The Big Lie Has Become a Litmus Test
Republicans who admit Joe Biden won the election fair and square are being driven from the party.
The specter of Donald Trump continues to linger over the Republican Party, making a return to sanctity next to impossible. Ashley Parker and Marianna Sotomayor document how much this is so for WaPo in “For Republicans, fealty to Trump’s election falsehood becomes defining loyalty test.” They begin with a longwinded anecdote:
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.”
That some nutjob in Michigan is a moron really doesn’t prove much of anything. But, in this case, the plural of anecdote really is data.
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.
State parties across the country are moving to censure the handful of elected Republican leaders who dare to speak the truth, with even Mitt Romney not escaping the heat. And, rather obviously, this is a serious handicap to fixing what ails the party and making it more competitive going forward.
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.
Arguably, this phenomenon cost the party the two Georgia Senate seats that made the difference between Mitch McConnell continuing on as Majority Leader and Kamala Harris as the tie-breaker. Not only did it require the two Republican candidates to be even more extreme to keep up the ruse but it almost certainly made some would-be Republican voters sit it out because they genuinely believed their votes would be stolen. It’s sheer idiocy.
And even leaders who had the courage to admit the obvious are now going wobbly:
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.”
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.
The Republican Party has won the popular vote for President one time since 1988, making seven elections out of the last eight in which the Democrat has won at least a plurality. The last time we had anything close to that level of failure—when the Democrats lost five of six between 1968 and 1988—the party undertook a rather significant rebranding and shift to the center. In this case, the opposite has happened. Not only have the GOP moved further to the right but they’ve gone into the lunatic fringe.
Obviously, one key difference is that the institutional design helps mask Republican deficiencies. Despite the performance at the polls noted above, they’ve held the presidency three times during their “losing” stretch rather than the one that a democratic design would have produced. But that doesn’t fully explain this dive off the deep end.