How Trump is still writing the GOP's story
Donald Trump has rarely said so little for so long.
Through his attorneys, the former president refused to testify in the Senate's impeachment trial. His post-White House website, built by his former campaign manager, consists of a single page with an official-looking seal. He has not spoken into a microphone since the short speech he delivered before skipping President Joe Biden's inauguration. His Save America PAC, which raised at least $31 million before his eponymous Jan. 6 rally, has spent money on fundraising fees - and so far, nothing else.
But Trump's disappearance from public life has not removed him from the center of the Republican Party's universe. Republican-run states are debating ways to roll back the voting laws that Trump attacked before and after his loss. The 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump last month have been condemned by their local parties. Republicans declaring for open seats are touting not just their support for Trump, but often, the theory that he didn't really lose.
"This is about 74 million Americans who likely voted for the winner, in Donald Trump," Eddy Aragon, a New Mexico radio host running for Congress, said on the Tuesday edition of his radio show. It was "hard to believe" that Trump lost, he said, "given the mathematicians, the Dominion machines, the Smartmatic voting machines, the voter fraud that will never be investigated."
Aragon, one of the candidates anticipating a special election when Rep. Deb Haaland becomes secretary of the Interior Department, is not running a Trump-focused campaign. In an interview, he emphasized his past as a Democrat, his focus on free speech and affordable energy, and a "lost decade" of economic growth in Albuquerque as his key issues.
But Trump's falsehoods about voting machines, even in places he won, are still being shared by Republican activists across the country. This week, Georgia's Republican Party urged the state to scrap its Dominion machines, which were approved in July 2019 by the Republican-run state government, and Aragon had questions of his own about the technology that recorded Trump's defeat.
"You lose an election before it's even run because you didn't pay attention to the machines that were purchased," Aragon said. "We have nobody to blame but ourselves."
As they prepare for this year's elections and next year's midterms, Republicans are operating two message machines at once - one a response to President Biden's actions, and one aimed at voters still angry about 2020.
The Congressional Leadership Fund, the House GOP's independent campaign arm, has begun buying ads that accuse Democrats of keeping schools closed to mollify teachers' unions; the Republican Main Street Partnership, which intends to spend at least $25 million to help flip the House, argued in a post-election autopsy that "it is time to move beyond Trump and embrace the Republican governance that gave us the best economy in our lifetime." A three-page National Republican Congressional Committee memo first reported by Politico ran through its 2022 targets with no mention of Trump whatsoever.
But Republican voters don't just want the party back in power. They want to fight for Trump. Blast fundraising appeals from the National Republican Senatorial Committee this week offered donors a T-shirt that portrayed Trump hugging an American flag; fundraising texts from the Republican National Committee, which avoided mentioning Trump for 22 days after the Capitol riots, has fundraised against "the impeachment trial scam" in nearly every message since.
Sarah Chamberlain, the RMSP's president, was optimistic that Republicans could run campaigns this year and next without Trump getting in their way. Most of the Republicans who voted for impeachment, she pointed out, were RMSP members; after a wave of criticism, she said, the calls for them to go for betraying the former president were dying down.
"Right now, Trump is not on Twitter," Chamberlain said. "He would tweet, and it would fire up his base, but now it's pretty quiet. So they're doing some healing back home."
But more Republicans are linking their ambitions to Trump and echoing his views, shared by most of the party's voters, that the election was stolen. Former Ohio treasurer Josh Mandel, who began his 2018 Senate bid by echoing Trump's criticism of a "rigged" system, launched a new campaign this week by attacking the "unconstitutional" impeachment trial. In an interview with Cleveland's 3 News, Mandel went further, saying that "we're going to see studies come out that evidence widespread fraud," and that Trump had likely won the 2020 election.
"With any type of fraud, it usually takes time to investigate it and to dig it out," Mandel said. "It might be months, it might be years, it might be decades. But I think when we look back on this election, we'll see in large part that it was stolen from President Trump."
In several states, the debate over the 2020 election's rules has consumed Republican legislators. In Kentucky, a GOP supermajority removed the power of the secretary of state - a Republican - to change election laws without consent from the legislature. Although the state saw turnout surge in both a primary and general election conducted under generous absentee ballot rules, and while Republicans grew their majorities, their effort to prevent a repeat was backed by Sen. Rand Paul.
"It shouldn't be that contentious of an idea to pass a new law that says you can't pass any law without the state legislature voting on it," Paul told the Lexington Herald-Leader.
In Pennsylvania, Republicans are working to break up the state Supreme Court, which repeatedly ruled against Trump's post-election challenges; instead of statewide elections, voters would pick judges in districts drawn to create a GOP majority. While Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, will veto attempts to reverse the state's absentee ballot changes, a ballot measure to break up the courts can proceed without his signature.
"They're counting on low-information voters and a low turnout, thinking that everyone got their anger out in November," said Lt. Gov John Fetterman, a Democrat who launched a Senate bid this month. "I'm going to be talking about this nonstop and Democrats will have to put millions of dollars behind it in messaging."
The 2020 hangover has affected Democrats, too. Amanda Litman, the founder of the campaign training and recruiting group Run for Something, said that 3,000 people had signed up for information about running between the 2020 election and the new year. Since Jan. 5, the sign-up number had doubled - a surprise she credited both to the Democrats' Georgia runoff wins, and to anger at Republicans continuing to defend Trump and echo his false election conspiracy theories.
"They are mentioning Trump, in the context of "it's Trump's party, it's rotten all the way down," Litman said. "It's grounded in reality. People are seeing that he's not the exception; he's the rule. People who didn't know about the Michigan Board of Canvassers four months ago watched them parrot his rhetoric."
Democrats who had thought some Republicans would move on from the election, or from Trump, continue to be surprised. Last week, Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey was filmed agreeing with conservative activists that some elements of the Jan. 6 riots were "staged" and that it "wasn't Trump people" entirely behind the violence. On Wednesday, after Shirkey had apologized, a live mic recorded him telling Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist that he didn't "take back" what he said, but wished he was clearer: An investigation would determine "who exactly was behind" the riots, the subject that activists were pushing him on.
"I don't back off very easily," Shirkey told the Democrat. "Sometimes, I should."
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The 2020 election isn't over, but we're getting closer every week. The last truly unresolved House race ended this week as former Rep. Claudia Tenney, a Republican, prevailed in a months-long election contest with Rep. Anthony Brindisi, who'd narrowly beaten her in 2018.
This race was even closer, decided in the end by 109 votes, after legal warfare over hundreds of uncounted ballots. In most years that would have been the tightest race in the country; this year, the title still belongs to Iowa's 2nd Congressional District, where Democrat Rita Hart is still contesting Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks's six-vote win. Hart, who appealed to the House to investigate the election, continues to ask for 22 uncounted ballots, with errors such as unstuck envelopes, to be counted, saying they've identified enough disenfranchised voters to narrowly overturn the result.
Democrats seated Miller-Meeks while the contest continued, and Hart's operation chided the Republican's team - which has characterized the challenge as frivolous and anti-democratic - for conducting its own search for uncounted ballots. "With her true motivations now clear, Miller-Meeks must drop her wholly unsupported and hypocritical motion to dismiss and join Rita in her contest to ensure all votes are counted in Iowa's 2nd Congressional District," Hart's campaign said in a statement. The House investigation is ongoing.
Given the vacancies in Louisiana and Texas - more about that below - and expected vacancies in at least two more states, the House is unlikely to be fully seated until sometime this autumn, if ever. The current makeup of the lower chamber is 221 Democrats, 211 Republicans, and three vacancies; the expected departure of two more Democrats could, for a short time, drive the Democratic majority down to 219 seats, the lowest for any governing party in decades.
The risks of that to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's party were on display yesterday, when one Democrat's absence in the House Agriculture Committee allowed a Republican amendment to pass. Holding on to the Iowa seat, filling their vacancies and flipping five Democratic seats would put Republicans into the majority; that's possible in the long run, but unlikely given the heavy Democratic lean of the Democrats' open seats.
But Democrats, who urged the president not to pull more of their colleagues into the Cabinet, are hoping that nobody else gets restless. On Feb. 1, a coalition of civil rights groups urged California Gov. Gavin Newsom not to pick Rep. Adam Schiff to replace state Attorney General Xavier Becerra, now the president's nominee to run the Department of Health and Human Services. Schiff's Los Angeles-area district backed Biden by 44 points last year, but a vacancy would take months to fill.
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- Julia Letlow, "Introduction."Republican Hill staffer Luke Letlow died last year, shortly after his victory in Louisiana's 5th Congressional District and before taking office. Julia, his widow, organized her own campaign to replace him, and her full-length biographical video portrays her as a conservative who literally wrote her "doctoral dissertation on grief." (She did so after her brother died.) "We all have to walk through seasons of darkness," Letlow says. "I look at Washington and see the division, the ugliness, and the darkness. But I know there is hope." Not until the final 40 seconds does she lay out a conservative agenda: "protecting the unborn" and other "Christian values" motivating voters in the solidly red district.
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"Do you approve of the way Joe Biden is handling his job as president?" (Gallup, 906 adults)
The new president's first approval rating is higher than his predecessor's ever was, but lower than Barack Obama during his first months in office. The gap between Biden's support from Democrats and his support from Republicans is the highest ever found by Gallup at this point in a presidency - an 87-point difference. Just 11% of Republicans approve of Biden's administration so far, compared to 98% of Democrats.
While Trump frequently touted his sky-high approval ratings with Republicans, Biden's support from his own party is higher than any other president, per Gallup, besides George W. Bush's "in the days and weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks." Biden's 61% approval rating with independents is just one point lower than Obama's 12 years ago, and Biden starts out with slightly lower White support than his former running mate: 47% approve, while 48% disapprove. Biden's promise of "unity," loosely defined since the election, has been focused on policies that Democrats and independents support, with little buy-in from Republicans, and here are the results and the reasons.
"Is democracy in the United States is alive and well, or under threat?" (Quinnipiac, 1075 adults)
Alive and well: 22%
Under threat: 71%
This isn't even the first poll since Jan. 6 to study whether voters think our 234-year-old republic is in trouble; a CBS poll last month also found that 71% of adults considered American democracy "under threat." Even though congressional Democrats are the ones arguing that Trump put our system of government of risk, it's Republicans, distraught at Trump's defeat, who are more likely to fear the future: Just 11% say democracy is "alive and well," compared to 26% of Democrats. No group of voters say that democracy's in good shape, but voters under 35 years old (32%) and non-White voters (29%) are most likely to say so.
"Is the covid-19 relief package being discussed by Congress too much, or not enough?" (CBS News, 2,508 adults)
Not enough: 40%
About the right amount: 39%
Too much: 20%
The collapse of traditional fiscal conservatism is a defining trend of the post-Trump era, with the former president adding trillions to the debt over four years and ending his term with a call for $2,000 coronavirus relief checks. CBS's polling, which finds higher levels of support for Biden than most other polls, puts the opposition to a $1.9 trillion relief bill in the deep minority. A majority of Trump voters say the proposal is either the "right amount" or "not enough," while 46% say it's too expensive. No other subgroup of voters is so resistant to the legislation, which isn't laid out in detail by the pollster. Yet a strong majority of all voters say it's "important" that the legislation, which Democrats have said they will pass even if it lacks Republican votes, get bipartisan support.
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Rep. Ron Wright of Texas died on Feb. 8, shortly after contracting covid-19. The two-term Republican, a cancer survivor, had just won reelection in the fast-changing 6th Congressional District, and an election to fill the vacancy will be held once Gov. Greg Abbott, a fellow Republican, orders it.
This is the third House vacancy of 2021, and it could be filled quickly. Texas law requires Abbott to schedule the election between 36 and 50 days after he declares it. Candidates who file at least 5,000 petition signatures compete in one election, regardless of party; if no candidate wins more than 50% of the vote, the top two finishers head to a runoff.
That might not be necessary, depending on which candidates run. Texas's last House vacancy, created by the retirement of disgraced ex-Rep. Blake Farenthold, was filled in a single election: Rep. Michael Cloud, a Republican, cleared 50% in the first round to represent the 27th Congressional District. That seat has gone easily for the GOP since its lines were drawn 10 years ago; the 6th, which covers the suburbs just south of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, has grown more Democratic. Its Republican margin in presidential races shrank from 17 points in 2012 to 12 points in 2016 to just three points last year.
Like the special election in Louisiana's 5th Congressional District, which was called after Rep.-elect Luke Letlow died, early speculation has focus on the late politician's widow, Susan. "Ron and Susan Wright shared a deep and abiding relationship with their Lord and Savior," the congressman's office said in announcing his death. Nobody has officially filed yet, and Democrats, whose effort to flip more seats in Texas last year failed disastrously, are looking to make it competitive.
In Louisiana's 2nd Congressional District, which includes the city of New Orleans and is safely Democratic, the leading candidates released their first fundraising totals. From announcing their campaigns to Dec. 31, state Sen. Troy Carter pulled in around $405,000; state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, a former party chair, raised around $301,000; Gary Chambers, a liberal activist who hasn't held office, raised around $107,000. Some context: Former congressman Cedric Richmond, who left the seat to join the Biden administration, raised $1.1 million for the 2010 campaign that sent him to Congress.
Two other Democrats, nominated for Cabinet roles, have yet to leave their seats: Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio and Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico. Candidates in Ohio's 11th Congressional District and New Mexico's 1st Congressional District have been mobilizing for two months; in Ohio, former state senator Nina Turner blew away the competition, raising nearly $647,000 before Dec. 1, with her campaign telling Cleveland's News 5 that she has since cleared $1 million. Cuyahoga County councilor Shontel Brown, who has collected plenty of local endorsements, raised just $40,000 by the end of last year.
In the Ohio seat, gerrymandered 10 years ago by the GOP, winning the Democratic primary is tantamount to winning election. There won't be a primary at all in New Mexico unless Democratic state legislators change special election statutes; at present, candidates will be picked by party committees.