The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The interesting state GOP split on hard-line Trump candidates

Maryland state Del. Dan Cox (R), who won the GOP nomination for governor Tuesday, leads a protest against Gov. Larry Hogan's (R) coronavirus policies. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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Few states have seen as much benefit from nominating the right kind of moderate Republican in recent years as Maryland. Larry Hogan became a two-term governor of a deep-blue state by distancing himself from his national party and Donald Trump when need be.

Maryland Republicans responded to this in Tuesday’s primary by nominating Dan Cox, a Trump-backing election truther whom Hogan labeled a “QAnon wack job,” over an ex-Hogan aide in the race to succeed Hogan. And as Vice’s Cameron Joseph notes, Cox probably isn’t even the most extreme candidate Maryland Republicans picked: That distinction goes to attorney general nominee Michael Peroutka, who a few years ago belonged to an extremist group called League of the South.

The Maryland GOP’s hard-right turn in Tuesday’s primary is merely the latest example of states going in wildly different directions as the party confronts a potentially post-Trump future. It joins Michigan, Nevada and Pennsylvania in nominating multiple hard-line election truthers and more extreme, Trump-backed candidates — candidates who could jeopardize the GOP’s hopes in November.

But many states have charted a much different course, declining to put such candidates on the ballot in multiple marquee races. At the top of that list is Georgia, where Trump-backed candidates lost a series of lopsided contests. Such candidates have also come up short in a series of races in Colorado, Idaho and Nebraska, among other states.

A valid question is why.

The first thing to note is that there are many shades of gray. Republican candidates have questioned the 2020 election in many different ways. Some say the election was “stolen” or “rigged,” while others merely warn about the dangers of election fraud and stop short of saying President Biden’s win was legitimate. But there are notable fissures when you examine the issue state by state, as we can with help from a breakdown by The Washington Post’s Amy Gardner and Isaac Arnsdorf last month.

In Pennsylvania, gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano, like Cox, chartered buses for Trump’s Jan. 6 “stop the steal” rally, and he’s so extreme that national Republicans have suggested that he might not warrant their support in November. Mastriano is joined on the general election ballot by Trump-backed Senate candidate Mehmet Oz, who sided with Trump’s election claims more than his top opponent. And most of the state GOP’s congressional nominees have either rejected or doubted the 2020 election results, per Gardner’s and Arnsdorf’s review — including every nominee in a GOP-leaning district.

In Nevada, Trump-backed candidates won primaries for governor, Senate and secretary of state, with the nominees in the latter two races advancing particularly novel theories about and prescriptions for what happened in 2020.

And in Michigan, the GOP picked two little-known figures who played central roles in pushing Trump’s baseless voter-fraud claims in the races for attorney general and secretary of state.

The picture is quite different in a handful of other states.

In Georgia, six Trump-backed candidates lost — about half his national total — including in lopsided contests in three statewide races. Primary voters also made the remarkable decision to renominate prominent Trump critic and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R).

In Colorado, election truthers lost primaries for governor, Senate and secretary of state, despite Democrats seeking to meddle in the primaries to elevate more extreme candidates.

In Idaho, Gov. Brad Little (R) easily turned aside a challenge from extreme Trump-backed Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, while the winner of the secretary of state race was the only candidate to say Biden won the 2020 election. (The attorney general’s race was a different story, with longtime incumbent Lawrence Wasden losing his primary after declining to join many other AG’s in support of Texas’s lawsuit seeking to overturn the 2020 election.)

In Nebraska, Trump-backed “stop the steal” rally attendee Charles Herbster lost the governor’s primary, and election truthers also lost in the attorney general and secretary of state races to candidates who didn’t advance such theories.

You could also make an argument for including some other states among those that didn’t go to the extreme, including Arkansas. There, the party chose non-election truthers for Senate, attorney general and secretary of state, per The Post’s review.

(The Arkansas GOP’s gubernatorial nominee, Sarah Sanders, is a former Trump White House aide who has questioned the 2020 election results. But she stopped shy of the “stolen” talk — probably in part because she was such a heavy favorite, regardless.)

So why the diverging verdicts on the chosen course for the GOP? Certainly candidates matter, and in many of these races the election truthers were running on that because they needed something — anything — to make names for themselves.

There are also some regional trends. States in the West, the Plains and even the South seem more willing to go a more traditional-conservative route (with Nevada being the notable exception in the West). The states that went the most for Trumpian candidates tend to be in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic.

But one very likely contributor is the format of the primaries.

Of the four states we highlighted as going to the hard right, three of them have closed primaries — that is, only Republicans can vote — while the fourth, Michigan, chose its AG and secretary of state candidates at a party convention, a process dominated by activists.

Among the states we highlighted as going a more traditional conservative route, three have open primaries in which anyone can vote, which might have contributed to the lopsided margins Trump’s candidates suffered in Georgia. Another two have semi-open primaries in which independent voters can participate — as in Colorado, where unaffiliated voters went disproportionately for the GOP contests.

As in Georgia, that doesn’t mean the primary format was determinative. But it’s logical to assume that it mattered. There is also evidence for the West being less devoted to Trump’s vision for the party, and most of Trump’s endorsement setbacks have somewhat surprisingly come in the South. (Alabama, in particular, had proved a surprising bugaboo for Trump’s endorsements over the years.)

What’s clear is that a party that is increasingly divided over whether to move forward with Trump and his brand of politics is often splitting its verdict by state. And with some key clashes ahead, including on Aug. 2 in Arizona — a Western state with a semi-open primary — we’ll keep an eye on these trends.