In his bid to purge the Republican Party of any and all truth-tellers, Donald Trump claimed another scalp Thursday: Rep. Anthony Gonzalez of Ohio, one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump over the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol siege. After Gonzalez announced he wouldn’t seek reelection, Trump was thrilled, gloating in a statement that read simply, “1 down, 9 to go!”
In Trump's GOP cult, there just wasn't any room for Gonzalez, who called Trump "a cancer for the country."
Gonzalez, once seen as a rising GOP star, retired for a mix of reasons, including security concerns for his family and the fact that GOP leaders have chosen to make Trump the locus of their party.
“This is the direction that we’re going to go in for the next two years and potentially four, and it’s going to make Trump the center of fund-raising efforts and political outreach,” Gonzalez told The New York Times' Jonathan Martin. “That’s not something I’m going to be part of.”
Gonzalez was also one of four House GOP incumbents against whom Trump has endorsed a primary challenger. In February, Trump made Gonzalez challenger Max Miller his first anti-impeacher endorsement on his revenge tour. Since then, Trump has endorsed three more challengers to GOP incumbents who voted to impeach:
- Wyoming lawyer Harriet Hageman to take on Rep. Liz Cheney, arguably Trump's most outspoken and powerful detractor.
- Washington state Army veteran Joe Kent, who's taking on Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler.
- Michigan state Rep. Steve Carra, who hopes to unseat Rep. Fred Upton, first elected to Congress in 1986.
Trump has also endorsed a primary challenger to one sitting GOP senator, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who also voted to impeach and hasn't yet said whether she plans to run for reelection.
Overall, Trump has endorsed a stunning 40 candidates in 23 states, according to Politico. Trump's hold on the GOP is unprecedented and almost unimaginable given that he's a twice-impeached two-time popular vote loser who surrendered both chambers of Congress and the White House during his four-year tenure. But his power is also real—a summer Civiqs poll found that 74% of GOP voters consider themselves pro-Trump Republicans while just 6% identified as anti-Trump Republicans. And Trump's undeniable ability to play kingmaker in the GOP will both radicalize the party in safe Republican seats and jeopardize the party's chances in swing districts.
"In swing seats, you could have a Trump candidate win the primary and lose the general because Trump is so toxic," said former GOP Rep. Ryan Costello of Pennsylvania, who is weighing a bid for the state's open Senate seat. "That doesn’t bother Trump. But it’s a problem when we want to win more seats in the midterm.”
In fact, Trump has already picked a favorite in the Keystone State Senate race, and general election success doesn't seem to have been his main consideration. Trump backed Army combat veteran Sean Parnell, who last year lost a very high-profile swing district race against incumbent Democratic Rep. Conor Lamb. Unsurprisingly, Parnell declined to concede the race.
But as Costello points out, Trump's continued meddling in Republican primaries arguably holds zero benefit for the GOP. They'll win the safe seats they were going to win anyway and potentially lose the more closely contested races.
In those close races, Trump's endorsement will only work against Republicans. GOP leadership knows this. Earlier this year, the House GOP campaign arm purposely misled their own members about polling data revealing that Trump’s unfavorable ratings were 15 points higher than his favorables in core districts. "Nearly twice as many voters had a strongly unfavorable view of the former president as had a strongly favorable one," reported The Washington Post.
But it's not just swing voters who Trump is turning off. Perhaps more importantly, he's demoralizing GOP base voters.
“Donald Trump is continuing to add to the chaos in the Republican Party. It’s confusing the average Republican voter,” Georgia GOP Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan told Politico. Duncan, who is not running for reelection, added: “The only question that seems to matter when Trump is making his endorsements is: ‘Are you with us on the election conspiracy stuff?’"
Indeed. And Trump's insistence that 2020 was stolen only adds to the confusion for Republican voters, even among those who like him. In a recent opinion piece, National Review editor Rich Lowry predicted that the stolen-election narrative would become an albatross for the GOP in any election where independents and moderates would decide the election. It certainly didn’t help Georgia Republicans in January’s Senate runoffs, where depressed GOP turnout contributed to the triumph of the two Democratic Senate candidates: Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock.
GOP California gubernatorial candidate Larry Elder was the latest Republican in a high-profile race to embrace Trump's 2020 fraud myth. Elder, the top GOP candidate in the recall effort to unseat Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, ultimately claimed fraud himself—before the votes had even been counted.
As Lowry noted, "Preemptive excuse-making isn’t a sign of great confidence—the winning side never complains of cheating."
If a Republican toady like Rich Lowry is trying to dissuade GOP candidates from perpetuating election fraud myths, there’s clearly a segment of the party that thinks Trump’s baseless election fraud claims are undermining Republicans at the ballot box.