At virtually all levels of the conservative ecosystem — from the activist and operative class, the upper echelons of the Republican Party and the prime time lineup on Fox News — leaders have seen the light on mail-in and early voting after a disappointing 2022 election cycle.
But they face one major hurdle: the de facto leader of the party.
Whether to recalibrate messaging and strategy on voting methods is emerging as a central point of division in the Republican Party, with Trump and his powerful megaphone on one side and nearly everyone else on the other.
The rationale for many Republicans who want to embrace mail-in and early voting is straightforward: By encouraging their own voters to cast ballots earlier, even by mail when possible, Republicans will be able to better allocate resources in the closing weeks of campaigns, cut off the large disparities in some states between Democratic and Republican vote totals ahead of Election Day, and maximize their vote share by limiting last-minute surprises like illness or poor weather that could prevent voters from casting ballots on Election Day.
“To me, it’s just common sense,” Andy Reilly, a Republican National Committeeman from Pennsylvania, a state in which Democrats trounced Republicans in the early vote and cruised to victory last month, told NBC News. “Any party that votes for 50 days is going to beat the party that only votes for 13 hours.”
Republicans weren’t always hesitant about using these methods. In some states, the party had successful operations that outpaced what Democrats were doing. But many conservative voters came to reject early voting methods amid a two-and-a-half year campaign by Trump and his allies, who argued that early voting, particularly mail-in balloting, could not be trusted and is ripe for fraud.
Even still, advocates for reform have been reticent about directly calling out Trump, who, at least for now, is the party’s presidential front-runner and most powerful figure.
On Tuesday, for example, Fox News host Sean Hannity said Republicans “have been unwilling for whatever reason” to vote early and by mail. Fox News host Laura Ingraham said, “Everyone said: Don’t vote early, it’s corrupt,” adding, “a lot of people did, at the very top of the Republican Party.”
Speaking with Fox News this week, RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel, handpicked for the post by Trump, said “our voters need to vote early.
“I have said this over and over again,” she continued. “There were many in 2020 saying, ‘Don’t vote by mail, don’t vote early.’ And we have to stop that.”
Afterward, Nathan Brand, an RNC spokesperson, made it clear that McDaniel was not pointing to the former president.
“The discussion was about Democrats having a month to bank votes while Republicans expect to get it done in one day,” Brand said in a statement to NBC News. “We were not talking about the former president, who has encouraged his base to vote early and has himself voted by mail.”
President Trump should recognize that the best interest of the Republican Party is getting more and more Republicans to vote.
Andy Reilly, a Republican National committeeman FROM Pennsylvania
Even though he himself has voted by mail, Trump has railed against the practice and made false and unsubstantiated claims the 2020 election was stolen from him because of mail-in ballots in presidential battleground states.
“YOU CAN NEVER HAVE FAIR & FREE ELECTIONS WITH MAIL-IN BALLOTS — NEVER, NEVER, NEVER,” he wrote on his Truth Social website last week.
The sentiment appears to be baked in with a large portion of the party’s voters. Days before the midterm elections, a Pew Research survey found that just 27% of voters who backed Republicans were somewhat confident that absentee and mail-in ballots would be counted as voters intended. An additional 10% of such voters said they were very confident those votes would be accurately recorded.
A Trump campaign spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
One Republican strategist close to Trump’s political operation told NBC News the party’s base is of the mindset to “fight these ridiculous ballot harvesting laws everywhere we can fight them, but in places where we lose that fight, we have to play the game.”
Some form of the third-party collection of absentee ballots, which Republicans have pejoratively described as ballot harvesting, is legal in more than half of all states, though many have limits on who can turn in someone else’s ballot. The process is not legal in most swing states where Democrats enjoyed their biggest wins.
This strategist said a far bigger issue for Republicans than recalibrating the strategy on voting methods is cutting down on the fundraising gap between major Republican and Democratic candidates — with the disparity between Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., and Republican challenger Herschel Walker being a prime example.
“And until we figure that out, we’re gonna have election cycles like this,” this person said.
But the Georgia election also put the GOP’s disadvantage with early voting on full display. Ahead of the general election, registered Democrats held an 8-point edge over registered Republicans in Georgia in early voting. Before this week’s runoff, that edge was 13 points.
“It’s time to learn from mistakes,” Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., a Trump ally and former college football coach who backs the former president’s 2024 bid. “It’s like being a coach — you lose a game, you go back and you look and see why. Watching film on this one — Herschel was down several hundred thousand votes before kickoff. And that’s a bad handicap.”
Sports analogies weren’t limited to the former head coach at Ole Miss, Auburn, Texas Tech and Cincinnati when it came to discussing postgame adjustments. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Republicans have been “foolish” not to use all available voting methods.
“It’s like football or baseball — whatever the rules are, we need to play the best game we can according to the rules that exist,” Cornyn said. “I just think it’s foolish to say here are the rules of the game but we’re only going to use half of them.”
In North Carolina, where Republicans enjoyed a Senate victory in a contested race — though they trailed Democrats in early voting — state GOP chair Michael Whatley told NBC News the party needs “to be very focused” on early and absentee voting programs, pointing to an early vote program he instituted in 2019.
“There’s just so much that can go wrong on Election Day,” he said. “The more votes you have in the bank going into it, the better.”
Some Republicans have noted Trump’s role in the diminished confidence right-leaning voters have in alternative voting methods. Rep. David Schweikert, R-Ariz., just won a razor-thin race over a Democratic challenger last month. Now about to enter his seventh term, Schweikert said that Republicans in his state used to enjoy a robust early voting edge. Arizona allows for nearly a full month of early, in-person voting and allows for full vote-by-mail.
“I’ve won elections where like 84% of my vote came through the mail. And it was actually part of the formula — Republicans were winning elections,” he told NBC News. “President Trump then expressed skepticism on absentee balloting. Our problem is we had people in Arizona who conflated absentee balloting with the permanent early balloting system.”
Chris McNulty, a former RNC political director, also asserted that Trump scared GOP voters away from early voting. The former president’s message has been amplified by leading right-wing voices such as Charlie Kirk and Benny Johnson of the influential Turning Point USA activist group. Kirk, who had raised concerns about mail-in voting, changed his tune after the November midterms, tweeting that Republicans must recognize the “power of early voting.” But Johnson has called for a ban on mail-in voting. McNulty tagged the latter in a tweet this week blaming Trump for recent losses and said he subsequently heard from about a half-dozen fellow GOP operatives who agreed with him.
The Kirk and Johnson followers “can’t have their cake” by saying mail-in balloting is rigged and “eat it” too, by saying the party needs to have a better approach to winning elections, McNulty told NBC News.
At the forefront of GOP concerns over early voting is Pennsylvania, where Democrats enjoyed an edge so substantial that Republicans did not come close to overcoming it. Retiring Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., said the party has committed a huge mistake in not encouraging the early vote.
“It’s been a huge mistake for Republican parties in various states — and mine is one of them — not to emphasize early voting,” he said. “To cede a very large percentage of the window of opportunity to vote to the other side, and then bet the ranch on one day, when the weather or any number of personal circumstances could get in the way — that makes no sense.”
Reilly, the Republican committeeman from Pennsylvania, said that although there “will be hurdles” to getting GOP voters to feel more comfortable with early voting options, Republicans must undertake a large marketing campaign about how it is safe and will be counted properly while at the same time advocating for election reforms and integrity laws.
“This is an instance where, in my view,” he said, “President Trump should recognize that the best interest of the Republican Party is getting more and more Republicans to vote.”