and a half months.
This dynamic presents a problem for the Republicans who will run for office after Mr. Trump is no longer the leader of the party, on paper at least. In particular, Republicans in their 30s and 40s see a road map to the bigger and more diverse coalition that the party has tried to build for two decades, if they can salvage the more popular aspects of the president’s appeal to middle-class Americans while jettisoning the racial grievances he fanned.
From inside Senate offices, think tanks and over off-the-record salons on Zoom, the conversations about what’s next have grown in urgency now that the final months of the Trump presidency are at hand.
“He is sort of the king with no heirs,” said Oren Cass, the executive director of American Compass, a group that hosts monthly online happy hours of Capitol Hill staff and policy experts to debate the successes and failures of the Trump agenda. Mr. Cass said Mr. Trump’s defeat set up a clash between more conventional Republicans who, on the one hand, took the attitude that “this too shall pass, and we can go back to doing to what we were doing before,” and those who think the president “called attention to a certain set of issues and voters that certainly the center-right wasn’t paying enough attention to.”
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who said that the president’s critics would probably be happier if there were “a mute button” that allowed people to only see policy, expressed a view that had taken hold among conservatives — one that would seem to rule out any reflective, autopsy-style self-assessment of how they lost.
The fact that Mr. Trump’s defeat was not the blowout critics had hoped, Mr. Rubio said, means that the anticipated repudiation of Trumpian politics was wrong. “Trump was going to get wiped out, the G.O.P. was going to get wiped out,” he said, running through often-repeated predictions. “Meanwhile, Republicans are going to probably hold the Senate and make up to a 10-seat gain in the House.”
While Mr. Rubio said he could not imagine a scenario in which Mr. Trump was not in the picture — “He’s not going to just vanish into a building” — the president’s strong support among Latino voters in Florida (47 percent) and Texas (40 percent) showed how the party could expand a “multiethnic, working-class coalition” that did not fit neatly inside the left-right paradigm.
“I think that a lot of people just don’t realize that when it comes to identity,” Mr. Rubio said, “the identity tied to your employment, your culture, your standard of living, your values, is much more powerful than the pronunciation of your last name.”
Navigating the unavoidable, disruptive force that is Mr. Trump complicates an already difficult job for conservatives like Mr. Rubio, 49. First, Republicans need to convince more voters of color that they are welcoming, despite embracing Mr. Trump and his divisive message. “If someone expresses hatred or disdain for people like you, it’s going to make it hard for them to vote for you,” Mr. Rubio said.
They also need to demonstrate that Republicans can be the party for Americans who are struggling economically — many of whom were won over by Mr. Trump’s message — not just the party that cuts taxes for corporations and dismantles government regulations.
A “pro-worker” Republican Party, as described by the likes of Senator Josh Hawley, 40, of Missouri, would require a sea change in the way its members tend to balk at spending when there is a Democratic president.
Mr. Hawley, like Mr. Rubio, has been vocal about the need to pass a second coronavirus relief package, breaking with Republicans who have expressed concerns about growing deficits. Some conservatives have proposed less conventional ways of appealing to the party’s core constituencies, including social conservatives, by embracing ideas typically associated with Democrats, like paid family leave.
Yuval Levin, a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute who has been convening discussions with leading conservatives about the post-Trump landscape, said it would be unwise for Republicans not to embrace the pro-middle-class parts of the Trump agenda that he campaigned on in 2016, but then largely abandoned. “It’s not really even Trump’s message,” Mr. Levin said. “He’s been president for four years, and his only legislative accomplishment is a perfectly traditional tax cut bill.”
If Mr. Trump did anything, Mr. Levin said, it was to shatter the notion that voters want Republicans to talk about smaller government. “A lot of people have been instinctively, reflexively saying, ‘We can’t be spending this kind of money right now.’ And I’m thinking, what voters want that? Who’s saying don’t give us money?” he said.
For starters, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. He, Nikki R. Haley and other Republicans who want a starring role in the party’s post-Trump reboot have revived Tea Party-like critiques of government stimulus. This year, Ms. Haley resigned from the board of Boeing after the company asked for federal aid to help weather the pandemic-induced recession. She cited her “strong convictions that this is not the role of government.”
Other conservatives say that Republicans need to accept that Mr. Trump realigned the party’s coalition away from wealthy, well-educated people in the suburbs, and that they should not obsess over winning those voters back.
Twenty-five years ago, Republican voters were more likely than Democrats to have a college degree. Now the reverse is true, with college graduates making up 41 percent of Democratic voters compared with 30 percent of Republican voters, according to the Pew Research Center.
“We are, by and large, no longer the party of white college graduates,” said Rachel Bovard, senior director of policy at the Conservative Partnership Institute. “That was the Reagan coalition, and the Reagan coalition doesn’t exist anymore.”
Florida provided a model for what the future could look like. Mr. Trump easily won there, two Democratic members of Congress lost their seats, and voters approved a measure to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2026 — with 61 percent support. In a post-election memo, the Trump campaign noted how its improvement over 2016 came not from suburban or rural counties, but “from larger, more urban counties.”
Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland, a Republican elected twice in a heavily Democratic state, is credited with showing how his party can appeal in Black communities and with other traditionally left-leaning constituents by focusing on a middle-class message. He has one of the highest approval ratings of any governor in the country, with equal support from white and Black voters.
Unlike other Republicans, Mr. Hogan has been public in his criticism of the president, and said he cast a write-in vote for Ronald Reagan. Reflecting on 2020, he argued that when Republicans look at how they lost, the answer won’t be voter fraud but rather a president who insisted on making his re-election about resentment and blame instead of how he would make the American economy work for everyone.
“One, he didn’t focus on the things that he ran on the first time. And he didn’t accomplish a lot for those folks,” Mr. Hogan said. “Two, the tone of anger and division turned off voters who might have been receptive to that message.”
Still, Mr. Hogan said, the election was neither a total repudiation of Mr. Trump or an embrace of Democrats. “It wasn’t a rejection of the Republican Party,” he said. “It was not an acceptance of the far left.”
Republicans disagree on how deeply Mr. Trump has changed the party. In their most hopeful assessment, they argued that his influence was most noticeable in matters of style and tone, and that was not permanent. Dwindling are the days, some said, of Republican candidates bringing cardboard cutouts of Mr. Trump to campaign events, cursing in their ads and competing for the honor to claim they first embodied his belligerent style as someone who was “Trump before Trump.”
“We’ve got to figure out again how to be happy warriors like Reagan,” said Scott Walker, the former governor of Wisconsin who lost his seat in the Democratic rebound of 2018. He is now chief executive of Young America’s Foundation, where he is focused on college students, a group that has recoiled from the Republican Party under Mr. Trump.
Republicans, he said, need to do a better job of settling on a message that is more inclusive and begins “with the premise that even those you disagree with can be inherently good.”
A Republican strategist, Kristen Soltis Anderson, said it would be a mistake for the party to gloss over its failures, especially with younger voters, women and the minority groups that broke overwhelmingly for Mr. Biden. “He showed us part of the formula,” she said of Mr. Trump. “Now we’ve got to find someone who can get us the rest of the way.”
But Ms. Anderson’s research shows how difficult it may be finding someone else who can hold together and expand the Trump coalition. A poll last month from her firm, Echelon Insights, asked Republicans and Republican-leaning independents if they considered themselves a supporter of Mr. Trump or of the Republican Party.
Fifty-eight percent picked Mr. Trump.
Annie Karni contributed reporting.