Pro-Trump Grass-Roots Movement Was a Drag for GOP in Midterms

PHILADELPHIA — Doug Mastriano’s campaign for governor began with denunciations of “establishment Republicans,” a guest appearance by Michael Flynn and a blast from a shofar. It ended with disco-ball-style lights illuminating a fast-emptying hotel ballroom in Camp Hill, Pa., as the sound system played Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up.”

Mr. Mastriano’s defeat in Pennsylvania on Tuesday — as well as those of other prominent Republican candidates across the country who championed a similar blend of election denialism and far-right politics — suggested the limits of the grass-roots movement that grew up on the right around Donald J. Trump’s presidency.

That loose coalition of right-wing grass-roots groups and candidates resembled the Tea Party movement, which 12 years ago waged a similar campaign to purge the Republican Party of establishment elites whose ideological commitments were deemed insufficient to the cause.

But unlike the Tea Party — which went on to deliver Republicans’ sweeping victories in the House in the 2010 midterms, bring the Obama policy agenda to a near-halt and give the party control of state legislatures that it has largely held ever since — the post-Trump grass roots proved to be mostly a liability for the G.O.P. in the party’s crucial 2022 midterms test.

The results are still forthcoming in Arizona and Nevada, where some of the highest-profile election deniers are seeking office. But the G.O.P. wins fell well short of the party’s gains in the 2010 midterms, as well as the Democrats’ gains in 2018, and voters delivered unexpectedly strong rebukes to the candidates and the state parties that had most aggressively embraced Mr. Trump’s legacy of election lies and scorched-earth politics.

In the races that have been decided so far, only 14 of the 94 election deniers running this year for statewide offices with oversight of elections — nine of them incumbents — have won, according to States United Action, a nonpartisan watchdog group.

Mr. Mastriano, one of the Republican Party’s most vocal election deniers, fell 13 points short of Josh Shapiro, the Democratic attorney general, in the race for governor. In Pennsylvania, the governor appoints the state’s top election official.

In Michigan, outspoken election deniers endorsed by Mr. Trump lost their races for governor, attorney general and secretary of state, the office that in Michigan and 39 other states oversees elections.

In Wisconsin, Tim Michels, the Republican candidate who during his campaign had declined to rule out overturning the 2020 election results, lost his race for governor — a defeat that also effectively blocked Republican state legislators’ efforts to remove oversight of elections from a bipartisan commission.

In the 2010 midterms, “most of those House Republicans were pretty disciplined in their messages,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a Republican strategist who worked at the time at FreedomWorks, an outside group closely aligned with the Tea Party. “This was totally different. You had candidates leading with the 2020 election denial stuff. And Trump was a big factor in that.”

The Tea Party, like the post-Trump right-wing grass roots, often embraced conspiracy theories and exuded suspicion toward party politics even as it made its home within the G.O.P., reserving much of its rage for those its activists deemed to be “Republicans in name only.” And the extremism of its candidates in several key Senate races was blamed for Republicans’ failure to take the upper chamber in 2010, even as they swept contests for other offices.

But from early in its evolution, the Tea Party was also shaped by organizations like FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity. Those well-funded and more conventionally conservative and libertarian groups bridged the gap between the Tea Party and the mainstream G.O.P. They used their resources and influence to emphasize the fiscal priorities that were more palatable to both the Republican establishment and independent voters.

The new grass roots have shown little inclination to sublimate their most conspiracy-theory-focused views, and many of the movement’s most visible financiers and promoters — deep-pocketed activists like Mike Lindell and Patrick Byrne, as well as Mr. Trump himself — have actively pushed it in that direction.

“There were those kinds of people” in the Tea Party, Mr. Steinhauser said, referring to the elements of the movement driven by Islamophobia and conspiracy theories about Barack Obama’s birth certificate. “But they weren’t as prominent, and we very strategically kept them off the stage.”

Eric Wilson, a Republican digital strategist, noted that Mr. Trump had made the consolidation of Republican support in the general election more difficult by encouraging candidates to compete for his favor by demonstrating maximum allegiance at each other’s expense. “In order to secure his endorsement, the candidates had to really go negative against candidates that got 15 or 20 percent of the vote in the primary, saying they’re not sufficiently loyal,” Mr. Wilson said.

“If you have to spend your general election campaign getting your own party on board,” he added, “that’s time and resources that you’re not spending getting independents.”

In particular, Mr. Trump and his supporters’ decision to treat denying the outcome of the 2020 election as a loyalty test left lasting rifts within the party.

Some influential figures among the grass roots on the right, including Stephen K. Bannon, the former Trump adviser, spent the final weeks of the election urging Trump supporters to rally around even Republican candidates they considered suspect. “Don’t make perfect the enemy of the good enough for now — and it’s good enough for now,” he told listeners on his “War Room” podcast in late October.

But figures like Mr. Trump and Mr. Lindell continued to rail against Republicans who had stood by the outcome of the 2020 election. And in states where those Republicans defeated election deniers in the primaries, local activists often remained openly ambivalent about them into the general election.

“It’s literally the same choice,” Ashe Epp, the co-founder of the U.S. Election Integrity Plan, an election denier group in Colorado, wrote on Telegram in October about the state’s secretary of state race.

The Republican candidate in that race, Pam Anderson, had said she had “a lot of confidence in the results of the 2020 election.” In the spring primary, she defeated Tina Peters, the Mesa County clerk and a celebrity among election deniers for her efforts to copy voting-machine hard drives in her county.

“Pam and Jena are on the same team,” Ms. Epp wrote, referring to the Democratic incumbent, Jena Griswold.

Ms. Griswold won easily on Tuesday.

Another key difference between the Tea Party and the Trump grass roots was the rise of social media, which was only a fledgling force in politics during the Tea Party’s ascent.

On the right, Facebook had been a powerful tool for organizing protests against Covid-19 lockdowns and Stop the Steal rallies following Mr. Trump’s election loss, which also made it an effective platform for organizing insurgent campaigns in the Republican primaries. But Mr. Wilson, the digital strategist, said that those advantages did not necessarily translate into the very different environment of a general election.

“It works in contests where you have to get just the plurality,” he said, noting that Mr. Mastriano and other candidates who came up short on Tuesday had won crowded primaries with the support of fewer than half of the party’s voters. “The question is whether that style and approach works for more people.”

Few candidates in 2022 more fully embodied the new grass roots’ half-finished revolution than Mr. Mastriano.

He won his May primary in a double-digit landslide after making novel use of Facebook to tap into anger on the right over Covid lockdowns and placing himself at the forefront of the movement to overturn the 2020 election. But after a rancorous primary that bitterly divided Pennsylvania Republicans, Mr. Mastriano seemed reluctant to campaign beyond the base that had propelled his primary victory.

As his loss became apparent Tuesday night, Mr. Mastriano told supporters that “what the people of Pennsylvania say, we’ll of course respect that,” though he stopped short of conceding. His campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Mastriano ran behind Mehmet Oz, the Republican candidate for Senate who also lost Tuesday, in the crucial suburban counties around Philadelphia but also in more reliably conservative areas in the center of the state. That suggested that Mr. Mastriano had struggled not only to reach independent voters but also to consolidate support among Republicans.

“I think he had more than his share of defections from the Republican ranks,” said Christopher Borick, the director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion, which polls extensively on Pennsylvania politics. “And you can never make the math work here for a Republican if that’s the case.”


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