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Republicans trying to help their party regain power next year are growing increasingly worried that former President Donald Trump and his allies continuing to spread false claims about the 2020 election will jeopardize their mission.
In the short term, some GOP officials and operatives see a need to placate Trump, still the most popular figure in the party, and his most committed supporters, a majority of whom don’t believe President Joe Biden fairly won the last election, according to polls.
But the longer Trump and his backers place unfounded election accusations at the center of their platform, the more concerned Republicans are becoming about alienating swing voters and sending mixed messages to their base about whether voting in upcoming elections is even worthwhile.
“If we’re still talking about an election that was stolen — which it was not, it’s a big, phony lie — the worse off we are,” said Mike DuHaime, a veteran Republican strategist. “The more we’re worried about the past, the worse off we are. The more we’re drawing a contrast to Biden and his agenda, the better off we are.”
Four months into Biden’s presidency, fighting over the last election has continued to be a primary focus for many prominent Republicans. Since Trump — who was banned from social media sites like Facebook and Twitter following the Jan. 6 Capitol riot — launched his own blog on May 4, more than 40% of his posts have raised baseless claims about the last presidential election.
GOP leaders and voters around the country are taking their cues from the former president, who holds a firm grip on the party’s base. House Republicans voted to remove Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming from her leadership position last week after she forcefully pushed back against Trump’s election accusations.
In the Virginia governor’s race, which is often seen as an early barometer for the following year’s midterm elections, Glenn Youngkin recently won the GOP nomination after making “election integrity” a top issue. While he tiptoed around the issue before becoming the nominee, Youngkin has since clarified that he thinks Biden is the “legitimately elected” president.
And in Arizona, even though there has been no evidence of widespread voter fraud, a group of Trump-inspired Republicans are conducting an “audit” of the results in battleground Maricopa County. Some Republicans are lamenting that the process of counting 2.1 million ballots by hand is expected to stretch well into the summer and continue to draw attention away from what should be highly competitive U.S. Senate and gubernatorial elections in 2022.
“The sooner we get done with these shenanigans, the better,” said Barrett Marson, a Phoenix-based GOP consultant. “That doesn’t help win you votes in 2022. Every day spent looking back to 2020 is a day lost.”
‘A missed opportunity’
After losing control of the White House and both chambers of Congress during Trump’s term, Republicans generally feel confident about their chances in the 2022 elections. Midterms are historically fruitful for the out-of-power party, and Democrats will be defending narrow congressional majorities.
The GOP has struggled to define Biden early in his tenure. Still, Republican operatives say they will be in a strong position to take control of the U.S. House and Senate if they focus on more polarizing Democratic leaders and a policy agenda they view as too far to the left.
But the constant drumbeat about unverified election fraud from Trump, who is already getting involved in midterm races and leaving the door open to a 2024 presidential run, is complicating that strategy.
A national CNN poll conducted last month found that 70% of Republicans said they believed Biden did not legitimately win enough votes to beat Trump. By comparison, just 27% of both independents and college-educated white voters — two swing constituencies the GOP is seeking to win over — shared that view.
A recent CBS survey of GOP voters nationally showed that 68% said that it was “very” or “somewhat important” that Republican elected officials and candidates support claims of 2020 election fraud, while 32% said that is “not too important.”
“If we’re relitigating the November 2020 election, we are not advancing our cause to be successful in November 2022,” said Mark Graul, a GOP operative based in Wisconsin, where competitive Senate and governor’s races are expected next year. “Every time we take our eye off the ball offering a substantive alternative, it’s a missed opportunity.”
Aside from turning off moderates, some Republicans worry that Trump casting doubt on the election will suppress turnout among the base, making them feel like their vote won’t count.
Republicans are hoping to avoid a repeat of Georgia’s twin U.S Senate elections. Turnout dropped in conservative-leaning areas from the November general election to the January runoffs as Trump pushed his unfounded voter fraud claims on the campaign trail. The GOP’s defeats in those races cost them control of the Senate.
Some are hopeful that new voting measures the GOP is advancing in states like Georgia, Florida and Texas, which Democrats deride as overly restrictive, will provide their voters with greater confidence in the electoral system. Republicans warn they need to address their own shortcomings to be successful in future elections.
“We can’t move forward to 2022 without correcting those issues, but it’s also dangerous to pin the entire reason we lost on election fraud, because then we don’t look at the gaps in our own campaign,” said Jason Shepherd, the former chair of the Cobb County Republican Party who is now running to lead the statewide Georgia GOP.
Republicans are holding out hope that the party’s focus will naturally shift away from squabbling over the last election the closer they get to the midterms . But they acknowledge that Trump remains a wild card.
“Having been with President Trump, I don’t think there’s any doubt in my mind that he’ll be laser-focused on 2022 and 2024,” said Randy Evans, a Georgia Republican who served as U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg during Trump’s tenure. “That doesn’t mean he will stop caring about or looking at the last election.”