The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A likely 2022 red wave may sweep Trump apologists into office

Arizona gubernatorial hopeful Kari Lake, a Republican, acknowledges the crowd at a Jan. 15 rally. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)

When America woke up on the morning of Jan. 7, 2021, two things seemed clear. The first was that Joe Biden would, as the Constitution dictated, be sworn in on the newly damaged stage set up outside the Capitol. The second was that the riot at that building on the previous day would be a permanent stain on Donald Trump’s record.

Less clear was how large that stain would be. Would even his ever-loyal base remain supportive of him politically? Would Republican leaders disavow him or hold him to account? Was the devolution of Trumpism into literal violence, violence in service to a lie about election fraud, something that the president would not be able to overcome?

In short order, these questions were answered definitively just as cynics would have guessed. Trump survived impeachment … and within months would prove himself as a still-potent force in Republican politics. His party’s leaders collapsed into alignment with the base’s worldview.

At the same time, optimism about Biden quickly eroded. Less than a year after taking office, Biden’s approval ratings were comparable not to John F. Kennedy’s but to Trump’s. In the months since, the president’s numbers have not improved.

This sets up a remarkable situation. Not only have Republican candidates won primaries while explicitly advocating the exact dishonest claims from Trump that spurred the Capitol riot — about 100 winning candidates have done so in some form — but they will be entering a general election that’s heavily tilted in their favor.

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Republicans who stood with Trump and the rioters in rejecting the 2020 election results are likely to soon be elected to office at the local, state and federal level thanks largely to favorable macrocosmic circumstances.

Take the example of Kari Lake, the front-runner for the party’s gubernatorial nomination in Arizona. She is not only fervently pro-Trump but enmeshed in online right-wing culture. Here is her most recent ad.

She attracted mainstream notoriety last month when she was called out by Fox News host Bret Baier for having criticized drag queens despite having in the past been friends with one. She tried to deflect the question by suggesting that the media’s focus should instead be on the purportedly stolen election. This was also her focus during a recent gubernatorial debate.

The state’s sitting governor, Doug Ducey (R), this week endorsed one of Lake’s competitors. Ducey came under fire from Trump for failing to reject the certified vote result in his state, the one that showed Biden had won. As governor, it’s likely that Lake would be far more sympathetic to the idea of overturning close election results.

So can she prevail? FiveThirtyEight’s forecast of a hypothetical race between Lake and the sitting secretary of state — the woman who ran the 2020 election — has the contest as a toss-up. As the site’s Nathaniel Rakich put it, Lake “could absolutely win in a red enough year.”

On Wednesday, the New York Times reported on a Senate candidate in Arizona, Blake Masters. The report was of a sort that, 10 years ago, would have spelled serious danger for a candidate: Masters had in his youth offered antisemitic rhetoric. This comes on top of other comments from Masters, including his blaming gun violence on Black people.

“I think Trump won in 2020,” Masters said in a campaign ad, calling “election integrity” the most important issue at stake. He, too, is likely to win the Republican primary and, according to FiveThirtyEight, is only a slight underdog for election.

Then there’s Eric Greitens, the Republican former governor now running for the Senate from Missouri. He resigned his position as the state’s chief executive after sex-related allegations; in recent months, domestic abuse allegations from his former wife have joined them. Like Masters and Lake, Greitens has claimed that the election results in 2020 were suspect. He would be a clear favorite to win should he secure the Republican nomination.

Greitens and Masters have also elevated the idea that the Capitol riot was a function of provocateurs unaffiliated with Trump’s movement. They have both released spots fitting the recent pattern of Republican candidates sporting firearms in campaign ads (though Greitens’s ad received a much different reaction than Masters’s). Here, too, the post-Jan. 6 mood has shifted: Armed, angry people decrying the 2020 election results are precisely what led to the violence at the Capitol.

There may be two Republican gubernatorial candidates who were actually at the Capitol that day. In Pennsylvania, Doug Mastriano has already secured the party’s nomination for that position. Soon after winning the primary, he made clear that he did not plan to shift to the center for the general, instead hyping various right-wing culture-war claims. In Michigan, a bizarre scandal involving invalid nominating signatures boosted Ryan Kelley’s candidacy. He was not only at the Capitol; he was arrested for allegedly participating in the riot. (On Thursday, he pleaded not guilty to federal charges.) FiveThirtyEight has Kelley as unlikely to prevail in a general election. Mastriano is in a closer race.

Before he accidentally became his party’s front-runner, Kelley gave a campaign speech that didn’t attract much attention.

“It starts with democracy. That’s the ticket for the left: They want to push this idea of democracy, which turns into socialism, which turns into communism in every instance,” Kelley said. “Some people you see on Fox News and even Republicans say, ‘We have to protect our democracy.’ That is absolutely incorrect.”

This, really, is the point. Trump’s final days in office centered on an effort to subvert democracy in favor of retaining power. If candidates who actively support Trump and his efforts — or who, like Kelley, go even further — take power, what results? In polling released by Monmouth University on Thursday, we see that since the Capitol riot, most Republicans say that America’s system of government is at best “not too sound,” with a third saying it’s “not sound at all.” An increase in that sentiment from Democrats has pushed Americans’ concern about the government to new highs.

It’s clear that Biden’s victory coupled with Trump’s false claims about the election has eroded confidence in the system among Republicans. Perhaps a return of Republicans to power in the House and Senate would improve confidence in the system. Or perhaps it would amplify calls for the system to be overhauled or sidestepped.

The five candidates identified above are, again, only a small percentage of the Trump apologists who have won primaries. In many years, some portion of that group would be viewed as too close to the fringe to be viable as candidates. In a year where Republicans are expected to overperform, thanks to Biden’s weak political position, many will instead be elected.

On Jan. 7, 2021, the idea that scores of apologists for Trump and his pre-riot rhetoric would win unexpectedly close races in the midterm elections would have seemed unlikely. It no longer does.