Dec 9, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Inside Trump's hunt for "disloyal" Republicans

Illustration of four suited business people, all wearing a red tie except for one, the one without a red tie is standing on a red target.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Donald Trump and his associates are systematically reshaping the Republican Party, working to install hand-picked loyalists across federal and state governments and destroy those he feels have been disloyal, sources close to the former president tell Axios.

Why it matters: If most or all of Trump’s candidates win, he will go into the 2024 election cycle with far more people willing to do his bidding who run the elections in key states.

  • He will also have a well-funded policy and political infrastructure and his own social media ecosystem.
  • He's made dozens of endorsements since last year's election, with many more expected ahead of crucial primaries next year.

One big question: Will his hand in these contests help Republicans sweep to new majorities in 2022, or divide the GOP in brutal primaries that indirectly boost Democrats in the general election?

How it works: Trump is tapping his national network of allies to identify Republicans who were "weak" in 2020 because they refused to go along with his efforts to overturn the election. No office has proven too small.

  • His apparatus touches everything from unseating governors, members of Congress, state legislators and secretaries of state, to formulating policy and influencing local school boards.
  • One common thread with many of the candidates he's backed so far: They all support his efforts to overturn Joe Biden's victory.
  • Trump-backed Georgia gubernatorial candidate David Perdue — who is challenging Gov. Brian Kemp in the GOP primary — told Axios' Emma Hurt on Wednesday that he wouldn’t have signed the certification of the state’s 2020 election results if he'd been governor.

Behind the scenes: Sources who have spent time with Trump at his Florida estate Mar-a-Lago say it's impossible to carry out an extended conversation with him that isn't interrupted by his fixations on the 2020 election.

  • He's intensely focused on demands that Republicans "get smart" and pursue efforts to "audit" and overturn that result.
  • "We try to get him onto other topics, but you always get dragged back," said an adviser to the former president.

Trump is also thinking about the future. He’s not just taking the standard steps of establishing a PAC, courting donors, and building a political operation; he’s also trying to purge his critics from all levels of the GOP and replace them with loyalists who could object to the certification of future elections.

  • He endorsed Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.), who lodged the objection to Georgia's electors, in a challenge against Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who publicly resisted Trump's efforts to overturn the election.
  • He encouraged Perdue's primary run against Kemp. Perdue's launch ad makes clear he agrees with Trump about what constitutes Kemp's unforgivable sin.
  • Trump has also thrown his support behind secretary of state challengers in Arizona and Michigan. And candidates casting doubt on 2020's election processes are also running in Wisconsin and Nevada.
  • Trump backed a challenge to Texas state Sen. Kel Seliger after Seliger cast the only Republican vote against an audit of the 2020 presidential election.

Trump has found an opportunity to rebuild Michigan's GOP state legislature in his image, endorsing five first-time candidates based on their belief in his baseless "stolen" election claims.

  • Michigan state legislators are term-limited, giving Trump fresh opportunities to fill seats with loyalists. Trump unsuccessfully tried post-election to persuade state GOP lawmakers to reject the election results.
  • Trump has also endorsed a candidate for Michigan secretary of state, Kristina Karamo, who embraces conspiracy theories including her false claim it was "completely Antifa posing as Trump supporters" who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6.

In Arizona, Trump endorsed the reelection of Arizona state Sen. Wendy Rogers, who led a letter with 138 state legislators calling for election audits in all 50 states.

  • He endorsed Kari Lake for Arizona governor. Lake told OAN she wouldn't have certified Biden as the victor if she'd been governor.

Trump is also going after the few congressional Republicans who have defied him. He's endorsed primary challengers to Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Reps. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), Fred Upton (R-Mich.), Peter Meijer (R-Mich.) and Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.) — all of whom voted for his impeachment.

What they're saying: "To the dismay of Democrats and Republican-sellouts, President Donald J. Trump continues to be the most dominant voice in American politics," Trump spokesperson Taylor Budowich told Axios in a statement.

  • "Through his Save America PAC and allied America First organizations, President Trump's vision for America and the GOP will shape the future of our nation."

What we're watching: Former Trump administration officials founded a think tank, America First Policy Institute. Former Trump adviser Stephen Miller runs America First Legal, challenging the Biden administration's agenda in court.

  • Former Office of Management and Budget Director Russell Vought is driving education battles, heading up the new Center for Renewing America, a think tank that's focused on cultural issues including "critical race theory."
  • America First Policies, a high-dollar advocacy group run by allies when Trump was in office, was recently refashioned America First Works and primed to activate at the federal, state and local levels on issues including education policy and "election integrity."

Between the lines: Trump has called for bills instituting reforms some of his advisers say would have kept him in power.

  • Republicans in state legislatures enacted dozens of voting laws this year — many designed in direct response to Trump's post-election pressure.
  • Trump cheered on Georgia's sweeping voting bill, saying the GOP legislators "learned from the travesty of the 2020 Presidential Election." He added, "Too bad these changes could not have been done sooner!"
  • At least 10 bills introduced at the state level — none yet passed — would allow partisan actors to overturn election results.

The bottom line: Trump's relentless messaging has forged an alternate reality for his followers: 58% of Republicans in an Axios/Ipsos poll last month said there was enough fraud to change the outcome of the 2020 election. Now he's harnessing that energy.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the office sought by candidate Kristina Karamo. She is a candidate for Michigan secretary of state, not attorney general.

Go deeper