How Trump's toxic presence in Republican state party politics is being entirely underestimated
When Donald Trump reentered the public spotlight last weekend at the North Carolina Republican Party Convention, the first thing he did was upend the GOP primary for the state's open Senate seat. Trump welcomed far-right Rep. Ted Budd to the stage and promptly gave him a surprise endorsement, leaving two other top Republican contenders to pick up the pieces.
One of them, former Gov. Pat McCrory, held an impromptu news conference in which he tried to convince reporters that Trump's endorsement fell "flat" with the room of attendees, according to The Washington Post.
Trump ally and former Rep. Mark Walker was also likely caught off guard by his change of fortunes, since he had just won the straw poll—an informal gauge of who attendees hope will prevail in the GOP primary.
Get ready to see a lot more mayhem in critical battleground states as Trump ramps up his rallies this summer. The truth is, even as I continue to be alarmed by the fascist turn of the Republican Party and its voter suppression efforts, I am simultaneously impressed with how much havoc Trump is already wreaking on GOP officials at both the state and federal level.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell effectively admitted this week that Trump is on his own mission and it doesn't align with the Republican Party. Asked by Fox News hosts if he would welcome Trump's involvement in the midterms, McConnell offered, "Well, he has his own agenda," before pivoting to his own message for 2022. That's a pretty telling statement from the highest ranking Republican in the country.
Trump's agenda, naturally, is self-aggrandizing Trump, and the Republican Party is merely a means to that end. Numerous outlets have now reported that Trump is obsessed with the GOP-led and QAnon-funded sham audit in Arizona, which he views as a leverage point for potentially invalidating the election and ultimately being "reinstated" as commander-in-chief.
In fact, one could view Arizona as ground zero for a lot GOP headaches to come. Inside the state, the Republican-led board of supervisors for Maricopa County, where the Senate GOP-inspired audit is taking place, has called the project a "sham" and a "con." Republican state officials who defended the election results and could make solid statewide candidates are also struggling to navigate Trump, including state Attorney General Mark Brnovich, who's running for Senate. Gov. Doug Ducey is term-limited out of running again in 2022, but he chairs the Republican Governors Association. He isn't even on speaking terms with Trump, despite the fact that he's in charge of defending GOP-controlled governorships nationwide. Trump will also be a dominant presence in the Republican scrum to replace Ducey, which could yield a candidate who isn't ideally positioned to win statewide.
But the Arizona audit is also having nationwide ramifications, as Trump-aligned GOP lawmakers make pilgrimages to observe the effort in a bid to launch their own fraudits back home. Three Pennsylvania GOP lawmakers kicked off the frenzy, Georgia Republicans weren't far behind, and now Republicans from Colorado, Nevada, Alaska, Virginia, and Wisconsin all want in on the action.
But the places where fraudit efforts are roiling the Republican Party most is in states like Arizona, where GOP officials ultimately certified the election and are now getting eaten by their own. When it comes to midterm battleground states, nowhere is that toxic dynamic more pronounced than in Georgia. As I reported this week, the Peach State GOP is being torn apart at the seams as Republican state lawmakers absolutely vilify all the GOP executive officials who certified and defended the vote. Gov. Brian Kemp was booed at the same party convention last week where two state lawmakers were presented with "Warrior Awards" for their work to overturn the election. Both of those lawmakers made the trek to observe Arizona's audit, as did Kemp primary challenger Vernon Jones, a former Democrat-turned-Trumper. At the same time, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger continues to be pilloried by Trumpers and tragically, his family continues to receive death threats more than half a year after the state's results were certified. Attorney General Chris Carr is also fighting for his political life as he takes to the campaign trail for 2022.
What I think the national media is missing here, as Republicans and Democrats in Washington resume a predictably contentious fight over President Joe Biden's agenda, is just how corrosive Trump's effect is on Republican politics at the state level. Even in Ohio, which Trump won pretty handily, a Trumper has launched a primary challenge to Gov. Mike DeWine. And in Florida, where the election results were never really in question, GOP state lawmakers responded to Trump's Big Lie by making it more difficult to vote by mail there, tearing apart a decades-old Republican playbook in the Sunshine State that has proven pretty effective.
In states like Pennsylvania, where Republicans don't control the governor's mansion and a coveted open Senate seat is up for grabs, two Trump-aligned candidates recently announced their bids for governor and Senate—Lou Barletta and Sean Parnell, respectively. Trump's stamp of approval in a swing state like Pennsylvania could help cement victories for both men.
Jim Lee, president of Susquehanna Polling and Research, conducts voter surveys for Republican candidates and says Trump's hold on GOP voters in the state continues to be strong. But he also described opposition to pro-Trump candidates among independent voters as a "brick wall with a couple layers of thickness to it."
"What's an asset in a primary could potentially be a liability in the fall," Lee told the Associated Press.
The picture that's developing is one in which Trump and Trumpism is upending the Republican Party in all different types of states—states like Georgia and Arizona, which could be in the throes of a political tipping point; states like Pennsylvania and North Carolina, where Trump could play kingmaker in the primary only to doom Republicans in the general election; and even states like Ohio and Florida, where Trumpism might actually upend a political landscape that has provided pretty solid footing for the Republican Party in the recent past.
The other X factor in all this is the white-hot intensity of the Republican divisions in states such as Georgia and Arizona, where base turnout will almost surely prove decisive in several critical races that determine the state's leadership, along with its representation in the U.S. Senate. Whichever faction of the GOP prevails in these statewide primaries will almost surely suppress at least some base enthusiasm for the general election. There's nothing normal here about the political wrangling over the direction of the party. Rather the battles have such an existential feel to them that they could leave one side or the other completely disillusioned and unenthusiastic about the general election push.
Once again, the country and the Republican Party, in particular, are in completely uncharted territory. The fact of the matter is that a lot of GOP voters in these battleground states voted against Trump at the top of the ticket, and then for Republican candidates down-ballot. Republican Party leadership then took that information and decided to double down on Trumpism even as Trump himself faded from political view for a handful of months after leaving office. That decision was almost unprecedented in modern political history: Parties simply don't double down on the persona and agenda of presidential losers immediately after they have lost an election.
None of this to say that Republicans are doomed next year, or that they couldn't cheat their way out of election losses. But it is to say that the deep rifts currently roiling the party cannot possibly be maximizing their turnout potential at the ballot box next year.
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