2022 elections

For Republicans, Abetting Coups Is a Good Career Move

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The 2022 elections were widely hailed as a triumph for democracy and a disaster for Donald Trump’s “stop the steal” movement. And not without reason. In last year’s midterms, 13 election deniers ran for governor, secretary of state, or attorney general — offices with some influence over vote-counting procedures — in an Electoral College battleground. All 13 lost.

But a new study of the 2022 results paints a less rosy picture of the relationship between Republican officials’ contempt for democracy and their electoral fortunes. The political scientists Larry Bartels and Nicholas Carnes note that many of the vanquished election deniers in statewide races were political novices who may have been at a disadvantage, irrespective of their claims about the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s victory. For example, the GOP’s gubernatorial nominee in Pennsylvania, Doug Mastriano, was an ardent supporter of Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election and attended the ex-president’s rally on January 6, 2021. But he was also a QAnon enthusiast who aired virtually no campaign ads in the race’s home stretch.

Bartels and Carnes argue that a better gauge of the political viability of contempt for democracy in the U.S. is the electoral performance of Republican members of Congress who did and did not support Trump on key votes concerning the January 6 insurrection. Specifically, they examine how GOP congressional members voted on (1) the certification of electoral votes from Arizona and Pennsylvania, (2) Trump’s impeachment for his role in fomenting the Capitol riot, and (3) a proposed commission to investigate January 6. They then look at the disparate political fortunes of Republicans who stood with Trump and those who did not, while attempting to control for other variables that might have influenced their respective fates. For example, Republicans who were already at high risk of losing reelection (because they represented competitive districts) might have been disproportionately likely to buck Trump on these votes. Thus, the study measures how well candidates did in 2022 compared to both their own margins in the 2020 election and Trump’s margin in their districts that year.

Bartels and Carnes find that Republicans who backed Trump on these key votes did no worse than other GOP lawmakers in their general elections. But those who consistently defied Trump’s will — voting to certify the 2020 election results, to impeach Trump for his attempt to overturn those results, and to investigate January 6 — were drastically more likely to lose a primary. As a result, a GOP lawmaker who opposed Trump on all these votes had a 19 percent chance of winning reelection, while one who backed Trump on all of them had a 98 percent chance of returning to Congress in 2023.

Further, whether a Congress member wins or loses reelection is not the sole index of their political fortune. An incumbent whose electoral prospects are especially grim is liable to retire without seeking reelection. One whose star is on the rise, by contrast, may choose to run for a higher office. Taking this into account, the fates of those who ran interference for Trump’s coup and those who did not look even more divergent. In addition to the seven House Republicans who bucked Trump and then lost their primaries, eight chose not to seek reelection, a retirement rate ten times higher than that of others in their caucus. None of these Trump defiers sought higher office in 2022. By contrast, eight Trump loyalists left the House to seek a more exalted political perch.

These findings are arguably a bit less bleak than Bartels and Carnes’s framing suggests. For example, although House Republicans who supported Trump’s impeachment and the formation of the January 6 commission paid a steep political price, those who merely voted to certify the 2020 election results (while backing Trump on those other votes) were no less likely to win their primaries than those who voted against certification. Separately, it is possible that the causal relationship between voting against Trump and retiring from Congress might run in reverse: Lawmakers who were already planning to exit politics may have felt more comfortable bucking their party’s leader.

Nevertheless, the study indicates that triumphalist accounts of the 2022 midterms were overly sanguine. Republican donors and primary voters rewarded lawmakers who shielded Trump from accountability for his coup attempt. General-election voters, meanwhile, did not significantly punish House Republicans who supported that coup by voting to decertify election results in Arizona and Pennsylvania. This finding is consistent with survey experiments showing that only a small fraction of U.S. voters are willing to prioritize democratic principles over partisanship or ideological preferences.

Of course, you don’t actually need to do much number crunching to find that GOP primary voters aren’t inclined to punish election deniers; Donald Trump currently leads the Republican presidential field by nearly 40 points. Opponents of authoritarian rule must therefore hope that general-election voters are more inclined to punish anti-democratic candidates in presidential races than they have been in congressional ones.

For Republicans, Abetting Coups Is a Good Career Move