The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

House MAGA squad seeks to expand by boosting challengers to fellow Republicans

Joe Kent, a Republican primary candidate for Washington state’s 3rd Congressional District, speaks at a rally in Washington on Sept. 18 in support of those jailed after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. (Nathan Howard/AP)
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correction

A previous version of this article misstated the number of districts former president Donald Trump won by 15 or more points in the 2020 election in more than a dozen states that have approved new redistricting maps. He won 59 districts by that margin in those states, not 45. The story also inaccurately reported that Patrick Witt, a congressional candidate, had met with Trump. This article has been corrected.

The defiant far-right acolytes of former president Donald Trump in the House Republican caucus have embarked on a targeted campaign ahead of the midterm elections to expand their ranks — and extend their power — on Capitol Hill.

The effort, backed by Trump and guided by House members such as Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.), is part of a broader push by followers of the “Make America Great Again” movement to purge the GOP of those not deemed loyal to the former president and his false claims that the 2020 election was rigged in favor of Joe Biden.

Former Army Green Beret Joe Kent is running for a U.S. House seat in Washington state held by another Republican, Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, who voted to impeach Trump over his role in the events of Jan. 6 at the Capitol.

Kent said he has little interest in fighting with Democrats if he makes it to Congress. Instead, he wants to force Republicans into tough votes, starting with articles of impeachment against President Biden and a full congressional inquiry into the 2020 presidential election, which he says was stolen from Trump.

“A lot of it will be shaming Republicans,” Kent said. “I need to be going after the people in the Republican Party who want to go back to go-along-to-get-along. It’s put up or shut up.”

The goal, organizers of the effort say, is to supersize the MAGA group in the House from its current loose membership of about a half-dozen — and give it the heft that, combined with its close alliance with Trump, would put it in a position to wield significant influence should Republicans win the House majority.

Key to the strategy is to coalesce MAGA-movement support around certain candidates running in Republican primaries in heavily pro-Trump congressional districts where the primary victor is all but assured to win the seat in November. That effort is being bolstered by redistricting, as state lawmakers draw districts even more partisan than the current lines.

Under new maps already finalized in more than a dozen states, Trump would have won 78 districts by more than 15 percentage points. Under 2020 lines in those states, he won 59, according to a Washington Post analysis.

“We should be gaining MAGA seats,” Boris Epshteyn, a Trump ally, said on a recent episode of the radio show hosted by former Trump strategist Stephen K. Bannon. “It’s not just about ‘let’s add some Republican seats,’ it’s about ‘let’s add MAGA strongholds.’ ”

Trump critics warn that a stronger MAGA wing in Congress threatens democracy.

“We’re looking at a nihilistic Mad Max hellscape. It will be all about the show of 2024 to bring Donald Trump back into power. … They will impeach Biden, they will impeach Harris, they will kill everything,” said Rick Wilson, a longtime Republican strategist who is sharply critical of Trump.

Trump has taken an active role in selecting candidates, so far doling out dozens of endorsements, and many of the candidates, like Kent, are challenging incumbents in GOP primaries for state and federal positions. For the 2022 House races, Trump has already thrown his support behind more than two dozen Republicans, including five running against Republican incumbents.

Candidates seeking his approval meet with him at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla., where he peppers them with questions that test their MAGA bona fides. A Trump spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.

Patrick Witt is a former Yale quarterback running for Georgia’s 10th Congressional District seat against a Republican who formerly held the seat, and he visited Trump recently. So did Bo Hines, 26, who also played football at Yale and is running for a still-to-be-determined seat in North Carolina.

The emerging candidates — some former collegiate athletes and military veterans, telegenic and mostly White male millennials — have benefited from publicity from Bannon and the fundraising prowess and endorsements of the alliance of Republican House members who have cast themselves in Trump’s image, including Greene, Cawthorn, Matt Gaetz (Fla.) and Lauren Boebert (Colo.).

Over the summer, Greene and Gaetz went on the road together, holding “America First” rallies in various states, dishing out applause lines about the election being stolen and Trump running in 2024.

Last month, the duo planned to attend an event for Graham Allen, an Army veteran and conservative podcast host running in South Carolina’s 7th Congressional District against Rep. Tom Rice (R), who voted to impeach Trump. When they had to cancel their appearance to vote against Biden’s infrastructure package, they sent a video message.

“We need him here. He’s the exact type of Republican we need that won’t cower, won’t fall in line to Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger and will stop the radical Democrats from destroying our great country,” Greene said in the video, aiming at two Republican House members who are among Trump’s most fervent critics.

Cawthorn has endorsed seven Republicans in 2022 House races — a figure that could effectively double the size of the MAGA squad were they to win. Greene’s and Gaetz’s offices did not respond to questions about how many candidates they have endorsed, but they’ve made clear their intent to scout MAGA candidates. In a Vanity Fair interview published in August, Gaetz called himself and Greene Trump’s “advance team” and said Trump christened their plan to be “out there in the early-primary states keeping the band in tune, if you will.”

Some of the endorsements put them at odds with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who has staked Republican money and strategy on flipping the handful of seats the party needs to win back the majority rather than taking sides in a battle between the MAGA crew and less Trumpian members.

Some of the MAGA candidates are openly disdainful of McCarthy. Witt would not say whether he would support McCarthy for speaker but did say that if Trump wanted the job — a theory that was bandied about on far-right sites — he’d “support him 100 percent.” When Hines was in Washington recently, he met with McCarthy. Asked whether that put him at odds with the MAGA squad, Hines responded, “Right now, he’s the leader of a party.”

Party purity tests in primary elections aren’t new, but the bar has moved sharply since Trump’s election. The RINO — Republican in name only — hunters of a decade ago, like Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.), who forced then-Sen. Arlen Specter to switch parties rather than face him in an unwinnable primary, are now the hunted in a party that has remade itself in Trump’s image.

Toomey, who was among the handful of Republicans who voted to impeach Trump over the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, is retiring next year rather than seek reelection. Departures are marking the House as well: Kinzinger (Ill.) and Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (Ohio) are stepping down rather than face MAGA-backed primary opponents after intense backlash to their votes in favor of impeachment.

Greene provided the template for the candidacies now gaining strength. When she won her primary election in a stunning 2020 upset in one of the reddest districts in the country, it was a foregone conclusion that she would win the general election.

To secure the endorsement of high-profile MAGA figures like Cawthorn, Greene or Trump himself, the candidates must push the unfounded claim that the 2020 election was stolen and show complete fealty to the former president — “Pro-Trump” features prominently in their social media bios and on their campaign websites.

They talk tough on the danger they say is posed by migrants crossing the southern border, and they rail about prime Fox News topics such as “woke fascism,” critical race theory and transgender laws — appeals also made by Trump.

Witt’s candidacy was boosted one recent evening in the Lincoln dining room of the Capitol Hill Club, a private GOP hangout for 70 years frequented by the kind of establishment Republican insiders the MAGA squad is plotting to overthrow.

The former quarterback, 31, once had NFL aspirations. In 2012, while a finalist for a Rhodes scholarship, he learned an informal sexual assault accusation had been leveled against him; he did not pursue the award. Witt, who denied the accusation, said in an interview that he blames a New York Times article about it for ruining his chances to play professionally. Instead, he went to Harvard Law School. It was there, he said, while surrounded by liberals and “RINOs,” that he became a Trump supporter, mocking his classmates after the 2016 election for what he said was being offered — puppies, therapy and delayed finals — to deal with the emotional trauma.

Witt served in the Trump administration and after the 2020 election worked with the president’s legal team in Georgia that tried, and failed, to prove the election was stolen from Trump. He is running for Congress, he said in an interview, to continue Trump’s fights.

“I don’t have a lot of confidence in current Republican leadership to fight for these ideas,” he said.

Witt has attended fundraisers and other events at Mar-a-Lago but has not personally met with Trump. He said the former president has made it clear in general that he is looking for candidates with “a fighter’s type of personality and demeanor.”

Hosts of his D.C. fundraiser included Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer who advised Trump on overturning the election results; Darren Beattie, a Trump speechwriter who was fired in 2018 after speaking at an event attended by white nationalists; Andrew Kloster, a former Trump White House official who is part of the legal team investigating the 2020 election in Wisconsin; and Raheem Kassam, a co-host of Bannon’s “War Room” podcast. Greene — whom Witt often admiringly retweets — was there as well.

Cawthorn told the group he wasn’t sure he wanted to get involved in the crowded primary in which Witt is running but changed his mind after the two had dinner.

“We went, we got Indian food, it was fantastic. I ordered lamb chops because I didn’t know what anything he was ordering was. I was terrified. It was great food,” Cawthorn said to chuckles from his mostly White audience. “Right now, we need warriors in Congress who are going to use their intellect, their ability to debate, their ability to stand up strongly … to take on this totalitarian regime.”

Cawthorn spokesman Luke Ball said the congressman employs a rigorous endorsement process. His campaign team reviews the candidate’s “declared values, past statements, current policy stances, and electability.” Then a campaign official grills the candidate on immigration, social issues and election integrity — the GOP terminology for preventing what Trump has falsely claimed are rigged elections. If the candidate passes those initial tests, the findings are presented to Cawthorn’s campaign manager. Only then does the candidate personally meet with the congressman.

“Any candidate I endorse must be willing to go on offense when it comes to messaging, advancing the America First MAGA agenda in the U.S. House of Representatives,” Cawthorn said in an emailed statement. “They can’t allow the left to run roughshod over us and our narrative.”

By any conventional standard, those against whom Witt is running are all far-right conservatives, including trucking company owner Mike Collins and former representative Paul Broun, who is hoping to return to Congress after a 2014 loss. Broun, 75, is a Trump supporter, but he won’t go quite as far as to say the 2020 election was stolen.

“There is evidence that there was a lot of fraudulent voting. … Don’t know if it was enough to change the election. I don’t know,” he said in a phone interview.

Hines, like Witt, is Ivy League-educated and focuses his pitch on populist themes but is equally conversant in GOP culture wars. Greene and Cawthorn, he said, are “patriots.”

Asked whether Biden is the country’s legitimate president, Hines paused for several seconds.

“I will say that I believe that the 2020 election was stolen. I think that we can go into a lot more detail about what that means,” Hines said. “But President Biden is currently in the White House and he is our president.”

Some of those running to join the MAGA caucus are more overtly controversial. Anthony Sabatini, a Republican state representative in Florida who doesn’t know yet what House district he is seeking, calls Democrats who support mask mandates “Nazis.” During the racial justice protests in May 2020, he tweeted a photo of an AR-15 as a warning to protesters. In a now-deleted tweet, he shared a link to a QAnon website that came with a warning about violent content.

In an interview, Sabatini cited McCarthy as an example when he said the “elected class of the Republican Party don’t like their own voters; they think they are better than their own voters.”

“The Republican Party is never really moving the issues that matter to the base. If they did, the entire Department of Education would be defunded,” he said. “They are not in step with what their voters want.”

Sabatini has racked up endorsements from many MAGA members of Congress, including Cawthorn, Gaetz and Greene, and said he’s waiting for a call from Mar-a-Lago saying that Trump will endorse him.

Kent, 41, has Trump’s endorsement. They met at Dover Air Force Base in 2019, both there for the return of the remains of Shannon Kent, his wife and the mother of their two sons, who was killed by an Islamic State suicide bomber during a Navy deployment in Syria.

Kent blames her death on the “Republican foreign policy establishment,” which he said didn’t follow Trump’s plans to fully withdraw U.S. troops from the country.

When Herrera Beutler voted to impeach Trump, Kent said, he felt stirred to protect Trump. He visited Mar-a-Lago in May; Trump told him he needed to see whether Kent could raise money and gain traction. By midsummer, he had Trump’s endorsement. As of the end of September, he had raised more than $1 million.

“I think for the first two years our job is to be the resistance. We’re going to be fighting the Republican Party a lot,” he said. “I think for your average Republican voter, what comes out of Marjorie Taylor Greene’s mouth is what they want to hear. That’s what Trump did; he brought the average American into the room.”

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