But as his legal cases prove fruitless, Trump is testing democracy further. He’s trying to delay state certification and steal the election. And Republicans are starting to realize there may not be an easy way out of this for them. More and more polls show a majority of their base thinks the election was stolen from Trump. Some Republican operatives are hearing from major donors, people who aren’t conspiracy-theory-minded, that they think Trump really won.
Which means Republicans may be stuck as a party that is helping a president undermine democratic institutions on his way out, beholden to a base that doesn’t want to hear the truth about who won, and is unable to recognize the next president and move on with reality.
The sense from several Republican strategists that The Fix talked to is that this is a dark time for the party. This last, final loyalty test to the president could be the mechanism that tears it apart, with the divisions irreconcilable: truth or Trump.
“The problem with Republicans this whole time is that they try to ride this tiger, they try to say, well, a little grievance is good for us,” said Republican strategist Sarah Longwell, a Trump critic who founded Republican Voters Against Trump.
Grievance about losing the election keeps the base motivated to vote in Georgia’s two January runoff Senate races, for example. “But they allowed it to go on, and now you have an electorate for whom the litmus test of your Republicanism is tied to whether you’re willing to fight with Donald Trump against these election results,” Longwell said. “And that is where Republicans are getting boxed in, because they accommodate Trump a little and realize they can’t control the situation.”
“I think they’ve made some real miscalculations here that are hard to unwind,” said another Republican strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share private discussions with GOP lawmakers and their staff. “The idea they would entertain his conspiracy theories after he’s a loser is really self defeating. Every day that goes by, more of his supporters become convinced that the election actually was stolen. And if they think it was stolen, there’s no turning back from that.”
But sticking with Trump this far has helped Republicans perform better than expected in two presidential elections. Trump lost. But down ballot, Republicans blocked a predicted blue wave. They added seats in the House of Representatives, they may keep the Senate majority and they managed to increase their majorities in state legislatures so they can draw electoral districts next year. Its leaders attribute much of that success to Trump. He knows how to bring out voters that they don’t.
So there’s little reason to think Republican voters will start now judging the Republicans still in office harshly for the bargain they made to support Trump over truth.
Standing by Trump even after he leaves office is probably a political necessity, say some Republicans. “We’re going to win the House in two years, and we have a really good chance of retaining the Senate in two years,” said Eric Beach, who ran a pro-Trump super PAC. “What a lot of people don’t understand is that the Trump coalition is very strong.”
Other Republican strategists disagree that Trump can help Republicans when he’s not on the ballot. They think that if the party continues to elevate Trump, it allows Democrats to make the 2022 midterm elections another referendum on him. That cost them the presidency this time and the majority in the House of Representatives in 2018.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was one who saw warning signs for the party in November’s results. Immediately after the election, he made frank public remarks about how he feels his party is losing in the areas America is growing: the suburbs, particularly among women and younger voters.
But he has stayed quiet as Trump tries to challenge Biden’s win — then forcefully take it. In addition to the Georgia Senate runoffs, and in addition to wanting to abide Trump’s base, McConnell needs to make sure Trump will sign any spending bill to keep the government open. Money runs out Dec. 11.
McConnell and other Republicans offer up the explanation that Trump has the right to challenge votes in court, and the courts will decide.
But that’s been harder to defend this week, as Trump turned to a darker tactic to stay in power: asking Republican lawmakers to change state law about how electors are decided and give those electors to him. He invited the top Michigan Republican lawmakers to the White House on Friday, and he called a local Detroit Republican election official after she voted to approve that city’s results.
As his efforts get more brazen, a small handful of Republicans are elevating their criticism of him. But most dodged questions from reporters this week or even defended the president. “I don’t have any concerns,” said Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), a rumored 2024 hopeful, when a reporter explained to him what Trump’s trying to do in Michigan.
Contrast that with Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah):
Some are willing to speak out when the Trump team turns on them. It’s “absolutely outrageous” to accuse both parties of rigging election machines, like Trump lawyer Sidney Powell did Thursday, said Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa).
“What about self-esteem or respect?” Rep. Francis Rooney (R-Fla.), who is retiring, said of his colleagues. “What are these people going to do in the long run when they look back at how they just sort of slavishly devoted themselves to this guy?”
But the consensus among Republicans, even those who want the party to find a way to split with Trump, is that lawmakers won’t, even now.
“Republican senators don’t understand his political appeal,” said the Republican strategist who has been talking to elected officials. “And they don’t understand his base, which is their own base, and that scares them. That’s why they’re paralyzed.”
In other words, there’s no exit ramp in sight for Republicans so long as Trump refuses to concede.