The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For Republicans, fealty to Trump’s election falsehood becomes defining loyalty test

Former president Donald Trump speaks during the final day of the Conservative Political Action Conference held at the Hyatt Regency Orlando on Feb. 28, 2021. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Debra Ell, a Republican organizer in Michigan and fervent supporter of former president Donald Trump, said she has good reason to believe the 2020 presidential election was stolen.

“I think I speak for many people in that Trump has never actually been wrong, and so we’ve learned to trust when he says something, that he’s not just going to spew something out there that’s wrong and not verified,” she said, referring to Trump’s baseless claims that widespread electoral fraud caused his loss to President Biden in November.

In fact, there is no evidence to support Trump’s false assertions, which culminated in a deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. But Ell, a Republican precinct delegate in her state, said the 2020 election is one of the reasons she’s working to censure and remove Jason Cabel Roe from his role as the Michigan Republican Party’s executive director — specifically that Roe accepted the 2020 results, telling Politico that “the election wasn’t stolen” and that “there is no one to blame but Trump.”

“He said the election was not rigged, as Donald Trump had said, so we didn’t agree with that, and then he didn’t blame the Democrats for any election fraud,” said Ell, explaining her frustration with Roe. “He said there was no fraud — again, that’s something that doesn’t line up with what we think really happened — and then he said it’s all Donald Trump’s fault.”

In his first public appearance since leaving office, former president Donald Trump further cemented his dominance over the Republican Party. (Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Nearly six months after Trump lost to Biden, rejection of the 2020 election results — dubbed the “Big Lie” by many Democrats — has increasingly become an unofficial litmus test for acceptance in the Republican Party. In January, 147 GOP lawmakers — eight senators and 139 House members — voted in support of objections to the election results, and since then, Republicans from Congress to statehouses to local party organizations have fervently embraced the falsehood.

In Washington, normally chatty senators scramble to skirt the question, and internal feuding over who is to blame for the Jan. 6 insurrection has riven the House Republican leadership, with tensions between House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the No. 3 House Republican, spilling into public view. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) is facing a Trump-aligned primary challenger in her 2022 race, inspired by her call for Trump to resign after the Jan. 6 attack and her later vote to convict him over his role in inciting the insurrection.

Local officials, too, are facing censure and threats — in states from Iowa to Michigan to Missouri — for publicly accepting the election results. And in Arizona’s largest county, a hand recount of 2.1 million votes cast in November is underway by Republicans who dispute the results, in yet another effort to overturn the results of the November contest.

The issue also could reverberate through the 2022 midterms and the 2024 election, with Trump already slamming Republicans who did not resist the election results. For Republicans, fealty to the falsehood could pull the party further to the right during the primaries, providing challenges during the general election when wooing more-moderate voters is crucial. And for Democrats, the continued existence of the claim threatens to undermine Biden’s agenda.

“It is not just about the Donald Trump persona,” said Jennifer Palmieri, who served as White House communications director under President Barack Obama. “Trump is also a proxy in a culture war that’s about whose side are you on, and the people that buy into QAnon and other conspiracy theories are always looking for ways to discern whose side you’re really on.”

Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster, said that although such fealty to Trump may play well in a Republican primary, the calculation is far more complicated in local elections, general elections and critical swing states.

“In the battleground states — and Georgia is a prime example of where this played out — you had local officials who were really caught between the narrative of the ‘Big Lie’ and defending their own elections and the job they’d done,” Lake said.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, both Republicans, resisted direct pressure from Trump to overturn their state’s election results in favor of a Trump victory. The backlash was swift: Trump called for Kemp to resign and endorsed Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.), a challenger to Raffensperger, for Georgia secretary of state.

“Jody will stop the Fraud and get honesty into our Elections!” Trump said in a statement shortly after Hice announced his challenge.

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After the 2020 election, in which Georgia went for Biden — and later elected two Democratic senators in a runoff in January — Kemp signed a sweeping law that critics say restricts voting access in the state. The new law provoked a public outcry from voting rights activists and major corporations — Major League Baseball moved its 2021 All-Star Game out of Atlanta in response — but also proved an insufficient step for many Republicans who still say the election was stolen.

“There’s no Republican that I know of, that I’ve spoken with, who has come to me and said, ‘Biden won fair and square,’ ” said Salleigh Grubbs, the newly elected chair of the Cobb County Republican Party in Georgia. “I absolutely do believe that there were irregularities in the election. I absolutely believe that our voices were shut out.”

In Washington, McCarthy has backpedaled from his original reaction to the Jan. 6 attacks, when he said that Trump “bears responsibility,” defending Trump’s response in a recent “Fox News Sunday” interview. At the House Republicans annual policy retreat last week, he also pointedly declined to say whether Cheney — who has publicly criticized Trump’s refusal to accept the election results — was a “good fit” for the party’s leadership team.

“That’s a question for the conference,” McCarthy said, while also saying that anyone criticizing Trump over the Capitol riot, as Cheney had done, was “not being productive.”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif) and Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) disagreed Feb. 24 on former president Donald Trump's role in the Republican Party. (Video: The Washington Post)

Cheney finds herself in an increasingly tenuous position inside her own party, which her father once helped lead as vice president. There have been new calls for her to step down from her leadership role, and several House Republican aides said many are growing increasingly frustrated with her being so outspoken against Trump.

One leadership aide added that they “wouldn’t be surprised” if a move against Cheney materializes at some point.

“Trump is still a very active part of our party,” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) said in an Axios interview Friday about the tension between Cheney and McCarthy. “This idea that you just disregard President Trump is not where we are.”

In North Carolina, former Republican governor Pat McCrory was initially highly critical of Trump, saying on his radio show that it was the former president’s own fault that he lost the election and that his false election claims were damaging to democracy. But now, running in North Carolina for the U.S. Senate and facing a tough primary, McCrory has sought to distance himself from those comments and casts himself as a “huge defender” of “Trump policies.”

Several local Republicans have either stepped down or been forced out of their party positions for not supporting Trump’s baseless election claims or for criticizing the former president’s role in inciting the deadly Capitol riot. In Iowa — after telling a local newspaper that Trump should be impeached for his “atrocious conduct” in egging on the Jan. 6 attacks — Dave Millage was called a “traitor” and forced to step down as chair of the Scott County Republican Party. In Missouri, the state Republican Party’s executive director, Jean Evans, resigned from her term several weeks early amid angry and threatening calls from Trump supporters, who urged her to do more to help Trump hold on to the White House after his loss in November.

And in Michigan, Ell is circulating a resolution to fellow precinct delegates to censure and remove Roe from his role as the party’s executive director. “WE, REPUBLICAN PARTY PRECINCT DELEGATES OF MICHIGAN believe that our voices and votes were removed in an illegal election on November 3, 2020,” reads the resolution.

Those pushing for Roe’s removal are in the grass-roots wing of the party, not on the state committee, and Roe declined to comment on the specifics of the ongoing turmoil. But he said he believes an overhaul of voting laws is needed — if only to reassure the large percentage of voters who, spurred by Trump’s false claims, do not trust the electoral process.

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“When half of the voters of this country don’t have faith in our electoral system, doing nothing is not an option,” Roe said. “Overwhelming majorities of Michiganders and Americans support voter ID. If all we did was make that change in our law, it would release a lot of steam from this boiling cauldron and help us get back to a more normalized political system.” 

Trump, meanwhile, has continued making false assertions about the election, including at a Republican gathering in Florida last month.

A CNN poll released Friday found that 30 percent of Americans say Biden did not legitimately win enough votes to win the presidency, including 70 percent of Republicans. Fewer than a quarter of Republicans — 23 percent — believe Biden legitimately won enough votes for the presidency. However, the percentage of Republicans who falsely say there is solid evidence that Biden did not win has dropped by eight percentage points, from 58 percent in January to 50 percent now.

Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University, said the pressure inside parts of the Republican Party to support Trump’s false election narrative has “a long tail.”

“It feels like this has been happening in the Republican Party for a really long time,” Phillips said. “If you allow an entire contingent of your caucus to be steeped in conspiratorial thinking, what . . . do you think is going to happen? They’re going to turn on you.”

In Arizona, Republicans in the state Senate instructed Maricopa County to turn over all of its voting machinery and 2.1 million ballots for a new recount, which is underway. Maricopa County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jack Sellers said that after the five-member board voted in November to certify election results that showed Biden winning the growing and diversifying county by more than two points, the backlash from local Republicans was so intense that police officers were posted at supervisors’ homes for their protection.

Now, Sellers said, he worries about the divisiveness, not just in the country but also in his own party — especially in a place like Maricopa, where Republicans already have been losing ground.

“In Maricopa County, only a third of the voters are Republican,” Sellers said. “A third are Democrats and a third are independents. If you don’t even have a third of the voting public altogether, how on earth can you expect to win over enough independents and others?”

Last week, Republican senators remained reluctant to weigh in on just how much accepting Biden’s presidency as legitimate is becoming a key question for party stalwarts. National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Rick Scott (Fla.), one of the eight senators who voted against certifying the election results, said the former president’s election falsehoods are not resonating with voters.

“They’re worried about the border crisis and worried about their schools opening,” Scott said. “They’re worried about men playing in women’s sports, they’re worried about the job market, watching them kill the Keystone pipeline.”

And the normally loquacious Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.), who also voted against certifying the electoral college count, simply declined to answer, saying, “I don’t have any comment on that.”

Alice Crites, Emily Guskin and Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.