Capitol riot fueled by deep network of GOP statehouse support
One month before the riot at the Capitol, more than 60 Republican state lawmakers from Pennsylvania signed onto a letter urging the state’s congressional delegation to object to results of the presidential election. Across the border in Maryland, a Republican state legislator helped organize buses to take people to the protest that preceded the riot. A West Virginia lawmaker went even further, donning a helmet as he filmed himself rushing the Capitol.
As the Republican Party begins to reckon with the fallout from the deadly insurrection, it’s being forced to confront a disquieting truth: the lie that ultimately led to the violence — that the election was stolen from President Donald Trump — drew far-reaching support from the party’s governing class at every level, extending far beyond Congress and reaching deep into America’s statehouses.
Lawmakers from more than a dozen states attended the Jan. 6 rally, while scores more cheered on the “Stop the Steal” movement from afar. And in the days since the insurrection, these Republicans continued to question the election while giving air to debunked claims that Antifa or other leftist agitators — not pro-Trump rioters — were primarily responsible for the destruction that followed.
“I wouldn’t trust a word that comes out of the FBI’s mouth at this point,” Mark Finchem, a Republican state representative from Arizona, said when asked about an FBI briefing of House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy that suggested no reason to believe Antifa was involved.
Like many other Republican state lawmakers elected by pro-Trump Republicans who remain distrustful of the election, Finchem, who attended the rally but did not storm the building, said his job is to represent his constituents, and “if that means I need to fight off the establishment types, I’m good with that.”
One week after the deadly insurrection and the certification of Joe Biden’s victory, institutionalist Republicans are desperate to move the party past the events of last week. But in statehouses across the country, the prospect of a clean break has never seemed more remote.
In Nevada, newly elected Assemblywoman Annie Black, facing calls to resign after attending the rally preceding the riot, told her supporters, “I’m not going anywhere,” defending her attendance at an event she said was “marred by some fringe elements.” In Florida, state Rep. Anthony Sabatini on Tuesday was tweeting lists of Republicans “WITH courage” and those without, the latter group including Republican Sens. Mitt Romney and Lisa Murkowski, who have been critical of Trump. He called Rep. Liz Cheney, the Wyoming Republican who plans to support Trump’s impeachment, a “national security threat.”
Pat Garofalo, a Republican state representative from Minnesota, said that in the riot last week “there was a political epiphany for most Republicans that this is over, this is ridiculous … this is banana republic s—, we don’t do that.”
But even if “no one is standing up and saying that this was justified,” as Garofalo said, the idea that Trump had been robbed of the election was not far from home. Several of his colleagues had participated in a reportedly peaceful “Storm the Capitol” rally in Minnesota the same day the national Capitol was desecrated.
For Republicans involved in promoting Trump’s claims about election fraud, the recriminations have been swift. Major corporate donors have announced they will withhold contributions from Republican lawmakers who objected to certifying the Electoral College votes last week. Facebook and Instagram permanently banned a top organizer of the “Stop the Steal” protest on Capitol Hill. One Republican group pledged to raise $50 million to help Republican lawmakers fend off potential primary challenges if they vote to impeach Trump, and as many as 10 Republican House members are reportedly considering doing just that.
But Trumpism was never primarily a feature of Washington, as state lawmakers who are attuned to their GOP constituencies know. A large majority of Republicans said after the election that they did not think it was free or fair, and fewer than one in five Republicans said after the riot last week that Trump should resign.
The physical violence represented a fringe element of the party. But the reason that Republicans were in Washington — loyalty to Trump, frustration with the election — is a fairly mainstream GOP position in many places. And so, too, is disbelief in the party’s culpability.
“I don’t know that widespread means it’s a majority opinion or a prevailing opinion, but there are certainly a significant number of Republicans who have fallen for the myth that this was some Antifa-instigated event, which it was not,” said Ron Nehring, a former California Republican Party chairman who served as Sen. Ted Cruz’s spokesman in the 2016 presidential campaign.
Nehring compared the moment for Republicans to one confronting the GOP in the 1960s, when William F. Buckley helped distance the party from racists and “kooks.” “Today, the same must be done again with adherents of QAnon and the Proud Boys and similar groups,” Nehring said.
Lamenting that “not enough Republican leaders have made clear that, ‘No, the election in fact was not stolen,’” he said, “I’ve spent 32 years in the Republican Party, and I’m not going to allow it to be defined by a bunch of racists and lunatics just because they put on a MAGA hat.”
There have been sanctions for elected officials present at the Capitol as the mob breached the building. Del. Derrick Evans, the West Virginia lawmaker who entered the Capitol, faces criminal charges and resigned. Maryland Del. Daniel L. Cox, who helped organize buses to the rally and who called Vice President Mike Pence a “traitor,” was rebuked by the state’s Republican governor, Larry Hogan. And Democrats in states across the country have appealed for Republicans who participated in any part of the rally to leave office, as well.
But Republicans are largely more accommodating of their ranks. In Arizona, Finchem said he’s been getting encouraging emails from around the country. He and other lawmakers who attended the rally are finding support in their own caucuses, as well.
In Alaska, where a Republican state lawmaker, David Eastman, has come under scrutiny for attending the rally and promoting claims about Antifa, longtime state Sen. John Coghill regretted that rhetoric in American politics had reached a point where “people are accusing each other of inciting a riot.”
Like other Republicans, Coghill places blame for what he called a “revved up” political climate on Democrats as well as Republicans. Despite courts finding no evidence of widespread fraud, he said that in the absence of a more rigorous examination of the vote, “conspiracy theories, accusations, they can run rampant.”
Coghill, whose father was a signer of the state Constitution and who will leave the Senate next week after 22 years in elected office, said, “I think there’s enough blame to go on both sides.”
In the Republican Party’s base in the states, that view appears likely to have more currency than any interest in rooting out.
In Maryland, Del. Neil Parrott, called it “very unfortunate” that his colleague, Cox, was facing criticism for attending the rally.
“The vast majority of people were simply there to support fair elections,” said Parrott, who traveled to Pennsylvania to observe ballot counting after the election. “They had no idea that some people were going to try to take over the rally and make it violent.”
Parrott said that “party infighting is not going to help us now” and that, instead, “it’s time for Republicans to get back to the basics, like why do we care about less government, lower taxes, giving power back to the people.”
Likening the political options available to Republicans to sports, he said, “Sometimes your plays get too complicated, you need to go back to the basics.”
Matt Dixon contributed to this report.