Hundreds of elected and appointed Republicans around the country are backing President Donald Trump’s false claims he won the 2020 presidential election, a widespread embrace that is likely to empower Trump’s grip over the GOP even after he leaves office and turn belief in Trump’s falsehoods into a litmus test for a significant segment of Republican voters.
The Republicans embracing Trump’s cause, and the nonsensical conspiracy theories used to justify it, come from every level of government. They include prominent senators like Texas’ Ted Cruz, ambitious attorneys general, well-known conservative bombthrowers and little-known state legislators. They are egged on by a vocal portion of GOP voters who refuse to accept President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, and are unlikely to change their minds anytime soon.
“This is going to be a long-term litmus test for some Republicans. Even though Trump’s leaving office, he’s not going to let go of the reins of the party,” said Ryan Williams, a GOP operative who was a top spokesman for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. He contrasted Trump with former Republican President George W. Bush: “He’s not going to go back to Crawford, Texas, to paint portraits of dogs and foreign leaders.”
The efforts have zero chance of actually overthrowing the election. Almost every Republican with the power to somehow impact the result has declined to indulge Trump’s delusions, and many have subsequently faced vociferous criticism from other members of their party.
“I make the distinction between what’s professional wrestling and what’s a serious attempt to undermine democracy,” said Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a Democrat who has repeatedly worked to shoot down conspiracy theories about Biden’s narrow win in the state. He noted GOP leaders in Pennsylvania’s state Legislature “have never made an actual move to overthrow the election result.”
The most recent evidence of the GOP’s decision to back Trump’s claims came on Wednesday afternoon, when 17 state attorneys general submitted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court backing a spurious lawsuit from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton seeking to throw out the election results in four states won by Biden: Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan and Georgia.
Trump, meanwhile, is actively asking congressional Republicans to sign on to a similar amicus brief, written by Louisiana GOP Rep. Mike Johnson, backing the Texas lawsuit.
“President Trump called me this morning to express his great appreciation for our effort to file an amicus brief in the Texas case on behalf of concerned members of Congress,” Johnson wrote in an email to his fellow House Republicans, which was first obtained by CNN. “He specifically asked me to contact all Republican members of the House and Senate today and request that all join on to our brief. He said he will be anxiously awaiting the final list to review.”
One hundred and five House Republicans, more than half of the party caucus, signed on to Johnson’s brief, which was filed Thursday afternoon.
Paxton’s suit illustrates the self-interested game many elected Republicans are playing. Paxton, who is facing a federal investigation for securities fraud, is thought to be lobbying for a pardon from Trump before the president leaves office.
Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson also announced Wednesday that he would hold a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing on “irregularities in the 2020 election” next week, though it’s unclear who the witnesses will be.
After being pressured by Trump to overturn Biden’s win in Pennsylvania, 64 elected state legislators there sent a letter to their congressional delegation urging them to reject the state’s Biden electors in January. State Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, a Republican, did not see the letter in time to sign it, according to The New York Times, but suggested pressure from the base made it impossible for her to say if she would not have signed it.
“If I would say to you, ‘I don’t want to do it,’” Ward told the Times, “I’d get my house bombed tonight.”
Republican lawmakers in Arizona, Michigan and Pennsylvania felt the need to hold special hearings to allow the president’s lawyers Rudy Giuliani and Jenna Ellis to air false conspiracy theories about supposed election fraud. The hearings ultimately forced the closure of the Arizona and Michigan legislatures after Giuliani and Ellis tested positive for the coronavirus after spreading it to legislators in both states.
One of the lawsuits promoted by Giuliani and Ellis was filed by Republican Rep. Mike Kelly (Penn.) and failed congressional candidate Sean Parnell. After the suit failed at every level before reaching the U.S. Supreme Court, Cruz suggested, at Trump’s request, that he would offer his services to argue the case if the court took it up. The court refused to take the case on Tuesday with no dissent.
There isn’t going to be a Republican that’s going to run on the platform that Joe Biden won the election fair and square. Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman
Meanwhile, in Washington, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Senate Rules Committee Chairman Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) voted to block the congressional inauguration committee from recognizing Biden as the president-elect.
A slew of public surveys indicate a majority of Republican voters believe Trump’s unsupported claims about widespread election fraud. An NPR/PBS Newshour/Marist College poll released Wednesday morning found just 24% of Republicans trust the results, compared to 61% of Americans overall and 67% of independent voters. (An overwhelming 95% of Democrats said they trusted the results.)
Backing the overturning of the election result and the end of American democracy is just the latest in the Republican Party’s long history of litmus tests imposed by the furthest right flank of the party. This dynamic was introduced into the party by the New Right political movement in the middle of the 20th century and became a routine feature after the movement took over the party after Ronald Reagan’s 1980 White House win.
Since then, elected Republicans have been consistently pressured from the right to take increasingly extreme positions in order to fend off primary challengers from their conservative movement base.
This played out when Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) pressured House Republicans to impeach President Bill Clinton after the party lost seats in the 1998 midterm elections. “Besides, the DeLay camp says, a vote to impeach the President is the perfect inoculation for moderate Republicans under assault from conservatives in their districts,” CNN reported at the time.
After President Barack Obama’s election, Republicans had to meet the litmus test of not supporting Obama — or even hugging him, as then-Republican Florida Gov. Charlie Crist learned. Appearing at an event to promote stimulus spending in his state, Crist hugged Obama — leading to a primary loss to Marco Rubio in the 2010 Senate race. Crist is now a Democratic House member.
These litmus tests also often ran along ideological lines related to contemporary positions on immigration or gun rights or free market economics. But Trump’s election has mostly swept away these concerns and made the sole GOP litmus test fealty to Trump. There are a handful of elected Republicans who are willing to publicly cross Trump. And many of those who did hold office, like Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), retired. Rep. Justin Amash (I-Mich.) left the party before retiring. And some, like former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, lost party primaries because they weren’t pro-Trump enough.
“The Republican Party has shifted,” Pawlenty said after losing his state’s Republican Party gubernatorial primary to a Trump supporter in 2018. “It is the era of Trump and I’m just not a Trump-like politician.”
The party’s kneel-before-Trump litmus test also means that party members must either support the president’s worst actions or pretend not to see them. Members who dared attack Trump after the release of the Access Hollywood tape where he jokingly boasted of sexually assaulting women were savaged by pro-Trump opponents, and many lost primary elections. (More than two dozen women have accused Trump of sexual assault.) Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) was the only congressional Republican to vote to impeach Trump after the president tried to pressure Ukraine to interfere in the 2020 election on his behalf.
And so now the Republican Party must defend Trump’s effort to steal the 2020 election and install himself as ruler to protect themselves from primary challenges. Whether or not the defense is sincere is irrelevant. By feeding their conservative base’s desire to believe that the election was stolen, elected Republicans are verifying those beliefs.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, both Republicans, are already facing Trump’s wrath after they both certified Biden’s wins in their respective states. Trump tweeted that the two Republican governors “fight harder against us than do the Radical Left Dems.” He suggested that retiring Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) primary Kemp in 2022.
And while the midterm elections are a long way away, attacks on Kemp and Ducey could hurt GOP chances in key races in 2022. Democratic rising star Stacey Abrams, whose organizing has been credited with helping secure Biden’s victory in Georgia, plans to run for governor again. She’d almost certainly rather face the arch-conservative Collins than Kemp, an incumbent.
Ducey is term-limited, but Senate Republicans are likely to try to persuade him to challenge Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly, who will be running for a full term after winning a special election last month. Trump’s antagonism toward Ducey could encourage other Republicans to run for the party’s nomination.
In Pennsylvania, meanwhile, Fetterman ― who is openly considering his own bid for Senate ― predicted almost every Republican running for office in the Keystone State would need to embrace Trump’s conspiracies.
“There isn’t going to be a Republican that’s going to run on the platform that Joe Biden won the election fair and square,” he said. “If you represent a series of counties that voted 80% for Donald Trump and he says ‘X,’ and you don’t toe that line, you might as well look for a new line of work. There’s always going to be someone willing to primary you on that.”