The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Republicans rally around conservatives who lost their elections

The GOP base lionizes some defeated candidates as wronged warriors and avatars of legitimate grievances

Kari Lake, former Republican nominee for Arizona governor, at a rally at the Orange Tree Golf Resort in Scottsdale, Ariz., on Sunday. (David Blakeman for The Washington Post)
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Donald Trump — the former Republican president who lost his 2020 reelection bid — spent last Saturday pinging between New Hampshire and South Carolina in his third effort for the White House.

Kari Lake — the former local news anchor who lost her 2022 Arizona gubernatorial bid — attended the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday in Washington as the guest of Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.), and is headed to Iowa later this month.

And Jair Bolsonaro — the former president of Brazil who lost his 2022 reelection bid — is scheduled to headline the conservative Turning Points USA’s “Power to the People” event in Miami on Friday.

Unlike in previous decades, where losing candidates largely slunk away, many Republicans have increasingly been celebrating political losers, with certain sections of the GOP base lionizing them as wronged warriors and avatars of legitimate grievances.

Trump is the most obvious embodiment of the phenomenon — a man who lost both the electoral and popular vote to President Biden in 2020 and refused to accept the results of the election, yet has maintained a powerful, if waning, hold over his party.

Now, however, he has company in the likes of defeated far-right politicians Bolsonaro and Lake.

Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, two British prime ministers who recently resigned in disgrace, have also enjoyed the warm embrace of the U.S. Republican Party — Johnson during a visit to the U.S. Capitol this week and Truss in December during a trip to Washington.

For some Republicans, gone are the days when political defeat meant quietly retreating from the limelight “until you’re a Jeopardy question,” as anti-Trump Republican strategist Sarah Longwell put it.

There now exists “an entire state of being for people where you never apologize, you always claim you’re a victim, and there’s safety in numbers and solidarity in the victimhood — and that gives you a community and a place to fight back from,” said Longwell, who has been conducting regular focus groups with Republican voters.

Much of the appeal rests in a shared sense of victimization, with the political losers holding themselves up as martyrs for a broader cause.

“The victimization culture is definitely at the core of this trend,” said Tim Miller, a former Republican strategist and ardent Trump critic who works as a writer for the Bulwark website. “The base has determined that the ‘elites’ are unfairly targeting conservatives and must be treated as enemy combatants.”

Miller, who previously worked for the losing presidential campaigns of Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush, added that in this context, “accepting defeat and playing by ‘their’ rules is seen as weakness.”

“Throwing a tantrum about how these elites have conspired against you and committing to topple them even if it takes force is seen as strength,” he said.

Trump has maintained a deeply aggrieved posture, railing in various social media posts and other statements against the “Fake News,” the “Rigged and Stolen” election, “the Corrupt, Woke, Radical Democrats,” and the “Marxists & Communists,” among other perceived enemies.

Lake’s loss, too, provided fresh grievances for many “Make America Great Again” conservatives who refer to her as “Governor Lake,” despite her loss to Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs (D) in November. Her popularity within the party has fueled about $2.5 million into her coffers since the election as she hosts packed Republican gatherings in Arizona and elsewhere.

On Sunday, hundreds of supporters crowded onto a Scottsdale, Ariz., golf course, where Lake headlined a “Save Arizona Rally” and reiterated her false claim that the election was intentionally marred by election officials in the state’s largest county. Trump called into the rally, declaring that Lake would ultimately prove “victorious” in her attempts to overturn the election results.

Matt Bennett, co-founder of Third Way, a center-left think tank, was a young advance staffer on Democrat Michael Dukakis’s losing 1988 presidential campaign, and helped stage an embarrassing — and now infamous — photo of a helmet-clad Dukakis riding in a military tank. He also remembers how, after Dukakis lost, the former governor of Massachusetts “really kind of disappeared from the national spotlight because that’s what used to happen.”

“It used to be that once you lost, you were cast aside and didn’t speak at political conventions,” Bennett said. “Maybe you became an elder statesman or returned to the Senate.”

Now, however, a new crop of out-of-office conservatives are finding a second act in the limelight — in part, Bennett surmised, because of their defiant refusal to publicly accept their losses.

“It is this Trumpian attitude that there is nothing worse in life than losing, and you can never be a loser,” Bennett said. “If you are a loser, that is the lowest form of human existence, and Republicans have kind of taken this to heart and so they’re willing to lionize people who refuse to say that they’re losers.”

Trump has long refused to the accept the results of the 2020 election — a stance that helped fuel the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol — and made election denialism something of an ideological litmus test for fellow conservatives.

In Arizona, Lake has transformed her campaign for governor into a campaign against the democratic systems she baselessly claims rigged the 2022 election against her. She has not conceded, even though she lost by more than 17,000 votes to Hobbs.

Lake has called Hobbs a “squatter in the governor’s office” and warned she shouldn’t “get too comfortable.”

Bolsonaro also refused to admit defeat. During his campaign, he claimed that a loss could only come through fraud, and warned that Brazil would “have worse problems” than the United States during the Jan. 6 insurrection. Then, last month, in a scene reminiscent of those attacks, radical supporters of Bolsonaro assaulted and vandalized their nation’s presidential palace, Congress and Supreme Court.

Johnson and Truss, meanwhile, resigned rather than being voted out of office, allowing them, too, to seek redemption among U.S. Republicans.

Thomas Patterson, a professor of government and the press at the Harvard Kennedy School, said the “tendency toward lionization comes much more from ideological leaders or the perception that they’re ideological leaders.”

He pointed to Barry Goldwater, the five-term senator from Arizona and 1964 Republican presidential nominee. Goldwater, who hailed from the far-right wing of his party, lost in a landslide, carrying just six states — but many of his ideas ultimately helped revolutionize his party and he is considered a founder of modern American conservatism.

“You think about Goldwater, you think about Trump, you think about Kari Lake, even Bolsonaro — their pitch is around an idealized past that is better than today and those are the people they tend to appeal to,” Patterson said. “It’s a conservative ideology.”

In his visit with various groups of Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill this week, Johnson urged the United States to maintain its aid to Ukraine, which has been fending off a Russian invasion for going on a year. He also participated in an Atlantic Council think tank discussion on the same topic, and received an enthusiastic welcome from House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who tweeted out a photo of the two men sitting and chatting.

“Thank you to my good friend @BorisJohnson for stopping by my new office to offer congratulations,” McCarthy wrote. “Big things ahead!”

Truss gained infamy for becoming Britain’s shortest-serving prime minister, announcing her resignation after just 45 days in office — a shorter tenure than a wilting head of lettuce, as the British media gleefully observed.

Some conservatives embraced Truss during her trip to Washington before the winter holidays. She appeared, for instance, at a conference of center-right leaders in the nation’s capital, prompting the Daily Mail to blare in a headline: “Ex-PM Liz Truss ditches chilly Westminster to hobnob in Washington DC at international conservative conference where speakers will include Trump’s former VP Mike Pence.”

“You’re Liz Truss and have been globally humiliated,” Longwell said. “In a different political time, you would step out of the public eye for a while. But now there is a community for you. There is a community of the perpetually aggrieved, who will tell you that you’ve been done wrong.”

Republicans, of course, are not the only politicians to seek another star turn following defeat. After losing her Georgia gubernatorial bid in 2018, Democrat Stacey Abrams ended her campaign but refused to concede, and was embraced by Democrats and progressives as a party leader. She ran — and lost — again for Georgia governor four years later, in 2022.

And Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), after losing the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination to Biden, continued to vocally advocate for his progressive ideals and has remained a party luminary, especially in liberal circles.

Some losing Republicans have followed the more traditional model, accepting defeat and quietly retreating. Mehmet Oz, the celebrity doctor who lost his recent Pennsylvania Senate bid, and Herschel Walker, the former football star who lost his recent Georgia Senate bid in a runoff election, have both receded from the spotlight. So, too, has Republican Blake Masters, who lost his 2020 Arizona Senate bid — though Masters is mulling another attempt at a Senate seat in 2024.

Pointing to politicians like Goldwater and Sanders, David Frum, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, observed that sometimes losing candidates still play an important role in pushing their parties to have uncomfortable debates.

“Parties can have a reaction to someone and say, ‘You lost, you were ahead of your time, and you’re throwing out ideas we want to develop for the future,’” Frum said.

Meanwhile, for actually victorious candidates, winning still remains the best message. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who just won reelection and is widely considered a top 2024 Republican presidential hopeful should he choose to run, responded to recent criticism from Trump by simply pointing to his successful 2022 gubernatorial bid.

“I’m happy to say — you know in my case — not only did we win reelection, we won with the highest percentage of the vote that any Republican governor candidate has had in the history of the state of Florida,” DeSantis told reporters this week, adding that a “verdict has been rendered by the people of the state of Florida.”

Yvonne Wingett Sanchez in Phoenix contributed to this report.