GOP candidates weigh whether to seek Trump’s backing
A Republican censure vote highlights party infighting and former President Donald Trump’s ongoing influence
In Washington state, Republican U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse is seeking a fifth term this year to represent his staunchly conservative district. Although the congressman earned praise from former President Donald Trump for voting not to impeach him at his first trial in 2019, Newhouse was one of 10 House Republicans who voted for impeachment after the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot.
Now, Trump is endorsing Newhouse’s Republican opponent, Loren Culp. Although Newhouse previously won his district with strong primary and general election results, Culp’s endorsement from Trump, which came earlier this month, is expected to boost fundraising and divide voters as the state swings more Republican.
In Alabama, Republican U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks is running for a U.S. Senate seat. The six-term conservative was known for strong support of Trump during his presidency, being one of the first congressional members to object to the 2020 election results. Brooks also attended Trump’s rally in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6.
Trump endorsed Brooks’ candidacy, but the favor could be cooling. Brooks elicited boos at a Trump rally in August for telling the crowd to “put the 2020 election behind you.” He reshuffled his campaign staff in December, adding Republican operatives who criticized the former president. On Thursday, Trump met with Brooks’ Republican opponent, Katie Boyd Britt, at his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida, although it wasn’t clear whether he planned to switch his endorsement.
Those closely watched moves by the former president came days after the Republican National Committee voted on Feb. 4 to censure two Republican lawmakers who participated in the congressional subcommittee investigating the Jan. 6 riot. While the vote highlighted ongoing divisions in the Republican Party over how to address last year’s riot, it also has further pitted Republicans against one another, thrown party messaging into confusion during an election year, and revealed Trump’s continued influence in GOP politics.
The Feb. 4 censure vote, occurring at the Republican National Committee winter meeting in Salt Lake City, came after members agreed to work together to win back a majority in Congress. A voice vote ultimately led to the censure of Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, with a resolution admonishing them for participating in a Democrat-led Jan. 6 investigation that persecuted citizens engaging in “legitimate political discourse.” (The resolution does not remove the representatives from office.)
At a subsequent town hall meeting, RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel clarified that the “legitimate” language “had nothing to do with the violence at the Capitol.” McDaniel has publicly denounced the riot on Jan. 6 and supported criminal charges against protesters who broke into the Capitol. She accused the investigative committee of exceeding its purview by issuing subpoenas for anything related to the 2020 election rather than just the riots: “The awful events of that day do not justify Cheney or Kinzinger enabling a partisan committee whose real purpose seems to be helping Democrats’ electoral prospects at the cost of potentially ruining innocent people’s lives.”
Vince Galko, a Pennsylvania political strategist and former Republican campaign manager, said the RNC position “puts candidates on notice not to go against Trump or in some cases, just don’t bring him up. … Trump has endorsed candidates in the past that have lost, but if he turns his sights on someone, he can really do damage or help an opponent. What you really want to avoid is Trump going after you.”
An endorsement from the former president can give candidates an essential boost. Former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced her bid to be Arkansas’ next governor on Jan. 25, 2021, and received glowing praise from Trump the next day with his trademark “Complete and Total Endorsement.” In her video announcement, Sanders declared she will not allow the radical left to silence conservatives. She referenced “violence in the U.S. Capitol” but did not specifically address Jan. 6 riots. An October poll found roughly 73 percent of the state’s likely primary voters support Sanders over her Republican contender.
Alan Abramowitz, professor emeritus of political science at Emory University, notes that candidates who oppose Trump or disagree with his claims about a stolen election are in a difficult position.
“The candidates challenging Trump aren’t even necessarily moderate,” Abramowitz said. Cheney supported most of Trump’s policies during his presidency, and groups like Heritage Action rank her highly for supporting conservative positions such as pro-life stances and opposing Democrat-led policies on LGBT accommodations and election security. “Cheney is still a conservative Republican. The reason primary voters are unhappy with her is not because of her ideology,” Abramowitz said.
He also noted that most other Republicans who voted to impeach Trump after Jan. 6 or who have supported the investigative committee either face difficult battles in Republican districts or, like Kinzinger, are leaving the arena entirely.
For example, Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, R-Ohio, cited “toxic dynamics” in the party as one of his reasons for retiring at the end of his term this year. Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y., also announced his retirement in January but avoided mention of his vote to impeach Trump.
Former Massachusetts state Rep. Geoff Diehl, who is currently running for governor, received a Trump endorsement in October. He said he is against political violence but, like many Republican candidates, pivoted to other interests when WORLD asked about the censure.
“As with any other organization, I think our party’s leadership has a right to disapprove of those who express beliefs contrary to the party’s goals,” Diehl said. “What I’d prefer, however, is if the members of our party would simply unite behind a common set of principles that have been proven to succeed.”
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