Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington state occupies a unique place in the saga of the Jan. 6 insurrection. Perhaps more than any other Republican, she both possesses personal insight into the horrors that Donald Trump inflicted on her fellow lawmakers that day and has worked to share that insight with voters.
And so, when GOP primary voters decide Tuesday on her fate, it will serve as one of the biggest tests yet of this still-unresolved question: Has the simple act of telling voters straightforward truths about Trump become a disqualifier among Republicans?
In GOP primaries, Trump’s record in purging Republicans guilty of this and other assorted treacheries has been decidedly mixed. But Tuesday’s primary contests highlight, in a particularly ugly way, the bet that Trump is making on the true character of the GOP primary electorate.
We have to hope Trump’s bet is wrong. But there isn’t much grounds for confidence that it is.
In addition to Herrera Beutler’s primary, crucial primary contests are taking place in Arizona. In them, Trump is backing virulent democracy-hating candidates against candidates backed by GOP establishment figures who did the right thing in 2020 under extremely difficult circumstances.
Watching Herrera Beutler become a target of Trump’s fury is particularly vexing. You may have forgotten this, but Beutler recounted that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) briefed her on a call he held with Trump on Jan. 6, 2021. As Herrera Beutler detailed, McCarthy urged him to call off the rampaging mob, and Trump replied: “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.”
That story crystallizes the degree to which Trump saw the mob as a weapon in order to hold power illegitimately, in effect destroying our constitutional system and political order.
Herrera Beutler recounted the tale to local news outlets and to thousands of her constituents. She repeated it in her statement explaining her vote for impeachment, which described Trump’s conduct as an appalling dereliction of constitutional duty.
That might look like courageous public service to you and me, but Trump believes GOP voters can and will only understand it as betrayal — of him. When Trump endorsed her primary challenger, he declared that GOP voters should oust her for voting to impeach him, as if the treachery of that act were self-evident.
On top of that, Trump’s choice in the race, veteran Joe Kent, not only claims the election was stolen from Trump, but he also insists the Jan. 6 violence was infiltrated by deep-state operatives and describes the rioters as “political prisoners.”
In essence, Kent is running in part on the idea that the underlying cause motivating the deadly insurrectionist violence was a righteous one.
Herrera Beutler is one of three Republican lawmakers who voted to impeach Trump and face primaries Tuesday. The others, Reps. Dan Newhouse (Wash.) and Peter Meijer (Mich.), also face Trump-backed challengers. (Outrageously, Democrats are boosting Meijer’s opponent.)
What’s at stake here is whether it’s possible to tell GOP voters the truth about Trump and his 2020 loss, and then live to tell the tale. As Post reporter Paul Kane notes, some Republicans say these primaries will test whether it’s still possible to “provide voices inside a House Republican conference that are not in lockstep with the former president.”
Analysts think Herrera Beutler and Newhouse will likely win. If so, chalk that up alongside the primary victories of the GOP governor and the secretary of state in Georgia, both of whom Trump sought to punish for refusing to steal the election for him.
While standing up for democracy and leveling with voters about Trump’s loss are not always disqualifiers among GOP primary voters, that’s very small consolation. Meijer looks like he’s in trouble. And as of now, only one of the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump is set to face a general-election opponent in November. The others were defeated or retired.
And if Herrera Beutler does lose after being a leading Republican voice telling hard truths about Trump’s depraved, venal, insurrectionist intentions, that would be sobering.
The primaries in Arizona are just as unsettling. For governor, Trump has backed Kari Lake, a full-blown election conspiracist who, if she wins, would have substantial control over elections in a state that could help decide future presidential contests.
And for senator in Arizona, Trump has endorsed Blake Masters, who asserts that Trump won in 2020 and has dabbled in “great replacement theory,” which holds that elites are plotting to supplant native-born U.S voters with imported non-White immigrants.
Importantly, in those contests Trump is also targeting for revenge his former vice president, Mike Pence, and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, who have backed establishment candidates. Trump has raged at Ducey for certifying Trump’s loss in the state, and at Pence for refusing to illegally disrupt the peaceful transfer of power.
And in another Arizona primary, Trump has campaigned against Rusty Bowers, the state House speaker whose sin was — say it with me — telling the truth about Trump. Bowers testified to the Jan. 6 House committee about Trump’s pressure on him to overturn his loss. Now he’ll likely lose his state Senate bid.
Victories for Trump on those fronts would show that the MAGA takeover of the GOP has advanced very far. Sustaining democracy in coming years could prove a whole lot more challenging if his dark reading of the GOP primary electorate is vindicated.