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'Rational Republicans' say some in the party are killing the GOP

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In 1978, an American religious group destroyed itself. The cult that had relocated to Guyana committed the mass killing of its own members. We mention this bit of history because when Christine Todd Whitman talks about the direction of her own political party, the Republican Party, she thinks of it.

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: I sort of think of it as not unlike what happened in Jonestown in 1978 with Jim Jones, where his acolytes agreed to drink the Kool-Aid that was cyanide-laced - men, women and children. And Trump's supporters have - they've drunk the Kool-Aid. They're not dying, but they're putting the stake in the heart of our democracy.

INSKEEP: Now, fact-checkers have said it was a different brand of flavored drink, but Whitman's point is stark. She is the former Republican governor of New Jersey. She ran the Environmental Protection Agency under President George W. Bush. Now she maintains that too much of her party is willing to undermine democracy for Donald Trump. Whitman is joining with Miles Taylor, a former Trump administration official, in an effort to redirect the party toward centrist candidates. The group that they founded is willing to endorse Democrats for Congress if they are opposed by extremist Republicans.

Why would it be that rational Republicans should be siding with Democrats in the next few elections?

WHITMAN: The point here is to get our country back into the place where it's been the strongest, where you had two parties that were center left and the center right, and people talked to one another and they actually got work done for the public. So what we're saying is that we need to ensure that in this upcoming Congress, it continues to be divided. If you have a split Congress, people have to work together. And what we're trying to do is preserve our democracy. We're at a place now where what's happening across the country is a concerted effort to undermine the public's confidence in our electoral system.

And we feel that the best thing to do is to get Republicans when faced with a choice of a radical right Republican versus a centrist or moderate Democrat, that they should cross over and vote for the Democrat and vice versa. And actually, what's been interesting is I've had as much response from Democrats almost as Republicans saying, yes, I hear you. We need to do this. I've never voted Republican, but I understand, and I will.

INSKEEP: Wait a minute. What is it you want from Democrats then?

WHITMAN: We want Democrats, when faced with a radical left candidate from the Democrat Party, to vote for a centrist Republican. We want it to go both ways so we start to rebuild the parties back to a center left and a center right.

INSKEEP: Can your party not be repaired from the inside?

WHITMAN: Well, actually, we are all Republicans, and we're trying. This is the first step in trying if we can ensure that the Republicans we elect believe in the Constitution and want to protect our democracy, we can start rebuilding. This can happen. There's just no question about it that it can happen. It's more difficult from the inside because Donald Trump - for those who identify as Republicans, Donald Trump has a real hold. But now people are leaving the party because they're just not as radical as Donald Trump is. They don't believe that the election was stolen. They want to get on with the business of doing America's business.

INSKEEP: Conservatives have said things like you were saying before. I'm thinking of the columnist George F. Will - I believe before the 2018 election said the way to fix the Republican Party is to vote straight ticket Democratic. And Democrats, in fact, did capture the House of Representatives in that election, captured the White House in 2020, but they have not won overwhelmingly enough to really change the Republican Party, which has a lot of structural advantages.

WHITMAN: Well - but there's never been an organized effort such as the one that we're putting forward to remind them of the other choice that they have, to give them those options. And we've put out a list of names of incumbents - this first round is incumbents - who we think deserve the support of Republicans and Democrats. These are centrist Republicans, Democrats and independents who have shown that they will stand up to the big lie, that they will stand for the Constitution. And we're putting those names out there so that people know they have choices. We will in the future be putting out the names of challengers in primary elections where we think we can make a difference. We're being strategic. We're particularly focusing on those places where it's only a 1% or a 2% bias in favor of one party or the other.

INSKEEP: Governor, you also said that you are urging Democrats to cross the aisle and vote for Republicans if there is a Democrat who seems too extreme. And you said that you have heard from Democrats supporting that message. To the extent that you're comfortable saying, have you heard from senior Democrats saying, yes, help us purge this party of the radical left?

WHITMAN: I haven't. I mean, remember we are a Republican - basically a Republican organization. Our initial effort is to get the Republican Party back to the center. But we understand that Trump's hold on the base, as it's identified, is such that they're never going to move. So it's picking up those people in the center, the independents. And the other part of this is, though, the importance of not allowing the Republican representatives in the Congress to be the far right, to be the Marjorie Taylor Greenes, frankly, of the world. We want people who don't engage in conspiracy theories. We want people who understand the rule of law and respect that.

INSKEEP: Is it clear to you that the people at the very highest levels of your party now are trying to rig the system, making it so that they can't lose an election no matter what?

WHITMAN: Oh, I think absolutely when you see what's happening in the states. When you have a state, let's say - let's take Arizona, where they've taken away the power to oversee the elections and administer the elections - and this isn't only in Arizona, unfortunately. It's happened in several other states - from those people who are trained to do it. That's their job. Take that responsibility and put it in the hands of the partisan legislatures. That ought to make all of us nervous because I will tell you in Maricopa County in Arizona, had that been the case in the 2020 election, the Republican legislature would have just denied the votes of all those who voted for Biden, just tossed them out. That's unacceptable. Every legitimate vote should be counted. And that's what we've got to fight back against - is taking away that responsibility. But it is an effort to set it up so that in 2022 and in 2024, if you lose, you don't concede. You fight. And you say it has been stolen, and you try to overthrow it.

INSKEEP: Christine Todd Whitman is a former governor of New Jersey and former EPA administrator. Governor, thanks so much. Pleasure talking with you.

WHITMAN: It was my pleasure. Good to talk to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF COGS' "5/4") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.