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How the ‘Never Trump’ movement became ‘Never Trumpism’

Some disaffected Republican politicians, strategists and donors are working to peel away voters from the party’s Trump-inspired nominees in the midterms

Democratic Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro has attracted endorsements from prominent Republicans opposed to Trump-style GOP candidate Doug Mastriano. (Matt Rourke/AP)
10 min

For many disaffected Republicans, 2022 is the year the “Never Trump” movement became “Never Trumpism.”

In races across the country, former and even some sitting Republican elected officials are endorsing Democratic candidates in unusual numbers. And a crop of Republican-led groups that sprang up to oppose former president Donald Trump has now turned to persuading Republican voters not to support the party’s nominees who are imitating his divisive appeals and lies about the 2020 election.

The efforts are a combination of outreach from Democratic campaigns, Republican groups acting on their own initiative and spontaneous decisions by individual voters. There’s no central coordination. Republicans say they’re motivated both by local dynamics in specific races and the national environment — a reflection of how Trump’s transformation of the party has exploded into a new generation of Trump-style figures.

“What’s different now is it’s not just Trump,” said Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump Republican strategist who publishes the Bulwark conservative website and runs the Republican Accountability Project super PAC. “As people watched it go beyond Trump, and the entire party descend into this madness this cycle, there’s a lot more willingness from Republicans to stand up and speak out against individual candidates they find abhorrent.”

Longwell’s group is spending more than $20 million this election cycle, about half on media about the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol and ongoing dangers to American democracy, and the other half through the super PAC attacking Republican candidates who deny the legitimacy of the 2020 election. The super PAC’s major donors include Kathryn Murdoch, the daughter-in-law of conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch; Boston-based hedge fund billionaire Seth Klarman, who has in the past supported candidates from both parties; Democratic donor Sue Mandel; and members of the Walton family of Walmart fame and the family of Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D).

Like a similar campaign against Trump in 2020, the super PAC is airing testimonials from Republican voters who say they can’t vote for the party’s current nominees in key swing states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Arizona. The voters voice various objections to the different candidates, and the unifying thread, according to Longwell, is to present credible messengers with whom other Republicans can identify.

“There’s just a lament for what’s happened to the party and a real sense of disgust at election denialism, the lies, and the extent to which these candidates ape Trump,” Longwell said. “As the party has changed, there’s a group of Republicans who feel alienated despite being Republican voters their whole lives.”

Trump plots aggressive midterm strategy seen in GOP as a double-edged sword

This group may be relatively small: Surveys show Trump continues to command overwhelming support among Republican voters. But in closely contested elections, even a small number of Republicans who cross over, split tickets or stay home could be decisive.

“It’s very tightly targeted,” said Craig Snyder, a onetime aide to former Sen. Arlen Specter who’s running a PAC trying to dissuade Pennsylvania Republicans from supporting the state’s GOP gubernatorial nominee, Doug Mastriano. “We don’t need to talk to the whole commonwealth. We don’t even need all Republicans.”

For some of the Republican leaders who are breaking with their party’s nominees this cycle, their efforts are a direct extension of their past opposition to Trump. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) spoke earlier this month in Arizona against the GOP nominees there for governor and secretary of state, who have denied the results of the 2020 election and are running for positions in which they could refuse to certify future outcomes. Cheney’s fellow Republican on the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), started a PAC that has endorsed candidates from both parties who Kinzinger said are defending democracy, including the Democrats running for Pennsylvania governor, Arizona governor and Arizona secretary of state. Cheney lost her primary in August, and Kinzinger did not seek reelection after redistricting.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who pointedly did not endorse Trump and voted to convict him in both impeachments, is withholding support from his senior colleague, Mike Lee, who advised Trump’s defense team in the former president’s second impeachment trial and is fending off a challenge from independent Evan McMullin. And Denver Riggleman, a former Republican congressman from Virginia who became a staffer on the House Jan. 6 committee, recorded an ad endorsing Democrat Abigail Spanberger. “This is not a typical political ad,” Riggleman says in the video.

Several Democrats in competitive races have loudly rolled out endorsements from prominent state and local Republicans. Probably the most prolific has been Josh Shapiro, the Democrat running against Mastriano for governor of Pennsylvania. Shapiro has collected announcements of support from former congressmen Charlie Dent and James C. Greenwood, former Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff, several former state lawmakers and former Trump White House lawyer Jim Schultz. The candidate recently held a joint interview with a sitting elected Republican, Lawrence County Commissioner Chairman Morgan Boyd, who said he’s talking with other GOP officials who will cross party lines to support Shapiro, even if they’re not saying so publicly.

At a campaign event earlier this month in Honesdale, Pa., Shapiro called Mastriano “by far the most dangerous, extreme candidate ever to run for governor in Pennsylvania.”

“It’s one of the reasons why so many Republicans are joining our campaign,” he said. “I’ve been blessed to have support from both parties. It’s not an easy thing in this political environment. To take off the red jersey or the blue jersey. I’m just asking everybody to wear the Pennsylvania jersey right now.”

In Arizona, Democratic secretary of state candidate Adrian Fontes is advertising endorsements from Republicans including sitting state representative Joel John and the current mayor of Mesa, John Giles. Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) is promoting more than 90 “Republicans for Kelly” including former Arizona Diamondbacks president Richard H. Dozer and Paul Hickman, a former aide to the late Sen. John McCain.

More than 150 Michigan Republicans have signed up for “Republicans for Whitmer” to support the state’s Democratic governor who is running for reelection. In Idaho, almost 50 past and present Republicans, including a former governor, endorsed the Democratic candidate for attorney general, Tom Arkoosh, against former Republican congressman Raúl R. Labrador, who beat the incumbent in May’s primary. Several Washington State Republicans are endorsing Democrat Marie Gluesenkamp Perez for Congress against Joe Kent, who defeated incumbent Republican Jaime Herrera Beutler in the primary.

“Anyone like Joe Kent, who is an election denier, and goes on to say he wants to close the border … I will do everything I can do defeat that kind of nastiness and incivility,” said David Nierenberg, a former national finance chair for Romney and donor to Herrera Beutler who’s now fundraising for Gluesenkamp Perez. “It is typical, unfortunately, of the horrible candidate selection by Donald Trump and Republican primary voters this year.”

In Nevada, endangered Democratic incumbent Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto has received endorsements from Ely Mayor Nathan Robertson, prominent GOP strategist Pete Ernaut and several long-serving former local officials. Her Republican opponent, Adam Laxalt, responded with the endorsement of Democrat Bob Barengo, a state assembly speaker from 1981 to 1983 who also supported Laxalt in 2018.

At a September rally for Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), former Green Bay Packers star Ken Ruettgers mentioned a group called “Dems4Johnson.” The outfit grew out of a Facebook group for people who object to coronavirus vaccines and hasn’t announced any prominent current or former elected officials.

Historically, campaigns, especially for president and governor, gesture at bipartisan support and try to trot out speakers from the other party at conventions. This year is different, both in scale and intensity, said Reed Galen, co-founder of the Lincoln Project, a group of Republicans and ex-Republicans that formed in 2019 to oppose Trump and is now attacking other GOP nominees.

The group is spending about $15 million on mostly digital ads aimed at driving negative press coverage of Republican candidates for governor and secretary of state in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Nevada and Arizona.

“All of these things are cumulative,” Galen said. “If it helps convince people to vote against [Arizona GOP gubernatorial candidate] Kari Lake, that’s terrific. All I want to do is win.”

Some expressions of Republican crossover support have happened more organically. At campaign stops for Democrat Beto O’Rourke, who’s running for Texas governor, aides started overhearing people who would stand in line to have their picture taken with the candidate and tell him that they previously supported Trump or Republican Gov. Greg Abbott. The campaign started recording videos of those supporters explaining why they would support O’Rourke, producing unpolished clips that took off on social media. Spokesman Chris Evans said they’re hoping to show examples for other people who identify as Republicans or aren’t used to voting for a Democrat.

“I’ve been a lifelong Republican voter — actually voted for Donald Trump in 2016,” a goateed man in Whitesboro says in one video. “Absolutely 100 percent Beto supporter.”

Other videos showed Trump and Abbott supporters with hats and signs sharply questioning O’Rourke in town hall meetings, then indicating that they were impressed by his answers. Those videos prompted Abbott’s campaign to advise against entering O’Rourke events with Abbott gear.

“What’s been happening is he is snapping pictures with our supporters and then posting saying he’s converting them to support him,” the campaign said in an email reported by the Texas Tribune.

The Democrat running for Texas lieutenant governor, Mike Collier, is making inroads with GOP elected officials including former lieutenant governor Bill Ratliff, state Rep. Lyle Larson, Tarrant County judge Glen Whitley and state Sen. Kel Seliger. Larson, Whitley and Seliger are not running for reelection.

Whitley, who leads the state’s largest Republican county, said he speaks with other elected officials who say they’re grateful for his courage and can’t speak out for fear of retaliation from incumbent Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R). As an example of Patrick’s wrath, he once took away Seliger’s chairmanship and refused to recognize any of his legislation after Seliger broke with Patrick on two legislative priorities.

“I used to be considered an establishment Republican. Now we’ve got a Republican establishment that is tearing our party apart and alienating people right and left, and it’s a shame,” Seliger said. “If Mike Collier is successful, it won’t be because of anything the Democrats did. It will be because of Republicans who want to see elected representatives who represent everybody in the state of Texas, not just those who are ideologically compliant.”

Colby Itkowitz, Hannah Knowles and Yvonne Wingett Sanchez contributed to this report.

The 2022 Midterm Elections

Georgia runoff election: Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) won re-election in the Georgia Senate runoff, defeating Republican challenger Herschel Walker and giving Democrats a 51st seat in the Senate for the 118th Congress. Get live updates here and runoff results by county.

Divided government: Republicans narrowly won back control of the House, while Democrats will keep control of the Senate, creating a split Congress.

What the results mean for 2024: A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign shortly after the midterms. Here are the top 10 2024 presidential candidates for the Republicans and Democrats.