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Are Crossover Efforts to Defeat Extreme Republicans Gaining Ground?


Last week, when Representative Chris Jacobs, a Republican from the Buffalo suburbs, abandoned his reëlection campaign after facing backlash from members of his own party for supporting gun control, it demonstrated once again that Republican leaders are more interested in being elected than in governing. Jacobs’s withdrawal raises the question that has become increasingly germane since Donald Trump captured the G.O.P.: What can be done to moderate the Party’s extremism and restore its commitment to political comity? The answer should matter to anyone concerned with the viability of American democracy.

It was this question that Democrats in Utah asked themselves in April, when they met for their state nominating conference. Utah is a reliably red state; its highest-ranking Democrat is the Mayor of Salt Lake County, Jenny Wilson. When Wilson ran for Senate, four years ago, she received about thirty-one per cent of the vote. Not bad for a Democrat running against a former Republican Presidential nominee—Mitt Romney, now Utah’s junior senator—but in no way competitive. Utah’s senior senator, Mike Lee, was first elected in 2010, and is up for reëlection again this fall. After the 2020 election, his unwavering support for Donald Trump led him to back a plan to have state legislatures in certain states try to appoint alternative, Trump-aligned electors and, according to his own post-election text messages, to pursue legal challenges and audits. The two senators could not be more different: when a recent national focus group of Republicans who voted for Trump in 2020 was asked whom in the Party they found “too extreme,” the person mentioned most often was Romney, who was one of just seven Republican senators that voted to convict Trump on an impeachment charge of inciting an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, during the January 6th riot.

Enter—or, more accurately, reëenter—Evan McMullin, from Provo, formerly a chief policy director for the House Republican Conference and a C.I.A. officer, who left the Party and ran as an Independent in the 2016 Presidential race, after the Republicans nominated Trump as their candidate. McMullin got just over half a per cent of the popular vote nationally; in Utah, he received more than twenty per cent. That base of disaffected Republicans and unaffiliated voters was a big reason that more than half the delegates at the state Democrats’ April convention chose to cast their lot with McMullin, rather than nominate a member of their own party. A Democrat, they reasoned, would have even less of a chance of beating Lee than an Independent Never Trumper with a failed Presidential bid on his résumé. As Thom DeSirant, the executive director of the Utah Democratic Party, told me, “The argument was that we need to put country over party, and support a candidate who they believe has a chance to win. By the end of the convention, fifty-seven per cent of delegates agreed that that was the best choice.” (When I asked Jenny Wilson, who has endorsed McMullin, about his pledge not to caucus with either party if he is elected—something that could potentially limit his effectiveness in Congress—she said, “That’s the unknown, but I’m hopeful enough, and, frankly, he won’t be working against us, as Mike Lee has.”) A Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll released on Wednesday shows McMullin and Lee essentially neck and neck, with nineteen per cent of respondents undecided.

McMullin himself worked hard to persuade Utah Democrats not to stand their own candidate against Lee. By his count, he held more than a hundred events across the state and talked to more than a thousand Democratic delegates. “If you’re trying to build new coalitions politically, it’s best to start with values. And, once you realize that you have core values in common, then you build trust,” McMullin told me, and then sort of apologized for repeating a Pollyannaish political trope because, he said, he really believes it. “Also, I would say that our coalition recognizes that the future of the Republic is now in question, and understands that we need each other in order to fight back against the extremes that have dominated our politics recently. I believe Utah is ground zero for the fight against extremism because of Senator Lee and his efforts to overturn American democracy.” (On January 6th, Lee eventually voted to certify Biden’s victory, and his camp has said that he had warned the White House that efforts to challenge the election in Congress would end “badly”; in a text to Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows on January 3rd, 2021, he wrote, “I really think this could all backfire badly unless we have legislatures submitting trump slates.”)

Until McMullin announced his candidacy, he was a member of Patriots and Pragmatists, an informal network of “pro democracy” political insiders and public intellectuals that began meeting quietly in 2017. A number of Never Trump Republicans and former Republicans, such as William Kristol and Charlie Sykes, have been members, as have Democrats, including the philanthropist Rachel Pritzker, who has been credited as the group’s founder. The Times reported that the group was “aimed at helping neutralize President Trump, and preventing others from capitalizing on weaknesses in the political system that they say he has exploited.”

Utah may be the only state this cycle where Democrats are so unlikely to win a statewide election that they are willing to forgo running their own candidate, but it is not the only place where voters are searching for ways to overcome the threat that Trump-aligned politicians pose to democratic norms. In Colorado, where, reportedly, a quarter of the voters in the 2020 Republican primary, and nearly forty per cent in the Democratic primary, were unaffiliated, a grassroots effort is being conducted over social media to encourage unaffiliated voters to participate in the Republican primary, in order to knock out “Stop the Steal” Republicans in favor of more moderate candidates. (In Colorado, unaffiliated voters are mailed both Democratic and Republican primary ballots, and can choose which one to return.) Anne Landman, who publishes a blog about western Colorado politics, has posted instructions for Democratic voters to change their registration to unaffiliated so that they, too, can vote in the Republican primary, as she did. “I was a Democrat. And I probably will be a Democrat again in the future,” she said. “But not this time.” Something similar is happening in Wyoming, where earlier this year the legislature failed to advance a bill that Trump himself had backed, which would have kept Democrats and Independents from voting for Liz Cheney in the Republican House primary, as state rules currently allow them to do.

Cheney is also supported by a group of prominent, pro-democracy Republicans working through the Renew America Movement, which is backing moderate Democrats, too, including Representatives Elissa Slotkin, of Michigan; Abigail Spanberger, of Virginia; and Senator Mark Kelly, of Arizona. Among the organization’s members are the former Republican governors William Weld, of Massachusetts; Christine Todd Whitman, of New Jersey; and Tom Ridge, of Pennsylvania, who was also the first Secretary of Homeland Security. The group also includes the vocal Trump critics George Conway, Anthony Scaramucci, and Miles Taylor, RAM’s executive director, who co-founded the group with Evan McMullin (who has stepped back from it now that he is running for office). Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump conservative and the C.E.O. of Longwell Partners, a consulting firm devoted to “cross-partisan” coalition building, has been advocating such an approach for a long time. “You have to help pro-democracy Republicans where they exist, which is seldom now,” she told me. “The most straightforward way to reform the Republican Party is for this version of the Republican Party to have a very difficult time winning elections, especially elections in big swing states.”



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