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Trump's 2020 fixation is putting him at odds with some of his biggest fans

Anger over the election animated local GOP chapters in tangible ways this year. Now, some see issues like inflation and education as being of greater interest.
Former President Donald Trump addresses the state GOP convention on June 5, 2021, in Greenville, N.C.
Former President Donald Trump addresses the North Carolina Republican state convention in Greenville on June 5.Melissa Sue Gerrits / Getty Images file

LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. — Former President Donald Trump’s false claims of a stolen election fueled anger among Republicans who flocked to local-level GOP chapters in hope of playing a greater role in future elections.

Now, some leaders of those grassroots outfits say they and their members have turned the page — even as Trump himself has made it clear that he wants the issue front and center in coming contests.

“People here have turned to the future,” Hai Cao, a member of the Gwinnett County GOP in Georgia, said in an interview.

Fellow members of the local Republican Party “don’t dwell and talk about” 2020, he added, because “we’ll just lose opportunity for future advancement — wins.”

Cao isn’t alone in his thinking. In interviews with more than a dozen local GOP officials in four key presidential battlegrounds, most indicated that they had moved on from the arguments about 2020, a notable shift from some of the most forceful Trump defenders during his second impeachment and through his first year out of office.

The desire to put last year’s election on the back burner indicates that among at least some Republicans, new issues have begun to take precedence. Republicans have ramped up attacks on President Joe Biden and other Democrats ahead of the 2022 midterms, particularly around rising prices, the chaotic U.S. withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, vaccination mandates and education. And while Trump remains popular, the new GOP figures fighting those battles are drawing increased interest and attention.

Michele Woodhouse, the Republican Party chair in North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District, which includes 17 counties in the western part of the state, said she started noticing a change in what was driving enthusiasm in late August, when Biden began the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Woodhouse said that earlier this year, anger over Trump’s loss was driving new participation at the local GOP level. Not so much anymore.

“There's been this uprising to say Biden's policies are failing us so miserably,” said Woodhouse, who is running for a U.S. House seat in North Carolina’s newly drawn 14th Congressional District. “And it's been a very issue-driven enthusiasm. I really think the issues are driving it.”

The political calculation for leaders like Woodhouse is straightforward, because they want to harness the energy around issues like inflation and pandemic policy to help turn out voters in the midterms, an election without Trump on the ballot. It’s not dissimilar to sentiments expressed by national party leaders, who have said they would prefer to focus their attention on Biden, his administration and the Democratic-controlled Congress as they work to regain power in Washington.

The calculus was bolstered by Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin's blueprint for success in blue Virginia and Republicans’ much closer-than-expected loss in the New Jersey governor’s race. Youngkin, while neither embracing nor repudiating Trump, zeroed in on education and parental involvement in schools, which appeared to resonate with GOP voters, along with concerns about the economy.

Earlier this year, anger over the election animated local GOP chapters in tangible ways. Branches across the country passed censure resolutions aimed at just about any Republican who crossed Trump, particularly those members of Congress who voted to impeach or convict him for his role in the deadly Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, when a mob of pro-Trump supporters tried to disrupt the electoral vote count formalizing Biden's election win.

Local-level GOP groups saw significant rises in membership from people who wanted to become precinct officials — filling low-level positions that carry out key election-related functions — following former Trump official Steve Bannon’s call to action, according to a ProPublica report published in September.

At the time, Lou Capozzi, who chairs the GOP chapter in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, which had significant growth in the number of people volunteering for party-affiliated election positions, told ProPublica: “Who knows what happened on Election Day for real.”

In a more recent interview with NBC News, Capozzi said: “I think a lot of people have moved on from last year.”

“We still have the best system in the world,” he said of the U.S. electoral process. “And I think, as far as Republicans go, I think they're just kind of redoubling their efforts to try to make a difference and to try to get Republicans elected. From my perspective, I think most people have turned the page.”

In Gwinnett County, local GOP Chair Sammy Baker sounded a similar tune.

“So we still have a few that are still upset” over the 2020 vote, said Baker, whose county party rejected censure measures aimed at Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger earlier this year. “But for the most part, we’re turning the corner.”

A significant segment of the right is intent on continuing to litigate 2020. In Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, Republicans are fighting in court to advance election investigations more than a year after the vote. Nineteen states enacted election laws this year that Democrats and voting rights experts say make voting more difficult and in some cases make it easier to subvert an election. Polling has also found that about two-thirds of Republicans believe the election was rigged, although no evidence has been produced to validate the claims.

But there are also clear limits. Some Republicans in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Wisconsin and Georgia — swing states won by Biden that Trump has focused on — have forcefully pushed back against the largely unorthodox efforts to re-examine the 2020 vote, which have fallen flat or failed to launch in multiple jurisdictions. Earlier this month, Wisconsin state Sen. Kathy Bernier, a Republican who chairs the Senate elections committee, blasted the partisan investigation in her state as a “charade.”

Arizona state Sen. Wendy Rogers, a Republican who is one of the leading election deniers on the far right, has circulated a letter calling for a 50-state audit and the decertification of votes. It has been signed by fewer than 5 percent of all Republican state lawmakers.

Stuart Ulsh, a Fulton County, Pennsylvania, official who was the Republicans’ star witness in the state Senate’s election probe, said at a hearing in September that continuing to investigate the presidential election results — which have been certified and affirmed multiple times already — was “probably in the middle — I would put it at [number] five” in terms of what his constituents cared about.

And at a meeting of shareholders last month, Rupert Murdoch, the executive chairman of News Corp. and chairman of Fox Corporation, the parent company of Fox News, called on Trump to stop focusing on the past.

Jeff Piccola, the chair of the York County Republican chapter in Pennsylvania, said: “It’s almost impossible to resurrect at this point whether the election was materially affected by fraud. I don’t think you can. I don’t even know what an audit is. To me, it’s a recount.”

Piccola’s chapter censured Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., after he voted to convict Trump for incitement of insurrection. But “from my perspective, as chairman of the party, I don't want to go back and resurrect that,” he added. “I want to move forward [and] get people actively involved.”

Ian Bassin, a co-founder and the executive director of Protect Democracy, a nonprofit voting rights and democracy advocacy group, said a genuine shift among the local GOP chapters would be “a really important development” in efforts to halt and reverse what he called “a democratic death spiral.”

“There has been a vicious cycle created on the American right, where the grassroots are being led to believe a lie and are demanding anti-democratic action in response,” said Bassin, who worked in the Obama administration.

He added that any such shift at the grassroots might give leaders “a little bit more space to do the same.”

What that means for Trump remains unclear. While some Republicans are ready to move on from 2020, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re distancing themselves from Trump himself — although his diminished presence on the national stage has them open to other potential standard-bearers, such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has expanded his profile by fighting the Biden administration over the pandemic and education.

Should Trump announce a presidential bid, he would most likely force the debate to the forefront of GOP discussion. But his insistence on looking back has others filling the void on forward-looking issues.

As it stands, polling shows Trump with a commanding lead in a 2024 primary, with about half of GOP voters saying they would definitely vote for him. Without Trump on the ballot, DeSantis and former Vice President Mike Pence are among those with the greatest backing.

The local Republican officials who were interviewed were split between those who think Trump is best positioned to advance the party and those who were more drawn to DeSantis, Pence and others, like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem.

“There are competent people, but until Trump steps away, those competent people are going to stand off to the side,” said Charles Yost, a member of the York County GOP, adding that he would like to see Pence run.

Asked who is best positioned to lead the Republican Party into the future, Tom Powers, the GOP chair in Broward County, Florida, said: “That’s the easiest question in the world.

“We’ve got a governor who is a rock star. He has an economy in the state that everybody is envious of. He’s standing up for the voter,” he said of DeSantis. “He’s obviously the biggest one.”

In North Carolina, Woodhouse said: “Obviously, everyone's kind of waiting to see is President Trump going to run again."

“You know, of course, Florida's very close to us,” she said. “I think a lot of people here are very strong, as I am, [on] Ron DeSantis. What he's doing in Florida is a great model.”