GOP’s embrace of Trump’s false claims creates new perils
House Republicans are increasingly embracing Donald Trump’s “stolen” election narrative, underscoring the former president’s hold on the congressional GOP and raising questions about what might happen if they return to the majority.
Rep. Steve Scalise (La.), the Republican whip, raised eyebrows a week ago during an interview with Fox News’s Chris Wallace when he declined to say that Biden won last year’s election fairly.
The No. 2 House Republican is far from an outlier.
Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), head of the far-right Freedom Caucus, continues to question the legitimacy of the outcome.
So are a host of Trump’s most ardent allies in the Capitol — including Reps. Jim Jordan (Ohio), Jim Banks (Ind.), Paul Gosar (Ariz.) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.) — who have continued to raise questions about poll “irregularities.”
Other GOP lawmakers — like Iowa Reps. Mariannette Miller-Meeks and Ashley Hinson — have appeared recently with Trump at public events where the former president has riled the crowd with false claims that he’s the rightful commander in chief. Still others are pressing party leaders to make election integrity a central plank of the 2022 platform, even as many in the party are hoping to turn the page and focus on Biden’s challenges.
It’s little wonder that House Republicans are backing Trump’s claims, even after they led to the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol that forced their own evacuations.
The former president has spent the 11 months since his election defeat making bold but false claims that the process was rigged by a constellation of corrupt election officials, foreign governments and election technology companies.
Nearly every day, he sends various missives to the press and his supporters to back up his claims of game-changing fraud, for which he’s provided no credible evidence.
Trump’s assertions have been soundly rejected by dozens of courts — state and federal — and election oversight officials of both parties, who have warned of the existential dangers to the country if large numbers of voters lose faith in an election system that stands as the bedrock of its democracy. Still, almost six in 10 Republican voters say it’s “important” for the party to believe Trump won, according to a recent CNN poll.
The Trump arguments — and the following they’ve generated — are also having real-world effects at state houses, where a number of legislatures have taken steps to change the way elections will be held going forward. Trump is pressuring Republicans across the country to not only look into last year’s election, but also make sure future elections are also handled differently.
Trump this week sought to impose more pressure on elected Republicans, warning that GOP voters won’t participate in the midterms if party leaders don’t do more to address the “stolen” election of last November.
“If we don’t solve the Presidential Election Fraud of 2020 (which we have thoroughly and conclusively documented), Republicans will not be voting in ‘22 or ‘24,” he said in a statement issued through his deep-pocketed PAC. “It is the single most important thing for Republicans to do.”
The threats have raised alarms about their potential influence on election policy, and could also be problematic for GOP officials seeking to win the House and Senate majorities in 2022.
Trump’s claims about the 2020 election undermined GOP confidence in the system and depressed Republican turnout in two runoff races in Georgia, strategists said, costing the party two seats — and the Senate majority — with victories by Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock.
“We’ve seen how this movie ends. That’s why we have Senators Ossoff and Warnock,” said GOP strategist Matt Gorman, a former National Republican Congressional Committee official. “We need every Republican to turn out next year. The stakes are too high.”
Pressed last week on Trump’s warning, Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), the chairman of the House GOP’s campaign arm, quickly downplayed the messaging significance.
“The former president, he’s a private citizen,” Emmer said on the call. “He, of course, is entitled to his own opinion.”
Trump is scheduled to headline the National Republican Congressional Committee’s fall dinner.
“He remains the biggest draw in our party and we are happy he is helping our efforts to fire Nancy Pelosi,” Emmer said.
Trump appears to have his eyes on a presidential rematch in 2024, and the number of people who think he will run for the White house again is growing.
But for Republicans hoping to win back the House, the focus on Trump is also a double-edged sword.
Trump has been banned from social media, but retains a heavy presence in GOP circles by issuing fiery statements from his home-base of Mar-a-Lago, while traveling the country frequently to headline rallies and offer much-sought endorsements for GOP candidates, incumbents and challengers alike.
Trump’s animating powers have heartened GOP leaders, who are bullish about their chances of winning the House in 2023 and thrilled to have Trump stirring up the base. But by replaying the 2020 election, the former president is also distracting from the Republicans’ preferred campaign focus, which centers squarely on Biden and the many challenges facing his administration, including the ongoing pandemic, skyrocketing inflation and a migrant crisis at the southern border.
It’s a distraction that Democrats are more than happy to highlight.
“The Republican Party has made it very clear that blind loyalty to Donald Trump’s ego is the only principle they hold fast to,” Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (N.Y.), head of the Democrats’ campaign arm, said of Trump’s midterm threat.
The Virginia governor’s race next month could serve as a roadmap for how battleground Republicans deal with Trump in 2022. Trump is both an asset and a curse for GOP gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin: He needs Trump to get out the conservative base, but if he hugs Trump too enthusiastically, Youngkin will alienate independents and lose in a state that rejected Trump in both 2016 and 2020.
Last week, Trump called into a “Take Back Virginia Rally,” bashing Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe and praising Youngkin as a “great gentleman” and “really successful.” Yet one key person was missing from the rally: Youngkin himself.
It turned out to be a smart decision by Youngkin. The small crowd at the rally recited the Pledge of Allegiance to an American flag that reportedly was flown at Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally that led to the violent insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Despite his absence, Youngkin was still forced to address the issue, calling it “weird and wrong to pledge allegiance to a flag connected to Jan. 6.”
“As I have said many times before, the violence that occurred on Jan. 6 was sickening and wrong,” he said.