The Trump era saw a far-right takeover of the Republican Party. But the Big Lie and the fallout from the Capitol riot last January threaten to move the party even further into the extremist fringe after the 2022 midterms.
Republicans have long inched toward extremist positions on issues like immigration, women's rights and gun rights but Donald Trump's election helped mainstream racist, xenophobic and white nationalist forces. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., arguably one of the most effective conservative political figures in recent history, has increasingly been cast as a RINO ("Republican in Name Only") while the once-fringe House Freedom Caucus has grown massively to become a leading force in Washington. Longtime conservatives like former House Speaker Paul Ryan and former Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., ran for the hills while conspiracy theorists like Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., and Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., became the faces of the new MAGA wing of the GOP.
Though the majority of the House Republican caucus voted to back Trump's Big Lie and tried to block the certification of President Biden's victory after the deadly Capitol riot, Trump and his allies wasted no time in launching a revenge tour, with the explicit aim of purging lawmakers seen as insufficiently loyal, while his supporters in state legislatures around the country seek to make it easier to overturn the next election. With Democrats facing a difficult if not impossible task of keeping the House despite plummeting approval ratings, the next wave of Republican freshmen could be the scariest yet – and may pose a true threat to democracy as we know it.
Kari Lake — Arizona governor
After failing to convince outgoing Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey to help him overturn his election loss, Trump is backing a largely unknown conspiracy theorist, who vowed she would not have certified Biden's win, to replace Ducey. Lake, a longtime Arizona news anchor with no political experience, has even demanded that election officials "decertify" the election results, which is not legally possible. Lake, who is also backed by election conspiracists Mike Lindell and Michael Flynn and Capitol riot-linked Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., has called for Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs (who is also a gubernatorial candidate this year), to be imprisoned for unspecified election crimes. Trump has also praised Lake for opposing COVID restrictions, "cancel culture," and "woke" school curriculums, all issues likely to dominate the next cycle of Republican primaries and beyond. Trump's endorsement catapulted Lake atop the race, where she leads former Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., by more than a two-to-one margin.
Eric Greitens — Missouri governor
Greitens, once a rising star and considered a potential presidential contender, resigned as Missouri governor in 2018 after a woman with whom he had an extramarital affair accused him of sexual assault and revenge porn. A St. Louis grand jury indicted him that year on felony invasion of privacy charges, and although prosecutors dropped the charges, a special committee in the Republican-led state legislature released a report in April 2018 deeming the woman's allegations "credible." The legislature moved to start impeachment proceedings against Greitens in May 2018, leading him to resign in exchange for prosecutors dropping an unrelated felony charge for using a veterans' charity email list for his campaign.
There was a time when such scandals would end a political career but Greitens has rebranded himself as an election conspiracist in the wake of Trump's loss, calling for "audits" of the election results nationwide and "decertification" of the 2020 results, and is back for a Senate bid. Republicans worried that Greitens could cost them the race have pleaded for Trump not to endorse Greitens, but Trump World appears to be rallying behind the disgraced former governor with endorsements from Donald Trump Jr., his girlfriend Kimberly Guilfoyle and former Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani.
Greitens is just one of numerous Republican candidates accused of violence against women, a list that also includes Trump-backed Georgia Senate candidate Herschel Walker and Trump-endorsed Ohio House candidate Max Miller, who was accused of assault by Trump's former press secretary Stephanie Grisham.
Joe Kent — Washington, 3rd congressional district
Kent is running to unseat Rep. Jamie Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., who voted to impeach Trump after the Capitol riot, and is the most prominent candidate backed by the "Insurrection Caucus," meaning Trump allies like Greene, Boebert, Rep. Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina and Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida. The Washington Post reported last week that the group has little appetite for direct battle with Democrats and instead aims to push House Republicans even further right.
Kent told the Post he wants to force the party to vote on articles of impeachment against Biden and a full congressional investigation into the 2020 election, which he has claimed (without evidence, of course) was stolen. "A lot of it will be shaming Republicans," he told the Post. "It's put up or shut up," he said.
Trump critics are particularly alarmed about the extremist pro-Trump wing gaining power.
"We're looking at a nihilistic Mad Max hellscape," former Republican strategist Rick Wilson, who co-founded the anti-Trump Lincoln Project, told the Post. "It will be all about the show of 2024 to bring Donald Trump back into power. … They will impeach Biden, they will impeach Harris, they will kill everything."
Mark Finchem — Arizona secretary of state
While most eyes will be on prominent gubernatorial and congressional races, the 2022 slate of secretary of state races may be the most consequential. Secretaries of state, who oversee elections, certified the election results in all the states Trump sought to contest, regardless of party affiliation. Next time may be different.
Finchem, a state lawmaker who attended the "Stop the Steal" rally ahead of the Capitol riot and spoke at a similar protest the previous day, has earned Trump's endorsement — and has also espoused QAnon-linked conspiracy theories and been linked to extremist groups.
A Finchem win could prove consequential in a state that was decided in 2020 by fewer than 12,000 votes. But Trump is also backing Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., another election conspiracist, against Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who pushed back on Trump's attempts to overturn his loss. The ex-president has also thrown his support behind Kristina Karamo, an election conspiracist who hopes to challenge Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat.
Democrats increasingly worry that prominent election conspirators may soon be in charge of overseeing the votes. "That is 'code red' for democracy," Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, chairwoman of the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State, told Reuters.
David Perdue — Georgia governor
At the start of the COVID pandemic, there appeared to be no governor closer allied with Trump than Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp. But Kemp's refusal to help Trump try to block Biden's win forever cost the governor Trump BFF status and put him squarely in the former president's crosshairs. Trump has made it a point to back primary challenges to his perceived enemies, throwing his support behind former Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga. — who lost to Democrat Jon Ossoff in a January 2021 runoff — even as the state's Republican lawmakers pleaded for him to stay out after many blamed him for costing the party both of its Georgia U.S. Senate seats.
Perdue was already out of the Senate last Jan. 6, but now says he would have voted to block Biden's win. After landing Trump's endorsement earlier this month, Perdue filed a dubious lawsuit calling for an investigation of absentee ballots in his Senate race over vote-rigging allegations against Democratic election officials, some 11 months after his defeat. He also said earlier this month that he would not have certified Biden's victory if he had been governor.
Ron Watkins — Arizona, 1st congressional district
Watkins has long been a prominent QAnon conspiracy theorist and many believe he outed himself as the mythical "Q" in a recent HBO documentary. As former administrator of the far-right imageboard 8kun, for years he has pushed nonsensical conspiracy theories alleging that a cabal of liberal Satan-worshipping pedophiles are running a global child sex-trafficking ring and plotting against Trump. Earlier this year, he filed paperwork to run for Congress in Arizona — in a Phoenix-area seat now held by Rep. Tom O'Halleran, a Democrat — after moving back to the U.S. from the Philippines.
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But Watkins is just one of at least 49 federal candidates who have publicly expressed some support for the QAnon conspiracy theory, according to the watchdog group Media Matters.
Adam Laxalt — Nevada, U.S. Senate
While many Republicans cheered Trump's bogus voter fraud lawsuits from the sidelines, Laxalt, Nevada's former attorney general, filed multiple lawsuits contesting Biden's victory in the state. Though all of the challenges were rejected by the court, Laxalt has continued to stoke voter fraud conspiracies, leading the Las Vegas Sun editorial board to label him the "Nevada version of Rudy Giuliani." Laxalt, who is now running for the Senate seat held by Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto, vowed to file lawsuits to "tighten up the election" more than 14 months before a single vote is cast. Democrats in the state say Laxalt is using Trump's "Big Lie playbook" for his campaign and seeking to "limit Nevadans' voting rights and potentially overturn the election when he loses."
Mellissa Carone — Michigan state House
Readers may remember Carone from her bizarre testimony to Michigan lawmakers alongside Giuliani last December or the subsequent mockery she received on "Saturday Night Live." Carone, a former IT contractor for Dominion Voting Systems who has continued to espouse debunked claims of election rigging, is now running for the Michigan state House as a Republican and pushing white nationalist talking points about liberals seeking to "eliminate white people in America" with so-called critical race theory and transgender rights.
Carone is one of hundreds of pro-Trump diehards running in state legislature races in 2022, a trend that could have severe implications. Republican-led state legislatures this year pushed hundreds of voting restrictions, measures undercutting COVID regulations, legislation barring the teaching of certain history in school, and bills cracking down on LGBTQ rights.
J.D. Vance — Ohio, U.S. Senate
Vance, a longtime venture capitalist and the best-selling author of "Hillbilly Elegy," is running for U.S. Senate in Ohio, where incumbent Republican Rob Portman is retiring. Vance and fellow Republican candidate Josh Mandel have desperately tried to rebrand themselves as Trump-style, anti-immigrant, anti-Big Tech zealots. Vance's politics appear to be closer to that of Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., than to the former president, but it's his financial backers who have raised the most concern.
Vance is backed by the Mercer family, who funded Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Trump adviser Steve Bannon and many of the key players involved in stoking election lies and the subsequent Capitol riot.
Vance's biggest benefactor is venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who has increasingly thrown big money at Trump and other far-right Republicans. Thiel, who has worked with Vance for years, dropped $10 million to back his Senate bid and another $10 million to support his protégé Blake Masters' Senate bid in Arizona, along with maximum donations to several House campaigns. Though Thiel largely keeps a low public profile, he is "in many ways further to the right than Trump," author Max Chafkin, who profiled Thiel in a recent book, told Salon earlier this year, and "wants to be the patron of the Trump wing of the Republican Party."
Noah Malgeri — Nevada, 3rd congressional district
Trump has frequently drawn condemnation for calling for "locking up" political opponents but some Republicans have gone even further, calling for actual violence against their adversaries.
William Braddock, a Republican running for a Florida House seat vacated by outgoing Rep. Charlie Crist, D-Fla. (who is running for governor), threatened to send a "hit squad" to make his Republican primary opponent "disappear." His opponent was granted a restraining order.
Wyoming state Sen. Anthony Bouchard, who is running to unseat Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., earlier this year suggested executing White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci, which the state's Democratic Party reported to the FBI.
Earlier this week, Noah Malgeri, who is running in the Republican primary to face Rep. Susie Lee, D-Nev., called for the execution of Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who has been targeted by Republicans for a call he made to a Chinese general to reassure him that the United States was not planning to attack.
"We don't need a congressional commission to investigate the crimes of Mark Milley, all the evidence is out there," Malgeri said in a Facebook Live interview this week. "What did they used to do to traitors if they were convicted by a court? They would execute them," he added. "That's still the law in the United States of America. I think, you know, if he's guilty of it by a court martial, they should hang him on CNN. I mean, they're not going to do it on CNN. But on C-SPAN or something."
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