Cruz and Hawley became DC pariahs — but their “cynical ploy” for 2024 may have worked anyway

Polls show GOP voters support Ted Cruz by a 3-to-1 margin and Josh Hawley by a 2-to-1 margin following Capitol riot

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published January 20, 2021 6:00AM (EST)

Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Sens. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, have faced widespread condemnation for their roles in pushing the false election-rigging narrative that fueled the Capitol riot. But some political insiders think their stunt could still aid their 2024 Republican primary hopes, despite the violence it wrought.

Hawley and Cruz, without any evidence of widespread fraud, led the objections to the Electoral College results during a joint session of Congress that was ultimately delayed several hours when a mob of President Donald Trump's supporters overran Capitol Police and stormed the halls of Congress. The senators' electoral challenge was slammed by many as a "cynical ploy" intended to gin up 2024 primary support among Trump's base, but it seemed to have struck a chord among the Trump diehards hunting for lawmakers throughout the building. "I think Cruz would want us to do this," one rioter said in a video that showed the mob rummaging through drawers in the Senate chamber. "So I think we're good."

The blowback for the two senators was swift. Hawley, in particular, lost his book deal, a major donor, his Republican mentor and financial backing from a growing number of corporate PACs after he pumped his fist to the pro-Trump rioters before they stormed the Capitol. Two of the biggest Missouri newspapers called for his resignation. One of Cruz's top aides resigned in response to the riot. Dozens of Democrats have called for both to resign and have suggested censuring them. House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., even called for Cruz and Hawley to be put on the FBI's no-fly list.

But while mainstream figures have been quick to condemn the two lawmakers, "they're probably not the ones that Hawley is appealing to," argued Adam Jentleson, who served as chief of staff to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "After the violence, 138 Republicans took stock and decided it was still in their interests to stick with Hawley. He wants to be a hero to the right. Seems to be working."

Jentleson noted that Republican voters have been loyal to Trump since 2016, and there's not much reason to think they will now reject loyalists like Hawley.

"Hawley is likely to emerge with the political upper hand... and it's important to be clear-eyed about that," he said. "Elite opinion may pile on him for a while. But by this time next year his GOP colleagues will be begging him to do fundraising events for them."

What do the polls say now?

Early polling suggests that becoming mainstream pariahs has not hurt Hawley's nor Cruz's brands among the party's base. An Economist/YouGov poll found that although their general favorability is underwater, Republican voters back Cruz 61-20 and Hawley by a 2-to-1 margin, though the latter is still largely unknown to the majority of voters. An Axios/Ipsos poll similarly found that most voters disapprove of the senators' "recent behavior," but 61% of Republicans said they approve of Cruz's actions, and 46% of Republicans approve of Hawley's.

Trump voters have largely stayed supportive. More than 90% of his supporters back his attempt to challenge results of the election he lost and want him to run again in 2024, according to the Axios/Ipsos survey. And while less than half of "traditional" GOP voters said they felt the same in that survey, a new CNN poll found that 75% of Republicans believe Biden did not legitimately win the election. On the other hand, Rep. Peter Meijer, R-Mich., one of the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump last week, predicted that he "may very well have" ended his political career just days after taking office.

"I don't trust any polling right now," Alex Conant, a veteran Republican strategist who served as the communications director for Sen. Marco Rubio's, R-Fla., 2016 presidential campaign, said in an interview with Salon. He added that it was "too soon to say" how the fallout from the riot would affect the 2024 primary picture but acknowledged that the senators' attempts to cast themselves as victims of the left in response to the backlash could be effective, as it has been for Trump.

And, like Trump, both senators have been unrepentant about their own actions since the Capitol siege, despite condemning the violence. Cruz has denied any involvement in fueling the riot while blaming Trump's "rhetoric." Hawley said he "will never apologize for giving voice to the millions of Missourians and Americans who have concerns about the integrity of our elections."

"Some wondered why I stuck with my objection following the violence at the Capitol," he wrote in a subsequent op-ed. "The reason is simple: I will not bow to a lawless mob, or allow criminals to drown out the legitimate concerns of my constituents."

But how significant is their support?

Conant, who also worked in the George W. Bush administration and as the top spokesman for the Republican National Committee, said that backing Trump's electoral challenge was a "dumb idea" that "clearly turned off a lot of voters and other key people inside the party are really upset with them."

"I don't think that they're any more popular now with Trump's base," he said. "Let's be honest, Trump's base is… small relative to the nation as a whole and… they're loyal to Trump and I don't think that support is going to be transferrable to Hawley or Cruz or anyone else because of a vote they took."

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, a Democrat who ran for president in 2004, agreed that Trump's relatively small base was likely to warm up to Cruz and Hawley in response to their backing but predicted it would doom the Republican Party.

"Yeah, Josh and Cruz might make it easier for themselves to win the Republican primary, but I think the Republican party is going to suffer enormously if it's still going on in 2024," Dean said in an interview, adding, "that's assuming we can hold the line against violence."

Dean predicted that "there's going to be more violence" but believes that the serious and public consequences facing the perpetrators may make "all these conspirators — not the crazy people who stormed Washington — but the 70 million people who are delusional about the election" rethink their politics. This is "not a revolutionary moment," he said, "it's a movement that's been hijacked by people who are basically authoritarians and fascists."

"Basically, we are where we are because there are a whole class of people who basically surrendered their agency in some desperation to Donald Trump," he said. "It's exactly the same phenomenon as Hitler or Mussolini or people like that. And they exist in this conspiracy theorist world as a defense… So a lot of those people are going to change that unconscious defense when it doesn't work for them anymore… When the situation becomes intolerable as a result of believing in the conspiracy theory, a lot of people who are not crazy but may be embracing the conspiracy theory, they're going to stop it because it doesn't suit them anymore.

"I can't imagine we're going to be at the same place in 2024, because I don't think the country will survive another three years of this," he added.

How radicalized is the Republican party now?

While Trump's influence is likely to wane, especially if he remains banned from mainstream social networks, the hold that his supporters have on the party may not. Some Republicans reportedly worried that they could face violence from their own supporters if they "voted the wrong way" on the Electoral College challenge and Trump's impeachment, noted Kurt Braddock, an extremism expert at American University.

Braddock said he was not surprised how many people in the party "have been radicalized by the far-right" and predicted those emboldened by Trump's presidency are not likely to quickly go back "underground."

"Truth be told, those individuals have always been there," he said. "Trump gave them a symbol to kind of rally around and to make them think that their beliefs were normalized and they were justified in the sorts of things they were doing."

"It's very difficult to see which direction" the party will go in the coming years, he added. "If you asked me six months ago if I thought QAnon adherents would be elected to Congress I would have said no. But, I mean, here we are."

Braddock, who has called for Hawley and Cruz to be investigated for their roles in the riot, said the two should face sanctions for fueling the narrative that led to the attack, but agreed that very little of the blowback has come from the right. He said he hopes that the ongoing condemnation could sway some Republicans.

"I think that the Republicans aren't pushing back on Hawley too much, but the pushback on Hawley by the general population… will be seen by some Republicans and that kind of phenomenon when they see the larger population rejecting it so soundly, I don't know if it will have a huge effect but I'd like to think it will have some effect," he said.

Jentleson said there was little intra-party blowback toward Hawley and Cruz because of "what the modern GOP has become."

"It is a party that will ultimately reward the kind of reprehensible behavior Hawley has displayed," he wrote on Twitter.

Where does this leave Mike Pence?

While Hawley and Cruz tried to appeal to Trump's supporters by backing his false election-rigging claims, Vice President Mike Pence, who stood loyally at Trump's side for four years, has been repeatedly criticized by the president for failing to circumvent the Constitution to overturn the election on January 6, framing it as a betrayal. Though Pence has drawn praise for standing up to Trump's tantrums, it's unclear if the party's base will look favorably on the president's longtime stoic sidekick.

"It's very hard to predict what voters are going to want years from now," said Conant. "In the long run, I don't think there's any question that what he did last week will look very good. History will remember his actions well, and he will end up defining his time as vice president. Clearly, I think there's some backlash in the moment from some of Trump's most hardcore supporters, but how relevant that is from three years from now, I don't know."

Braddock said the turn against Pence was one of the most "amazing, incredible, difficult to believe" things about the whole ordeal.

"In the span of 12 hours, Mike Pence [went from] the hero of the Trump Republicans to 'hang Mike Pence' at the Capitol building," he said, referring to the chants of some Trump supporters as they stormed through the halls of Congress.

"As long as the party is beholden to Trumpism… I don't think there is a place for Mike Pence, because if the party goes in the direction of the people outside the Capitol on January 6, I don't see people who were calling for his hanging to vote for him anytime soon," he said.

Mainstream Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell appear eager to "cast off the shadow of Trump," he added. "If they're able to do that, there might be a place for people like Mike Pence. If they can't, it's difficult seeing Trumpism or Trump Republicans ever really going for someone like him again."

Will the backlash last?

Dean said the "more significant" aspect of the fallout is the corporate backlash against the lawmakers who backed Trump's election objections.

"The business community has tremendous leverage here," he said. "It was the business community who stepped up in the Civil Rights movement and even to a lesser extent in the climate change movement when government wasn't acting. And so if business makes good on their threats not to fund Republicans who are denying the election, that's pretty significant."

Dean said that members like Hawley and Cruz should be "expelled from the Senate" for their role in the riot in order for the country to try to move past the Trump era but doesn't think Congress should pursue large numbers of expulsions like the ones called for by freshman Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo.

"Because the truth is if you do that, most of them will get reelected in their special elections. So I think expulsion from Congress should be used very judiciously," he said. "What we really need is a truth and reconciliation commission. But in order to do that, the Republicans have to be willing to admit guilt and they're not there yet. And our job is to make their lives so unpleasant politically that they'll get there."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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Capitol Riot Donald Trump Josh Hawley Mike Pence Politics Reporting Ted Cruz