A litmus test for Trumpian Republicans in Pennsylvania

Is the former US president's endorsement of key candidates, including Mehmet Oz for senator, adequate for them to win?

Pennsylvania US  Senate candidate Dr Mehmet Oz and his wife Lisa leave a Republican leadership forum on May 11, in Pennsylvania. Mr Oz has been endorsed by former US President Donald Trump. Getty Images / AFP
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Even though Donald Trump is out of office, the malignancy that the former US president brought into American politics has now thoroughly spread into his Republican Party. Yet Republican leaders can’t claim they weren’t fully warned.

A highlight of Mr Trump’s rallies over the years has been his recitation of a poem about a woman who saves a poisonous snake only to be bitten. The snake says: "Now you knew darn well I was a snake before you brought me in."

While most of his followers and others assumed Mr Trump was warning against immigration, it could hardly be a more apt description of how his politics of victory at the expense of democracy is being turned against his own nominal party.

This was on full display in last week’s Republican primaries in the key swing state of Pennsylvania. In the Senate primary, Mr Trump endorsed the surgeon-turned-television celebrity Dr Mehmet Oz. Yet this coveted anointing did not save Dr Oz from ending up in a statistical dead-heat with former hedge fund manager David McCormick.

Republican Party US Senate candidate David McCormick with his wife, Dina Powell McCormick, at an election night event in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on May 17. Reuters

While the initial tallies of in-person voting gave Dr Oz a slight lead, Mr McCormick’s apparent advantage with postal voting, on which his campaign had concentrated resources, suggests that not only will there be a mandatory recount that could take weeks, it might well begin with Mr McCormick in the lead and poised to win.

So, Mr Trump publicly urged Dr Oz to simply declare victory before all the votes had been counted, just as he had done in the 2020 presidential election.

The only effective way to stop the anti-democratic trend within the Republican Party would be a series of devastating electoral defeats

Mr Trump has always been crystal-clear that he only recognises the validity of elections that he wins. In 2016, he was unequivocal that he would only accept an outcome that left him victorious over his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton. Since he won an electoral college majority, despite Mrs Clinton’s almost 3 million popular vote advantage, Mr Trump happily accepted a result that put him in the White House.

In 2020, however, Mr Trump lost both the popular and electoral college votes to current US President Joe Biden. True to his word, Mr Trump never accepted the outcome and continues to be fixated on re-litigating the 2020 result and propagating the lie that he was only defeated by massive fraud.

In 2016 and 2020, Mr Trump was deploying his disregard of democratic processes against Democratic opponents, which was just fine with many Republican officials as well as rank-and-file Republican voters, a strong majority of whom believe his fabrications, according to all surveys.

But it is now clear that support for the “big lie” about a stolen election in 2020 is an article of faith as well as a litmus test among Republicans. Some Republican leaders have accused him of launching a "vendetta tour" of the country to unseat incumbent candidates who did not support his attempt to overturn the election, although that seems set for a major comeuppance in Georgia this week.

A voter waits for former US President Donald Trump to speak during a rally to boost Dr Mehmet Oz, ahead of the May 17 primary election in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. Reuters

The election-denial cancer has fully metastasised inside the party itself, even though neither Dr Oz nor Mr McCormick attempted to pre-empt the counting of postal ballots.

Nonetheless, Mr Trump has clearly made election denial a valid and even desirable intra-party as well as inter-party tactic. He has taken aim at not only national constitutional processes but also the ones that Republicans have established for themselves to determine their nominees and leaders.

Even more alarmingly, the threat at the national level of election denial, subversion and sabotage coming from Mr Trump’s followers is greater than ever, as another Pennsylvania primary demonstrated.

Pennsylvania Republicans overwhelmingly voted to nominate for governor Doug Mastriano, who participated in and helped organise bus trips to the January 6 protests, that turned into an assault on Congress, designed to prevent the formal confirmation of Mr Biden’s victory. As a state senator, he attempted to replace Pennsylvania’s electors designated to vote for Mr Biden with pro-Trump ones. And he has been among the loudest voices denying the 2020 election’s validity and promoting preposterous conspiracy theories about the alleged fraud.

State Senator Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, a Republican candidate for Governor of Pennsylvania, with his wife Rebbeca, at a primary night election gathering on May 17. AP

There seems little doubt that if he becomes governor of Pennsylvania, Mr Mastriano will bring Mr Trump’s ethic about only accepting positive election outcomes. As governor of one of the most important swing states in the country, he would be in position to severely undermine the outcome of the 2024 election if he wished, especially with the support of a large Republican bloc in the state legislature.

Mr Mastriano is hardly alone, although he could soon become the highest-ranking election denier and avowed saboteur, among national Republicans. A whole cadre of similar-minded Republican candidates have been nominated for key positions around the country. If elected, it would allow them to create havoc in the wake of future elections, by trying to block the will of voters and substitute some other, more favourable, metric for determining key election outcomes, especially for the US presidency.

It was always obvious that Mr Trump’s conviction that elections need only be respected in the event of a victory would spread rapidly throughout the Republican Party as long as he remained the dominant figure, and that it would inevitably turn inward as a tool his Republican allies use against fellow Republicans.

Election denial is a deadly and novel cancer in the American body politic. Even the election of Abraham Lincoln – which was the proximate cause for the secession of South Carolina and other slave-holding southern states from the US, and triggering the brutal and traumatic Civil War – was not denied by the losing side.

Mr Trump’s continued unrivalled influence in the Republican Party threatens to make that anti-democratic strategy standard fare not only against Democrats, but also against other Republicans.

The only effective way to stop the anti-democratic trend within the Republican Party would be a series of devastating electoral defeats. Those don't appear to be on the horizon. And even if the defeats did begin, the party of Mr Trump is increasingly unlikely to calmly accept negative outcomes. That would be weakness.

As the remaining and dwindling group of traditionally conservative Republican leaders watch the poison reach their governors’ mansions or Senate offices, they would do well to remember Mr Trump’s own warning: they knew exactly what he was before they took him in, and now the venom is spreading throughout their body politic.

Published: May 23, 2022, 2:49 PM