NEW YORK (AP) -- The Republican Party is facing a defining moment.
The nearly 167-year-old party is divided over the typically mundane congressional certification of President-elect Joe Biden's Electoral College victory. The process, which will unfold Wednesday on Capitol Hill, is opening a schism between those wanting to honor democratic norms and those staying in lockstep with President Donald Trump out of hopes of avoiding his wrath and inheriting his supporters.
The final outcome is not in doubt: The results will eventually be certified for Biden, who will be sworn in as the nation's 46th president two weeks later. But what comes next for the Republican Party is anything but clear.
It is party engulfed in a civil war, a split caused by degrees of loyalty to Trump. At stake: whether the party will maintain its fealty to Trump even after he leaves office and the GOP turns its eyes toward regaining the White House in 2024.
“This is the moment for Republicans to choose between deciding to break themselves free from this maniacal hold Trump has had on them or seal themselves inside the tomb he has built for them,” said Michael Steele, former head of the Republican Party. “The first shot out of the 2024 cannon will be fired. And they will either turn the cannon on themselves or move forward without the shackles of Trumpism around their ankles?”
The party's factions have emerged in stark relief in recent days. More than 100 members of the House of Representatives, long held in Trump's sway, have said they would object Wednesday to Biden's victory.
And now more than a dozen senators have done the same, defying the explicit wishes of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Ted Cruz of Texas, two 2024 presidential hopefuls, are at the forefront of the movement, looking to curry favor with a president who remains wildly popular within his own party.
But more than a dozen Senate Republicans have pushed back. Though nearly all couch their refusal in praise of the president, they have made clear that they would not go along with his attempts to overturn the election and remain in power.
“As I read the Constitution, there is no constitutionally viable means for the Congress to overturn an election wherein the states have certified and sent their Electors,” Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, another potential presidential contender, said in a statement.
Trump's hold over his adopted party has been all but absolute in his time in office. He has defied GOP orthodoxy, shattered the norms of the presidency and publicly attacked Republicans who dared cross him.
But, with few outliers, his party has remained lockstep behind him, despite his impeachment and botched management of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 350,000 Americans. Now, a swath of Republicans are going along with his baseless belief that the election was rigged, with even some of those elected in November claiming that the voting was fraudulent.
There was no widespread fraud in the election, which a range of election officials across the country, as well as Trump's former attorney general, William Barr, have confirmed.
Republican governors in Arizona and Georgia, key battleground states crucial to Biden's victory, have vouched for the integrity of the elections in their states. Nearly all the legal challenges from Trump and his allies have been dismissed by judges, including two tossed by the Supreme Court, where three Trump-nominated justices preside.
Still, clear lanes are emerging within the GOP as the congressional certification emerges as an inflection point.
While loyalists including Cruz and Hawley are siding with Trump, more moderate Republicans such as Sens. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Mitt Romney of Utah reject the effort to oppose certification. And conservatives like Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas remain vociferous in their support of the president, but say they will not defy the Constitution.
The fracture, some Republicans fear, could damage the party's chances in elections to come.
“It's healthy when a party has disagreements over what we think is best for our constituents or how to win an election. But we are dividing into two camps that have nothing to do with policy,” said Mike DuHaime, senior advisor on former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's 2016 presidential campaign. “The two camps are divided as to whether we serve the whims of one person. It's the 'Trump Affection Party.'”
The unusual challenge to the presidential election, on a scale unseen since the aftermath of the Civil War, clouded the opening of the new Congress and is set to consume its first days.
Vice President Mike Pence will be closely watched as he presides over the session. Despite serving the president loyally, he has been under growing pressure from Trump and others to change the result. But Pence has a ceremonial role that does not give him the power to affect the outcome.
With mounting desperation, Trump declared at a campaign rally in Georgia on Monday that he would “fight like hell” to hold on to the presidency and he appealed to Republican lawmakers to reverse his election loss. But he also threw down a warning.
Trump pledged that in 2022 he would support primary challenges to the state's Republican governor and secretary of state, both of whom have refused to support his efforts to overturn the election results in Georgia. He also recently vowed to back an effort to unseat Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, who refused to go along with the Electoral College objections, and has told aides that he may target others who defy him on Wednesday.
Few Republicans expect Trump to go quietly back to private life after he leaves the White House. The president has held discussions about running again in 2024 and, even if he opts against a campaign, has signaled he wants to play kingmaker and shape GOP politics in the years ahead.
If he does, the Republican Party could continue to shape itself in his image.
“I believe he will have as much hold over the party as he wants to,” said Alice Stewart, a Republican strategist who advised Cruz's 2016 campaign. “He still has the heart and support of his base. If he wants to keep being a player for himself or those carrying his message, he will certainly be powerful and the party will have to react.”