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Republicans face political challenges as Trump fuels voters' doubts about election

President Donald Trump departs after participating in a video teleconference call with members of the military on Thanksgiving, Thursday, Nov. 26, 2020, at the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
President Donald Trump departs after participating in a video teleconference call with members of the military on Thanksgiving, Thursday, Nov. 26, 2020, at the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
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As President Donald Trump maintains without evidence that the 2020 election was stolen from him, Republicans face an increasingly difficult political calculation: hitch themselves to a flailing attempt to upend the results, risk the president’s wrath by rebuking him, or stay silent and hope this all blows over in 2021.

Trump has allowed the transition to President-elect Joe Biden to begin, but he is far from conceding defeat. In an interview with Fox Business host Maria Bartiromo Sunday, Trump complained the Department of Justice was “missing in action” and failing to sufficiently pursue his fraud allegations, casting suspicion on federal law enforcement agencies run by his appointees.

“This is total fraud, and how the FBI and Department of Justice, I don’t know, maybe they’ve involved, but how people are allowed to get away with this stuff is unbelievable,” Trump said.

Trump continued his assault on the integrity of the election Monday, demanding “hapless” Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp overrule Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and order a review of signatures on absentee ballot envelopes to uncover a supposed “goldmine” of fraud. Raffensperger, who Trump recently declared an “enemy of the people,” has been assigned a state security detail due to threats against his family.

“If Republicans don’t start condemning this stuff, then I think they’re really complicit in it,” Raffensperger told The Washington Post. “It’s time to stand up and be counted. Are you going to stand for righteousness? Are you going to stand for integrity? Or are you going to stand for the wild mob?”

With more states certifying election results, the Trump campaign’s lawsuits fizzling in court, and the president’s unsubstantiated theories growing more specious, some in the GOP have pushed back. Those who question Trump are still outliers among elected officials, though.

“The @FBI did not rig the election. If you find yourself believing they did, please stop, and say it out loud, and you will realize how silly it sounds,” tweeted Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., who has repeatedly fact-checked Trump’s claims.

Several Republicans who are planning to leave office at the end of the year have been particularly outspoken.

“Please for the sake of our Nation please drop these arguments without evidence or factual basis,” said retiring Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Mich., in response to a Trump tweet about the “Election Hoax” Sunday. Mitchell added the hashtag “#stopthestupid.”

Others within the party have eagerly embraced Trump’s rhetoric. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky has shared several links to dubious or misleading stories purporting to show evidence of widespread fraud with his 3 million followers.

“We have credible allegations of fraud on multiple fronts w/ mounting evidence in Georgia,” claimed Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., on Twitter Sunday night about the election, in which he was also reelected to his seat.

Many GOP lawmakers have attempted to thread a delicate needle, insisting Trump has a right to pursue legal claims and press for investigations of fraud but not endorsing his assertion that the election was rigged. It remains to be seen how they will respond if he continues to question the integrity of the election after his appeals are exhausted.

“Can’t live with him, can’t live without him,” said strategist Brendan Buck, who served as spokesman for former Republican House Speaker John Boehner, on Twitter Monday, summing up the party’s dilemma.

According to Buck, Trump’s behavior has complicated GOP efforts to hold onto two vital Senate seats in runoff elections in Georgia in January. Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler need the president’s active support to drive turnout, but his conspiracy theories might turn away more voters than he mobilizes.

“Very significant chance he does more harm than good when he travels to the state Saturday - hitting the governor, engaging in more conspiracies,” he said. “But the alternative of him bailing on the two Senators is potentially worse for them. And so they play his game.”

Trump is set to campaign for Perdue and Loeffler in Georgia Saturday. Experts say standing by the president is the most expedient short-term play for many Republican politicians, but some predict long-term costs for the party and the country if it continues down this path.

“As long as Trump has a stranglehold on his base, I think these Republican leaders will continue to indulge him... The only risk I see at this point is that history will view them with disdain, which is not something many politicians care much about,” said Bob Mann, a former Senate press secretary and author of “Becoming Ronald Reagan: The Rise of a Conservative Icon.”

According to Michael Cohen, founder of Cohen Research Group and author of an upcoming book on modern political campaigns, the consequences of Trump’s rhetoric are already emerging in Georgia, where GOP strategists fear the president’s supporters will not turn out in the Senate runoffs if they believe the state’s election system is corrupted. This could place the party in a difficult position going forward, with or without Trump at the helm.

“Once a segment of Trump voters leaves the electorate, they’ll need to face reality and aligning themselves with conspiracy theories and democracy-depressing views is going to hurt them in their next election cycles,” Cohen said.

As long as Trump’s efforts to subvert the election results are limited to angry tweets and long shot lawsuits, Brian Gaines, a senior scholar at the Institute for Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois, said Republicans have nothing to gain politically from criticizing him. The country has survived rough transitions before and will survive this one.

“If he actually forced the matter by declining to leave the White House or insisting the electors act independently, I think it would be incumbent on other Republicans to speak out more,” Gaines said.

Trump has given no indication he is willing to take it that far. As he railed against supposed fraud Thursday, he told reporters he would “certainly” vacate the White House on Jan. 20 if Biden is formally declared the winner.

Still, as Biden announces Cabinet nominees and Trump seemingly resigns himself to leaving office, his campaign has not abandoned its fight. Attorney Rudy Giuliani appeared at an event hosted by Arizona Republican lawmakers Monday to level new accusations of fraud, and the campaign submitted a fifth request to Raffensperger for an audit of signatures on absentee ballots in Georgia.

The campaign and its allies are still advancing lawsuits aimed at voiding election results in Michigan and Pennsylvania and allowing Republican-led state legislatures to pick presidential electors. State and federal courts have so far denied those arguments, but Trump has signaled he is willing to take his case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Time is running out. The “safe harbor” deadline for states to resolve disputes over election results is Dec. 8, and Electoral College delegates will meet to cast their ballots on Dec. 14.

Although some Republican politicians in Congress and state legislatures have publicly echoed and encouraged Trump’s claims of rigged elections, GOP officials in a position to do something about it have mostly rebuffed him. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s office issued a statement Monday saying he did not have the authority to intervene in the election certification process in response to Trump’s tweets.

Some rank-and-file Republican lawmakers in Michigan and Pennsylvania have floated blocking certification of election results, but leaders in the legislatures have said that is off the table despite pressure from Trump. Republican election officials in counties and states where Trump has disputed the outcome have defended their voting processes, and several Republican-appointed judges have rejected his legal filings.

“There are signs that normal is returning,” Cohen said. “In several states, elected GOP officials have resisted pressure to overturn the election. This is the beginning of the transition to a Trumpless GOP.”

There are also plenty of signs the party is moving in the opposite direction, though. A Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted earlier this month found half of Republicans believe Trump “rightfully won” the election, and other surveys have shown even larger numbers of Trump voters doubt the outcome. A report released by Bright Line Watch showed just 18% of Trump supporters view Biden as the true winner, and more than half say they do not know who won.

“I would expect, even after Biden is sworn in, you’ll see many of them continue to equivocate about the results of the election,” Mann said. “Not until Trump starts to lose currency with rank-and-file Republicans will you see greater recognition that Trump really lost the election.”

Although Trump has found a receptive audience with Republicans, his attacks on election integrity do not appear to be resonating much beyond his base. A Gallup postelection survey released Monday showed his favorability has fallen 3 points to 42% since Election Day, while Biden’s favorability has risen 6 points to 55%.

Trump has offered few hints of his future plans, but several polls have found he is currently Republicans’ top choice to be the party’s 2024 presidential nominee. Where the party goes from here depends heavily on the role he chooses to play in the years ahead.

According to Gaines, the 2022 midterms will provide the first clear indication of the GOP’s direction, and it is difficult to predict. Trump might take the lead in campaigning for Republican candidates in swing districts and bring his voters back to the polls, or someone else like Vice President Mike Pence could step forward as the major voice of the party.

“It’s not preordained,” he said.

Despite Trump’s complaints, Cohen stressed the 2020 election provided some positive results for Republicans that the party could build upon, including unexpected gains in statehouses and in Congress. Trump’s message also appears to have extended the party’s appeal with some voters of color, improving on his 2016 performance, even as support waned among suburban white voters.

“If Republicans want to remain a viable party, they’re going to need to dump Trump’s ridiculous attacks on our political system and evaluate where he was able to grow the party beyond low-income white voters to parts of the Hispanic and Black communities, which were surprisingly supportive,” Cohen said. “In some respects, the policies are more inclusive but the messenger was less so.”

Democrats fear Republicans will attempt to capitalize on the doubts Trump has sewn about election integrity to make it harder to vote. In a Twitter thread Saturday, Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, claimed the “election chaos,” which has mostly been driven by the president disputing the results, justifies limiting the “unreliable practice” of mail-in voting in the future.

“The worse damage will come as Republican governors and Republican-controlled legislatures rush to erect new barriers to voting,” Mann said. “At the presidential level, at least, too many Republicans seem to believe that the best way win back the White House is to prevent Democrats from voting.”

Even if skepticism about the results of the 2020 election lingers on the right for years, some say concerns about the impact on democracy are overblown. Gaines noted Democrats cast doubt on Trump’s legitimacy for much of his term because he lost the popular vote and his campaign benefited from Russian interference.

“The whole rhetoric of resistance was premised on the idea that he wasn’t a legitimate president,” he said.

An ongoing Republican “resistance” to Biden premised on Trump’s “rigged election” claims is looking increasingly likely, even if more GOP lawmakers ultimately accept that he won.

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“DO NOT CERTIFY A FALSE ELECTION!” the Arizona Republican Party’s official Twitter account blared Monday, hours after the state certified Biden as the winner of its 11 electoral votes.

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