The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Republicans became the party of Trump’s election lie after Jan. 6

Protesters gather outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
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On the Saturday in November 2020 when Joe Biden was declared president-elect, Cleveland businessman Bernie Moreno took to Twitter to congratulate Biden and his running mate and to urge his “conservative friends” to accept the results of the presidential election.

He wrote that there was probably some fraud and illegal votes cast, but concluded, “Was it anywhere near enough to change the result, no.”

But just over a year later, Moreno — now a candidate in Ohio’s Republican Senate primary — has deleted the tweets calling for unity and, in a new campaign ad, looks directly into the camera and declares, “President Trump says the election was stolen, and he’s right.”

“Just generally, the election was stolen,” Moreno said in an interview with The Washington Post. “There’s no question about that.”

Moreno is emblematic of the modern Republican Party, echoing former president Donald Trump’s baseless claims that the 2020 election was stolen — a position that has become the unofficial litmus test for good standing within the GOP.

As the nation prepares Thursday to mark the anniversary of the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Trump has pushed a majority of his party into a full embrace of his false election fraud charges, while simultaneously leading the ongoing efforts to whitewash the violence carried out that day by a pro-Trump mob.

At least 163 Republicans who have embraced Trump’s false claims are running for statewide positions that would give them authority over the administration of elections, according to a Post tally. The list includes 69 candidates for governor in 30 states, as well as 55 candidates for the U.S. Senate, 13 candidates for state attorney general and 18 candidates for secretary of state in places where that person is the state’s top election official.

At least five candidates for the U.S. House were at the Capitol during the Jan. 6 riots, including Jason Riddle of New Hampshire, whom federal prosecutors have accused of chugging wine inside the building that day.

At a rally on Oct. 9 in Des Moines, former president Donald Trump continued to unleash a litany of false and unproven claims of voter fraud in 2020. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

Trump is “absolutely” the most influential figure in the party, Riddle said in an interview, but he doesn’t expect an endorsement from Trump because it would be too controversial. “He wants some distance from the rioters,” he said, adding: “I’d love it if he ran again.”

Riddle added that if he’s sentenced for Jan. 6 crimes, “I’ll run from jail. It will give me something to do.”

And of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump last January for inciting an insurrection, each has received at least one primary challenger. Rep. Tom Rice (S.C.), for example, faces at least 10 primary opponents in his reelection bid and was censured by his own state party, which also did not invite him to a major Republican conference in his hometown of Myrtle Beach.

Others, like Reps. Anthony Gonzalez (Ohio) and Adam Kinzinger (Ill.), have since announced they don’t plan to seek reelection. Another Trump critic, Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), was ousted from her leadership post and replaced by a Trump loyalist; she is now vice chair of the House select committee examining the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Daniel Ziblatt, a professor at Harvard University and the co-author of “How Democracies Die,” said that many Americans expected Jan. 6 to “be a breaking point, where Republicans would finally have an excuse to separate themselves from Trumpism.”

“But, in fact, what we’ve seen is very much the opposite, in which a lot Republican politicians have begun to think it is in their interest electorally to support the lie,” Ziblatt said.

Another striking illustration of the Republican Party’s evolution can be seen in its “Young Guns” program, which identifies candidates in competitive House districts who have shown they can raise money and whose campaign messages sync with the party’s views. One of the group’s early poster children, back in 2010, was Kinzinger.

Now, of the 32 candidates identified so far by the “Young Guns” program as having promise in the 2022 cycle, at least 12 have embraced the new Republican orthodoxy that fraud tainted the 2020 election. One of them, former Navy SEAL Eli Crane of Arizona, used Twitter to call on his state legislature to decertify the election and demand a criminal investigation.

Another candidate identified by the program, Anna Paulina Luna of Florida, embraced a fantastical and discredited theory that machines made by Dominion Voting Systems were programmed to switch votes from Trump to Biden. Luna met with Trump in 2021 and has been endorsed by Trump as a “warrior” and a “winner.”

The National Republican Congressional Committee, which runs the program, has fundraised extensively off Trump while highlighting and recruiting candidates who have claimed the election was stolen. Yet its chairman, Rep. Tom Emmer (Minn.), was among the minority of House Republicans who voted to certify the 2020 election results and has repeatedly encouraged Trump to move on from the topic in his public appearances.

“Candidates know the issues most important to their voters. Right now the midterms are going to be a referendum on Democrats’ rank incompetence that’s led to skyrocketing prices, rising crime and a crisis along the southern border,” said NRCC spokesman Michael McAdams, when asked whether Republican candidates still should be talking about the 2020 election.

Nonetheless, Trump has spent much of his post-presidency marinating in false voting claims and electoral conspiracy theories. He has pushed Ronna McDaniel, chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, and other Republican officials to claim on television that the election was stolen, and repeatedly pressed the topic with Sen. Rick Scott (Fla.), the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, according to Republicans familiar with the conversations. 

The RNC is launching a range of new initiatives related to elections, including plans for filing lawsuits in states, hiring more elections-related officials and recruiting more volunteers, said Justin Riemer, the RNC’s chief counsel. The aim is to stanch some of Trump’s criticism while not endorsing his most incendiary and false rhetoric, party officials and strategists say.

“There is always going to be pressure on the RNC to try to do more than it has,” Riemer said in a recent interview.

NRSC spokesman Chris Hartline said the committee is focused more on efforts to change election rules in the future than a relitigation of 2020. “Our position is that there is a way to talk about this that is politically advantageous and actually charts a path forward,” Hartline said.

In interviews with Republican candidates seeking his endorsement, Trump almost always brings up the question of election fraud, though he does not base his final decision solely on that topic, two advisers said. The former president regularly calls political allies in Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania — three of the five states that flipped to Biden in 2020 — to rail about the election results, one of the advisers added, and receives updates on what state lawmakers are doing to combat election fraud from Liz Harrington, his “Stop the Steal” promoter and spokeswoman.

Trump has been frustrated that some in the GOP, particularly prominent Republicans in the Senate, have not been willing to echo his claims — and that an overwhelming majority of the body voted to certify the election.

“Americans must have confidence in the voting process — a confidence that was destroyed by Democrats during the 2020 Election,” Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich said in a statement. “ . . . Voters demand it and Republicans across the nation are following President Trump’s lead to restore election integrity.”

According to a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll in December, 58 percent of Republicans think Biden’s election was not legitimate, and 62 percent think there is solid evidence of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election.

Moreno, for his part, says that as he has learned more about the 2020 election, his thinking has evolved from those early tweets endorsing the outcome. He cited mainstream media and big technology companies colluding against Trump, states that changed election laws and what he views as the possibility that Trump’s claims of massive fraud are legitimate.

Moreno said “the door was flung open” to fraud and abuse during 2020 and he, like Trump, is still trying to answer one key question: “How much actual fraud was there?”

“That doesn’t mean that the results are overturned,” Moreno said. “What it does mean is that we need to learn and say, ‘Wow. What happened? And how do we make certain that something like this never, ever happens again?’ ”

Rewriting the narrative

The whitewashing of Jan. 6 began that very night.

Just hours after the insurrection — which resulted in five deaths, including a police officer — 139 House members and eight senators returned to the desecrated Capitol and voted to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

Trump and his allies, too, began rewriting the narrative almost immediately.

Some falsely claimed leftist “antifa” protesters were behind the violence. Others falsely argued there was very little violence on Jan. 6 or, as Rep. Andrew S. Clyde (R-Ga.) claimed, the riot was simply “a normal tourist visit.” And some Republicans rebranded those arrested in the aftermath of the insurrection as “political prisoners.”

Trump and his supporters have also sought to make a martyr of Ashli Babbitt, the rioter who was shot and killed on Jan. 6 by a Capitol Police officer as she tried to climb through a broken window into the Speaker’s Lobby — the hallway just off the House chamber, from which lawmakers were still being evacuated.

Trump has described her death as a murder, and called for “justice” for Babbitt. In a posthumous birthday video he taped for her, the former president called Babbitt “a truly incredible person” and offered his “unwavering support” to her family. Babbitt’s mother and brother have said in recent interviews with The Post that they believe Trump is critical to drawing attention to her death — and reframing the public’s understanding of the day — and they continue to support him.

On Aug. 26, NBC’s Lester Holt interviewed Lt. Michael Byrd, the Capitol Police officer who shot and killed Ashli Babbit during the Jan 6. insurrection. (Video: Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)

“He would be our best candidate to put forward at this point,” said Michelle Witthoeft, Babbitt’s mother. “He has an amazing way to move people that I have rarely seen — the people that are loyal to Donald Trump will walk through walls for him. That is a quality in a president that is rare. It is really impressive.”

But some Republicans are eager to move past the day, arguing that dwelling on the attacks could hurt them politically. Former vice president Mike Pence — who was a target of the rioters, some of whom were chanting to hang him for treason — has spoken only fleetingly of the events, largely criticizing media coverage that he says was intended to “demean” Trump supporters.

The impact of distorting or downplaying the Jan. 6 insurrection can be seen in public opinion. The Post-UMD poll found that 36 percent of Republicans described the protesters who entered the Capitol on Jan. 6 as “mostly peaceful,” and that a majority of Republicans, 72 percent, say Trump bears “just some” or “no responsibility” for the attack.

Trump initially planned to hold a news conference at his private Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla., on Thursday, to try to reframe the insurrection on its anniversary and highlight his claims of election fraud. But late Tuesday, Trump announced in a statement that he was canceling the event amid growing concern among Republican lawmakers and some of his own advisers that he would face blowback for turning the somber occasion into a spectacle.

Nonetheless, the former president struck a defiant note, saying in the statement that protesters descended on Washington last Jan. 6 to fight “the fraud of the 2020 Presidential Election.”

“This was, indeed, the Crime of the Century,” he wrote.

‘I think Trump won’

In mid-December, conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt co-moderated a Republican gubernatorial debate in Minnesota and opened by asking all the primary candidates the same, seemingly simple question: “In your opinion, did President Biden win a constitutional majority in the electoral college?”

Not one of the five hopefuls clearly stated that Biden had won the election.

The next day, on his radio show, Hewitt posed the same question to Josh Mandel, a Republican senatorial candidate in Ohio.

“I do not believe he won — I think Trump won,” Mandel replied. He went on to say that the results in Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin still need to be “fully investigated — and none of them have.”

The answers underscore just how thoroughly Trump has remade the party in the image of his own false claims. The former president has spent the past year endorsing candidates who have embraced his view of widespread voter fraud, in some cases burrowing into even hyperlocal legislative races.

One such candidate is Mike Detmer, who is running for the state Senate in Michigan, and who once defended the Proud Boys, a far-right group with a history of violence, in a Facebook post and tweeted repeatedly in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack that antifa and the Capitol Police were to blame.

“The Republican Party needs to focus on the truth, and the only way you can get the truth is to go look for it,” Detmer said in an interview, adding that he wants a “full forensic audit here in Michigan” to determine whether the election was truly stolen.

In his endorsement, Trump attacked Detmer’s GOP opponent, incumbent Lana Theis, who helped produce a legislative report finding that allegations of election fraud in the state were “demonstrably false.”

Many have argued that President Donald Trump's efforts amounted to an attempted coup on Jan. 6. Was it? And why does that matter? (Video: Monica Rodman, Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Post)

Trump has developed a particular fixation on Michigan — one of the states he lost to Biden — detailing in multiple statements in November that he wants a “new Legislature” because current lawmakers are “cowards” and “too spineless to investigate election fraud.” The state offers a clear glimpse of how extensively Trump is working to reshape the GOP.

In addition to state lawmakers, Trump has endorsed a candidate for Michigan secretary of state, Kristina Karamo, who claimed without evidence that she witnessed fraud as a poll-watcher in Detroit last year and has accused incumbent Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (D) of breaking the law in her administration of elections.

For Michigan attorney general, Trump is backing Matthew DePerno, who made a name for himself pushing lawsuits seeking to overturn Michigan’s 2020 results. DePerno is widely credited for launching the audit craze among Trump supporters with his early demands for such an examination in Antrim, Mich., after an early error in the conservative county put Biden ahead. The error was caught and corrected, but DePerno falsely claimed it was evidence that machines made by Dominion Voting Systems had switched votes from Trump to Biden.

‘Long-term, I think we’re screwed’

Democrats and voting-rights advocates say the threat to democracy that these candidates represent cannot be overstated. Secretaries of state set election policy and in some cases are responsible for certifying elections. Attorneys general have the power to sue to block illegal attempts to subvert an election result.

“There is no question that if I am replaced by Matthew DePerno, democracy falls in Michigan,” said Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel (D). “Not maybe. Not possibly. Certainly. He has made it clear not only that he supports the ‘Big Lie’ — he’s one of the originators of the ‘Big Lie.’ ” DePerno declined to comment.

Among Trump supporters, the former president’s endorsement remains coveted, and that often means professing support for his baseless claims. One prominent Republican consultant who has advised clients on getting Trump’s endorsement said he increasing counsels candidates to walk a fine line.

The former president “isn’t going to endorse you if you say he’s wrong and there was no fraud, but you don’t want to make your whole campaign about that either,” the person said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to share details of private conversations.

For Republicans like Paul Boyer, a state senator from Arizona, Trump’s demands of fealty to his false electoral claims are deeply troubling. Boyer was critical of Arizona’s 2020 election audit and was also the only Republican senator to vote against holding the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors in contempt.

Boyer said he expects Republicans to do well in the 2022 midterms but that “long-term, I think we’re screwed as a party.”

“When you’ve got Trump telling the base the system is rigged, don’t vote, they believe him, and that’s why we lost control of the U.S. Senate, that’s why we lost the two Georgia seats,” Boyer said.

He is also frustrated that someone like him, a stalwart conservative, can suddenly find himself with no obvious place in the party. “If you ask any of my Democratic colleagues, they’ll tell you how conservative I am,” Boyer said. “And the fact that on one issue I didn’t agree with the party makes my belief on limited government, on school choice, on life, on public safety all out the window — it’s like, no, I’m not a moderate.”

Boyer plans to step down at the end of his current term and return to teaching high school literature and Latin. Part of him, he said, would like to run again, “to prove that part of the party wrong, that there is room for me in the party.”

“But I’m just so tired,” Boyer said.

Alice Crites and Anu Narayanswamy contributed to this report.

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