Pro-Trump Conspiracy Theorists Are Taking Over State Republican Parties

A VICE News review of public positions of all 50 GOP state chairs shows a growing number of conspiracists winning control of state party chairmanships.

May 19 2021, 3:47pm

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The Republican Party chairs of Texas and Wyoming have flirted with secession from the United States. Oklahoma’s Republican chair has called Islam a “cancer.” The Oregon GOP called the Capitol insurrection a “false flag” operation. And at least 19 Republican state chairs—including most of the ones in key swing states—publicly pushed former President Trump’s big lie about the election.

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A VICE News review of public positions of all 50 GOP state chairs shows a significant number are openly pushing conspiracy theories, spouting unhinged rhetoric, and actively undermining voters’ trust in democracy. That includes the chairs of nearly every swing state in the U.S. And the trend is accelerating: Many of the most extreme chairs just won their chairmanships or have been reelected since Trump left office four months ago, a number of them with his explicit endorsement. 

Liz Cheney’s ouster from GOP party leadership showed how much Trump retains his stranglehold on the GOP on the national stage. But the overwhelming wins by Trump loyalists in the first widespread internal Republican elections since Trump left office, albeit in small contests chosen by a hardcore, activist subset of the GOP base, show that his conspiratorial claims about the election run even deeper in the states than in Washington—and will guide the grassroots for years to come.

“I don’t know why people are sitting around expecting that somehow this is going to fix itself,” said Michael Steele, the Republican National Committee’s national chairman from 2009-2011 and a fierce Trump critic. “It won’t fix itself because Donald Trump won’t allow it to be fixed. And people who back Donald Trump and all the stuff that comes with it, they think they're right, they think this is working, they think this is what a party should be like.”

“I don’t know why people are sitting around expecting that somehow this is going to fix itself.”

Former GOP officials say it was entirely predictable that the state parties would get Trumpier while he was president, but found it notable that the trend has continued since he left office.

“I don’t think we’re in the post-Trump era yet. I don’t think there’s any question that he’s still the most popular face in the Republican Party. His endorsement matters,” said John Whitbeck, who chaired the Virginia Republican Party from 2015-2018. “The culture of the Trump era remains the primary dynamic in the party, and I don’t know when that’s going to end.”

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The most common and pernicious conspiracy pushed by state party chairs is the one that’s come to define the Republican Party: the big lie that the 2020 election was rigged against Trump and marred by widespread voting fraud. A significant plurality have publicly undermined voters’ trust in their elections, and those chairs who aren’t explicitly repeating his lies have pointedly refused to dispute them, while pushing “election integrity” measures to make it harder to vote.

They’ve supported moves to censure their own members of Congress who voted to impeach Trump, a ceremonial shaming that’s taken place from Alaska to Louisiana to North Carolina to Ohio to Wyoming. And while a handful of chairs sought to push back against the party’s drift further into conspiracy-mongering, others are pushing hard in the opposite direction, using their chairmanships to promote unhinged conspiracy theories.

It’s coming from the top down, too. The Republican National Committee launched an “Election Integrity Commission” in February. RNC chair Ronna Romney McDaniel argued that states’ efforts to expand mail voting during the coronavirus pandemic “brought chaos and uncertainty to our sacred democratic processes,” and promised the RNC would advocate for “best practices to ensure that future elections are free, fair, and transparent,” lending support to state GOP lawmakers’ moves to add requirements to the voting process.

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Of the six GOP state party chairs serving on the commission, just one has come close to acknowledging the legitimacy of Biden’s 2020 victory—South Carolina chair Drew McKissick, who with Trump’s endorsement just warded off a challenge from QAnon-touting lawyer Lin Wood. Three others on the commission pushed Trump’s claims that the election was stolen from him or argued the election wasn’t settled even after the Electoral College had voted to officially cement it in mid-December. 

That includes Wyoming Republican Party Chairman Frank Eathorne, who penned a January 2 letter claiming “extensive evidence” of voter fraud in “numerous states,” attended the January 6 Trump rally in D.C. that turned into a riot, defended that protest as mostly peaceful, and in early January floated the idea that Wyoming and other “self-reliant” conservative states should consider seceding from the United States. Eathorne won Trump’s support for another term when the state party censured Cheney, and sailed to an uncontested reelection victory last Saturday. “The people of Wyoming are special, and so are you!” Trump declared in congratulation.

The commission’s chair, longtime Trump ally and Florida Republican Party Chairman Joe Gruters, has done what many Republican state chairs have: avoided commenting directly on whether Biden won fairly while advocating for states to crack down on the threat of voter fraud, even though there’s no evidence there was significant voter fraud last election. 

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“We cannot allow voting irregularities that create distrust in the election system to continue. The Republican Party is working hard on election integrity issues and we will be ready for 2022,” Gruters said in a statement announcing the commission.

Gruters called his own state’s 2020 election process “the gold standard”—but that didn’t stop him from loudly supporting the restrictive new law Florida Republicans just passed that put additional requirements on mail voting and ballot drop boxes.

Republican National Committee spokesperson Emma Vaughn disputed that the party is trying to make it harder to vote.

“The media has bent over backwards to tell lies about election integrity efforts,” she said in a statement to VICE News. “But the fact is, Republican legislatures around the country have passed much-needed reforms that make it easier to vote and harder to cheat—this includes measures like voter ID laws, which are supported by [the] vast majority of voters including Democrats and independents.”

“The media has bent over backwards to tell lies about election integrity efforts.”

Who’s the Trumpiest

The most striking sign of where the Republican Party is headed is the new class of GOP state party chairs elected since Trump lost. A number of the competitive races for state chair this year have hinged on who’s the Trumpiest, most outlandish, and conspiratorial candidate. 

In Oklahoma, former state Rep. John Bennett won a battle to become party chairman in April following a long history of incendiary comments. Bennett called for a “firing squad” for Hillary Clinton right before the 2016 election, and has a long history of attacking Islam, which he once called a “cancer in our nation that needs to be cut out.” His candidacy was backed by former Trump National Security Director Michael Flynn, who pushed Trump to declare martial law to overturn the election. A few weeks ago, Bennett grouped himself with Trump, Flynn, and top election conspiracists Mike Lindell and Lin Wood, saying they were “out there speaking the truth boldly” and needed backup in the face of media attacks.

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Oregon’s state party is similarly off the rails. Its executive committee put out a statement in late January claiming there was “growing evidence” the Capitol insurrection was a “false flag operation designed to discredit” Trump and the GOP. 

The Oregon GOP said the insurrection was a “false flag operation designed to discredit” Trump and the GOP.

A few weeks later, they elected lightning-rod state Sen. Dallas Heard as their new chairman.

Heard is a member of the COVID anti-lockdown and anti-masking group Citizens Against Tyranny, and on Dec. 21 he encouraged a protest at the state Capitol, telling them “I’m in full support of your right to enter your Capitol building.” Some of the protesters tried to storm the closed building, pepper-spraying police and breaking windows in an attempt to enter the statehouse. Undeterred, Heard called the statewide mask mandate a "campaign against the people and the children of God” later that day.

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On January 6, as pro-Trump rioters descended on the U.S. Capitol, Heard told the crowd at a satellite “Occupy the Capitol” protest in Salem that anti-Trump lawmakers were “the enemy of the people.”

But Texas is even wilder.

Shortly after former Florida congressman Allen West defeated Texas’ GOP chair last July, the state party began using “We are the storm” as its slogan—a term popularized by the QAnon community. West denied that it was borrowed from QAnon, insisting a separate meme inspired him and stating that he’s “not into internet conspiracy theories.” But West is  scheduled to speak at a Dallas Memorial Day rally organized by “QAnon John” Sabal that has a lineup chock-full of movement influencers. 

West fully embraced the lie that the election was stolen from Trump, pushing false claims that Dominion Voting Systems had changed votes from Trump to Biden. 

“We will not stand down until justice is done,” West bellowed during a late-December Stop the Steal rally. “We will not be subjugated, we will not be relegated, we will never surrender.”

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And after the Supreme Court rejected Trump’s final Hail Mary attempt to overturn the 2020 election, West floated the idea that Texas and other states should secede from the U.S. "Perhaps law-abiding states should band together and form a union of states that will abide by the Constitution,” he said in a press release.

West’s schtick isn’t new. He was a Tea Party star during his one term in Congress, and after losing his seat became a favorite on the right-wing media circuit, keeping his name in the news by calling President Obama an “Islamist” in 2014 and arguing Islam isn’t really a religion but a “totalitarian theocratic political ideology.” But his recent return to power shows how the Trump era has shifted the Overton window so that Republicans whose extreme views once hurt their careers are getting new life in the political arena.

Republicans’ lies about voting fraud and attempts to use them for voting suppression go back years, and there’s no better example of a Republican who played a key role in spreading that myth than former Trump senior campaign adviser Bob Paduchik, who became Ohio state party chairman in February with Trump’s strong support.

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Back in 2004, Paduchik helped Republicans pioneer the use of flimsy claims of “voter fraud” to try to disqualify Democratic votes while working on President George W. Bush secretive campaign project dubbed the “Voter Reg Fraud Strategy.” 

He played a key role on Trump’s campaign in 2020, helping to run its “voter integrity” program that smeared mail voting, and successfully lobbied Ohio GOP legislators to reject their own secretary of state’s push to make mail voting easier.

These aren’t isolated examples. 

Anti-abortion activist Kristi Burton Brown took over the Colorado GOP after declaring in March “there are very valid questions still being asked about the 2020 election.” She was endorsed by gun-toting, militia-curious Colorado GOP Rep. Lauren Boebert. 

Maine’s Republican chair was reelected in January, after she’d claimed the coronavirus was intentionally unleashed by the Chinese government in order to hurt Trump’s reelection chances. 

Massachusetts GOP chair Jim Lyons said on November 12 that Biden was “falsely posing as the winner of the 2020 presidential election,” claimed Democrats were “committing voter fraud,” and insisted “dead people voted.” Lyons was reelected to his chairmanship in February in spite of opposition from moderate Republican Gov. Charlie Baker.

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This trend isn’t universal: California’s GOP chair, Jessica Patterson, is a Latina moderate who defeated a pair of hard-line Trumpers for the job in 2019 and recently helped block an attempt to censure a GOP congressman who’d voted to impeach Trump. Don Tracy was elected chair of the Illinois Republican Party in early February and promptly moved to quash efforts to censure GOP Rep. Adam Kinzinger for his fierce attacks on Trump. Utah’s new GOP chairman criticized the party convention delegates who booed Utah Sen. Mitt Romney.

But they’re vastly outnumbered by Trump hard-liners—like New Mexico Republican Party chair Steve Pearce, a former congressman who pushed the birther lie that President Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. and claimed two days after the Capitol riots that “our democracy has been tarnished” by the 2020 election because of “anomalies and issues that were never addressed.” That claim came just weeks after he won another term.

Un-fringing the conspiracy theories

It’s not unusual for state parties in deep-red or blue states to elect chairs who espouse fringe views—it’s happened for years in the GOP, where Tea Party activists and social conservative hard-liners would hijack lightly attended conventions and seize power. And Democrats aren’t immune to this either: A coalition of hard-left Democratic socialists recently defeated Nevada’s Democratic machine to seize control of the party.

But what’s different for Republicans now is that most of the GOP chairs running state parties in crucial battleground states have actively embraced conspiracy theories, putting them at the center of the party’s efforts in the states that will determine the 2024 presidential election.

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The best-known of the bunch is Arizona Republican chair Kelli Ward, who seized control of the state GOP in 2019 after losing a 2016 primary challenge to then-Sen. John McCain (his team nicknamed her “Chemtrail Kelli” because she’d convened a hearing where people pushed conspiracy theories about chemtrails). Under Ward, the Arizona Republican Party has grown increasingly conspiratorial.

Ward spoke at multiple Stop the Steal rallies in Arizona about the “stolen” election—and filed an unsuccessful court challenge to nullify Arizona’s election that claimed “massive voter fraud’ had occurred. The judge tossed it out because the case was based on “gossip and innuendo” and “sorely wanting of relevant or reliable evidence.”

But that didn’t stop her. She called Biden’s win a “coup” on Dec. 20, and called on Trump to “cross the rubicon” to stop it, a reference to Julius Caesar’s historic decision to overthrow the Roman Republic. When Stop the Steal leader Ali Alexander tweeted in early December that he was “willing to give my life in this fight,” the Arizona Republican Party retweeted it, asking: “He is. Are you?”

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Trump endorsed Ward for another term, and she narrowly won in late January, in an election marred by claims of vote rigging (no irony there). The same day, the state party censured sitting Arizona Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, former GOP Sen. Jeff Flake, and Cindy McCain. Ward has since vocally supported the incompetent partisan audit of Maricopa County’s 2020 ballots.

But Ward is far from the only swing-state Republican who helped Trump push lies about their own state’s results.

Georgia GOP chair David Shafer actively spread false information about the results in Georgia, buttressing Trump’s repeated false claims that the state had been stolen from him. He filed a lawsuit objecting to the state certifying the election results, and after Georgia finished a full statewide hand recount of its ballots that confirmed Biden’s win and showed no evidence of voter fraud, Shafer led a letter that expressed “grave concerns” about voter fraud. He’s bragged about suing Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, and he encouraged Republicans to primary him because of Raffensperger’s refusal to help Trump try to steal Georgia’s electoral votes.

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Shafer is the heavy favorite to win another term as chairman in June— largely because he has Trump’s endorsement. “He NEVER gave up!” Trump said.

North Carolina Republican chair Michael Whatley falsely claimed in February that “we certainly saw evidence of voting irregularities, of election counting irregularities in a number of places around the country,” and invented the claim that the reason Trump won North Carolina was his state party’s vigilance against Democrats’ attempts to cheat. Under his leadership, the state party censured retiring GOP Sen. Richard Burr for voting to impeach Trump.

Ron Weiser, a longtime establishment GOP figure, won Michigan’s GOP chairmanship in January by partnering with Meshawn Maddock, an active Stop the Steal leader who aggressively “monitored” Detroit’s vote-counting, repeatedly lied that Michigan’s election had seen widespread election fraud, and organized 19 buses to the January 6 rally in Washington. Even after the Capitol riots, Maddock pushed false claims that Trump would remain president.

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Weiser himself stirred controversy when he described the trio of Democratic women who hold statewide office as “the three witches” and said the party’s job was to soften them up so “that they are ready for the burning at the stake” in the next election. That list includes Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, whom a right-wing militia recently plotted to kidnap and execute. Weiser also joked about “assassination” when discussing the two Michigan House Republicans who’d voted to impeach Trump. After initially resisting, he apologized for both remarks.

In Pennsylvania, GOP chair Andrew Tabas publicly floated the possibility of his state’s Republican-controlled state Legislature overriding the election results and appointing Trump electors if he lost the state—before the election. Tabas insisted he was misquoted. But on Dec. 14, as the Legislature met to appoint Biden’s electors to the Electoral College, the Pennsylvania Republican Party members met separately “to cast a conditional vote” for Trump, creating an alternate set of electors to the Electoral College to help continue the fight to overturn the election.

The silent types

There are plenty of Republican chairs who haven’t been willing to explicitly echo Trump’s lies and conspiracies about the election. But most of them have refused to stand up for the truth.

State party chairs are chosen by the most dedicated, hardcore party activists—the types willing to spend their Saturdays arguing over party rule arcana at conventions. Because people showing up to vote are convinced that Trump really won in 2020, Republican state party chairs must agree with his premise, or at least pretend to stay in power.

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“You see folks who don’t believe that who are saying those things or staying quiet because they want to stay a state party chair for whatever reason,” said former Republican National Committee spokesman Doug Heye, who opposes Trump.

There’s also political utility in declining to dispute Trump’s claims. In state after state, Republicans are pushing bills to restrict voting. If they don’t think the election was rigged, there’s not much reason for the new restrictions besides an attempt to make it harder for Democrats to vote.

Iowa Republican Party chairman Jeff Kaufmann is an avatar of the GOP establishment and a prime example of how much that establishment has changed. 

He first won his job with strong backing from then-Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, ousting a hard-line Ron Paul acolyte in the process. 

But Kaufmann was a fierce Trump cheerleader throughout his presidency, and supported Trump’s legal efforts to reverse the election results. A late-January interview sheds a lot of light on why he and more establishment-leaning Republican leaders won’t contradict Trump: They may not want to claim the election was rigged, but they see political utility in using that lie to push new voting restrictions. 

“Donald Trump’s claims that were controversial is whether the election fraud and the election irregularities actually cost him the presidency. I don’t think there’s anybody that seriously doubts that in states like Georgia and Pennsylvania there were problems,” Kaufmann said in the PBS interview.

When pressed on whether Trump lost fair and square, Kaufmann would only say that he had lost the Electoral College vote. 

Then he made clear exactly why he wouldn’t admit Biden had won fairly.

“Here’s what I worry about: If we say that Joe Biden won, if I say that there was absolutely no election problems, that there’s no fixes that are needed, then all of a sudden we continue to do the same thing and we don’t work on voter identification, other states don’t work on ballot harvesting,” he said.

Weeks later, Iowa Republicans passed a voting suppression law that eliminated a week of early voting.

Tess Owen contributed reporting.

Correction: This story originally misstated the Georgia Republican chairman's election status. He is up for reelection at the state convention in June.


Tagged:

Trump, RNC, congress, 2020 election, biden, Liz Cheney, stop the steal, January 6, Capitol Riot

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