Trump fraud claims open Republican rift in red states

FILE PHOTO: Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump gather in Washington
Tear gas is released into a crowd of protesters, with one wielding a Confederate battle flag that reads “Come and Take It,” during clashes with Capitol police at a rally to contest the certification of the 2020 presidential election results.
REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

By Brad Brooks and Gabriella Borter

Pat Cowan, a Republican official in west Texas, would rather blow up her party than see it controlled by “weak” Republicans who increasingly are distancing themselves from President Donald Trump since the U.S. Capitol riots he is accused of inciting.

“You can’t tell those Republicans from the Democrats!” she scoffed in an interview at her home in Levelland, Texas.

Like many others in Hockley County, where Cowan is the party chairwoman, she believes Trump’s baseless claims that he was robbed of a Nov. 3 election victory by voter fraud. She’s incensed at the handful of Texas Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives who certified Democrat Joe Biden’s election win in the hours after the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6. She’s even angrier at the 10 Republican House members from other states who voted to impeach Trump for allegedly inciting the insurrection.

“That has led a lot of us to think that we’re just going to have to come up with a new party,” she said, “and I think that Trump is going to lead it!”

Cowan’s stark view of the party’s future – echoed by many of the two dozen Texas voters and party officials interviewed by Reuters – underscores how Trump, after four years of dividing the nation, now has done the same to his own party. Many Republican candidates in solidly conservative states like Texas face intense pressure to perpetuate Trump’s false election-fraud narrative as voters make loyalty to Trump a litmus test for their support in future elections. That loyalty was on display last week in the Texas state legislature as several Republicans introduced bills to restrict voting access, including limits on mail-in voting and early voting, citing a need to prevent fraud.

In Georgia, turmoil wracked the party during two ultimately failed campaigns by Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate as Trump attacked Republican Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger over their refusal to help him overturn his Georgia election loss. A billboard in Forsyth County, a rural Trump stronghold, last week called Kemp and Raffensperger “treasonist RINOs” – Republicans in name only – who should be jailed. In Arizona, the state party will soon vote on whether to censure prominent Republicans including Cindy McCain – wife of the late Senator John McCain – for being insufficiently loyal to Trump.

Other Republicans, however, warn that caving to Trump loyalists could irreparably damage a party that has already lost the White House and both houses of Congress under Trump’s watch. Several Republican strategists said politicians backing Trump’s false election-fraud claims may see short-term rewards – but at the cost of undermining their own voters’ faith in U.S. elections, along with the party’s credibility and unity in the long term.

“The predicate of the nation’s problems – and the party’s problems – going forward is that too many Republicans have promoted the falsehood that the election was stolen,” said Rob Stutzman, a Republican strategist in California who advised the 2008 presidential campaign of Senator Mitt Romney, who is now among the sharpest Republican critics of Trump.

Alice Stewart, a longtime strategist who served as head of communications for Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign, said the most important thing Republicans can do now is to “stop lying.”

While many establishment Republicans hope Trump’s influence will fade, they recognize his power within the party.

“If Trump opens his own media channel and goes on the road with Trump rallies and claims that he really won the election … that would probably tear the party apart,” said Stutzman.

Some Republican strategists, however, argue the president’s closest allies – and most fervent promoters of his fraud claims – will face even more political fallout over time.

In west Texas, while many Trump supporters are turning against Republicans who repudiate the president’s fraud claims, some have more nuanced views on how the party should move forward.

Some, like Josh Stevens, the mayor of Lamesa, Texas, allow that they do not necessarily believe that election fraud caused Trump’s loss, while maintaining that voter fraud is a bigger problem than Democrats admit.

Stevens says it’s time for hardcore Trump supporters to learn how to compromise. He warned that outlandish behavior like the pandemonium at the Capitol or continuing to insist there was a massive election fraud could kill Trump’s movement.

“What you don’t do is throw on your f—king flak jacket, get your AR-15 and walk around out there, waving your gun like you’re Rambo just to prove a point,” he said. “That kind of extremism is completely unproductive.”