Anti-Trump GOP voters struggle
Mar. 12—WASHINGTON — Rep. Lauren Boebert's grip on Colorado's 3rd Congressional District didn't seem in question heading into last year's midterms. But in the end, the congresswoman who gained a national reputation as a combative member of the "Make America Great Again" movement won reelection by just 564 votes.
"This was supposed to be a slam dunk for the Republican candidate, the way the district is designed," said Don Coram, a former state senator who unsuccessfully challenged Boebert in the GOP primary last June.
Boebert's near miss was emblematic of the difficulties Republicans confronted in 2022 and may face again in 2024. While former President Donald Trump holds a tight grasp on much of the GOP base, there is a notable minority of Republican voters who do not consider themselves MAGA members.
Most of them, as faithful Republicans, backed GOP candidates in 2022, AP VoteCast shows. Still, the extensive national survey finds these Republicans made up a larger percentage of those who opted not to support a candidate in House races. A sliver of them showed their opposition to Trump for a second time, backing Democrat Joe Biden for president in 2020 and Democratic House candidates in 2022.
In a political climate where competitive elections are nationalized and decided by narrow margins, neither party can take these voters for granted.
Democrat Adam Frisch said he knew there was a "fairly unique" opening for a more conservative Democrat to connect with Colorado voters who did not like Boebert's aggressive political style.
"I spent most of my time trying to convince people I was a safe enough choice, not just to leave the ballot blank ... but actually vote for a non-Republican for the first time ever or in a really long time," said Frisch, who has already announced he will run again in 2024.
The findings suggest Democrats, too, may need to be wary of the messaging against "MAGA Republicans," whom Biden hammered repeatedly before the November elections and is poised to do again in a 2024 campaign. Most of those who don't identify with the movement don't seem to find that compelling. Voters who do may be eager to revert to a Republican candidate who represents their traditional conservative values.
Republican strategist Alex Conant suggested GOP candidates cannot count on these voters so long as Trump is involved in politics. But 2024 can be different.
"There's no reason that the Republican nominee in 2024 can't put together a coalition that includes Trump's base and moderate Republicans and independents," he said.
Conant and others pointed to examples of Republican governors — Ron DeSantis in Florida, Mike DeWine in Ohio and Brian Kemp in Georgia — who were able to do that in 2022.
In Ohio and Georgia, for example, the two governors outperformed Republican candidates for Senate who were endorsed by Trump. DeWine earned nearly 390,000 votes more than JD Vance, who won an open seat, and Kemp received 200,000-plus more votes in the general election than did Herschel Walker, who failed to unseat a Democratic incumbent in a later runoff.
According to VoteCast, 10% of Republican voters who don't identify as "MAGA Republicans" voted for Democratic House candidates nationwide, compared with 2% of those who embrace that label.
Overall, 4% of Republicans backed Democratic candidates. That percentage swelled in competitive races for Senate and governor where far-right candidates were on the ballot, including as many as 13% of Republicans in Arizona, 16% in Colorado and 18% in Pennsylvania, and 11% in Michigan.
The Lincoln Project, a conservative group that staunchly opposes Trump, has targeted this voting bloc in elections. Co-founder Rick Wilson said it's a "narrow pathway, but a meaningful one" to electing pro-democracy, anti-extremist candidates, one that he thinks has expanded since 2020 because of the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Still, partisanship can be "sticky," Wilson said, and traditional Republicans value checks and balances in Washington, driving disaffected conservative voters to support Republicans as an offset to Democrats.
VoteCast shows most Republicans voted for Republicans, even if they did so with reservations.
Republicans who don't identify with the MAGA movement and decided to back Republican candidates mostly say they didn't consider Trump, good or bad, when they voted. Only about half are positive in ratings of Trump himself, but most are favorable toward the party and say the GOP tends to try to do what's right. About two-thirds of them say they voted to show opposition to Biden.
"They're where I am ... what choice do we have?" said GOP strategist Rick Tyler. "There are many in the Republican Party who would love to not vote Republican, but they can't vote Democrat because they don't believe in where Democrats want to take the country."
That may have helped some Republican candidates in Republican-leaning districts oust Democrats who were elected in the Trump era.
In November, then-state Sen. Jen Kiggans defeated two-term Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria in a district centered in Virginia Beach, Virginia, just two years after a Democratic presidential candidate carried the city for the first time since 1964. Kiggans overcame the self-proclaimed "MAGA candidate" in the Republican primary, and campaign operatives pointed to Kiggans as a "disciplined" candidate focused on kitchen table issues.
Her message also tied Luria to Biden and then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., as Luria herself campaigned on her role on the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and called Kiggans an election denier. Kiggans shied away from explicitly repeating Trump's false claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, but she refused to publicly reject them.
Non-MAGA Republicans are more likely than MAGA Republicans to say that Biden was legitimately elected president. They also are more likely to say they decided over the course of the campaign which candidate they would back, as compared with knowing all along.
Back in Colorado, Karen Davis, 58, was a lifelong Republican until a few years ago, when she changed her voter registration because of the "alarming" rhetoric of the party, particularly the far-right. Her vote for Biden in 2020 was more of a vote "against" Trump, she said.
And last year, she backed Frisch over Boebert.
"What's really sad is you're not excited about any of these candidates," said Davis, who runs a flooring business in Grand Junction, Colorado, with her husband. "If the Republicans could get a candidate I was excited about, I would absolutely vote for them."
To her, that's "somebody who's a fiscal conservative but a moderate in every other way," Davis said. "They can't win me back with Donald Trump."