David Eggert/AP
Conservatives gather at the Michigan Capitol to deliver thousands of affidavits requesting that lawmakers order a forensic audit of the 2020 election in Lansing June 17, 2021. State Senate Republicans who investigated Michigan’s presidential election said June 23 there was no widespread or systemic fraud.

GOP leaders eye the future. GOP voters keep looking back.

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A man in a bald eagle T-shirt at a recent Kalamazoo County GOP meeting wants to know: “How do we deal with [fraud allegations] when our politicians are talking about wanting to move forward?”

“What we need to do is move backwards!” says another.

Why We Wrote This

Political parties normally shrug off losses – even tough ones – and focus on future wins. But the GOP is finding that after 2020, many core voters are not willing to move on.

The scene illustrates the larger dynamic of forces increasingly enveloping the Republican Party. GOP congressional leadership says it’s focused on the future – specifically 2022 elections. But many of the party’s voters, and the former president who remains its dominant personality, are dwelling to an extraordinary degree on the past. 

For these Republicans the most important issue facing the party is what to do about their belief that the 2020 election was “stolen.”

This split in direction can pit newcomers against old-line Republicans, and it is on full display here in southwestern Michigan. Some former Michigan Republican officials say that chasing the phantasm of fraud allegations will hasten the region’s move toward Democrats, and perhaps damage the party’s prospects elsewhere in the state.

“Every variable in the political environment that we can’t control is positive for us [in 2022]. The one thing that isn’t positive that we can control is our own behavior,” says Jason Roe, former executive director of the Michigan Republican Party. “We are in the process of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.”

The two dozen Kalamazoo County Republicans are rapt. They sit shoulder to shoulder in foldout chairs as the guest speaker at their party meeting, who bills himself as an IT expert from the West Coast, details allegations of fraud he claims occurred in Michigan during the 2020 presidential election.

No such fraud occurred, according to a report from a GOP-led Michigan Senate Oversight Committee released in June. The panel’s eight-month inquiry produced no evidence to back up former President Donald Trump’s repeated claims that the state’s vote failed to match the will of the voters.

But this audience believes. For close to two hours they listen and ask questions about the purportedly manipulated data on sheets glued to trifold folders positioned around the room. They take notes and snap pictures of the numbers with their cellphones.

Why We Wrote This

Political parties normally shrug off losses – even tough ones – and focus on future wins. But the GOP is finding that after 2020, many core voters are not willing to move on.

“How do we –,” a man wearing a shirt with a bald eagle laid over an American flag pauses his question, and brings his hands together in front of his lips, as if in prayer. “How do we deal with all of this when our politicians are talking about wanting to move forward?”

A combination of laughter and groans rises from the crowd. “What we need to do is move backwards!” says another man in the front row. 

The scene illustrates in miniature the larger dynamic of forces increasingly enveloping the U.S. Republican Party. The GOP congressional leadership keeps saying it’s focused on the future – specifically working toward taking back the House and Senate in the 2022 midterm elections. But many of the party’s grassroots voters and activists, and the former president who remains its dominant personality, are looking in another direction, dwelling to an extraordinary degree on the past. 

For these Republicans the most important issue facing the party is what to do about their belief that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen.” They can seem much less focused on the usual tasks of preelection politics, such as recruiting candidates, raising money, and plotting how to turn out votes.

This split in direction can pit party newcomers against old-line Republicans, and it is on full display here in southwestern Michigan, where the 6th Congressional District runs from the city of Kalamazoo westward to Lake Michigan beach towns like Saugatuck and Douglas. Within the local GOP the struggle about how to handle false charges of election fraud has driven out some longtime members, attracted energetic new ones, and led some party leaders to try as hard as they can to straddle the perilous divide.

The area has long leaned Republican. It’s been represented in Congress since 1987 by Rep. Fred Upton, a relative moderate who was one of the 10 GOP House members who voted for the second impeachment of then-President Trump in 2021. But the city of Kalamazoo is solid blue, and Democrats are making inroads in suburban areas. Some former Michigan Republican officials say that chasing the phantasm of fraud allegations will only hasten the region’s partisan transformation, and perhaps damage the party’s prospects elsewhere in the state.

Overall, census data that’s favorable to the GOP and a majority of statehouses controlled by Republicans during congressional redistricting should mean bright prospects for retaking the House in 2022. But only, some Republicans say, if voters start looking toward future victories instead of relitigating past losses.

“Every variable in the political environment that we can’t control is positive for us [in 2022]. The one thing that isn’t positive that we can control is our own behavior,” says Jason Roe, former executive director of the Michigan Republican Party. “We are in the process of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.”

Stuck on November 2020

Nearly 10 months after the November 2020 election, it’s become obvious that Mr. Trump remains obsessed with the results and his false belief, backed by no substantial evidence, that he actually won.

The election remains the subject he mentions most in the tweetlike press statements he uses to communicate with the public now that he’s been kicked off Facebook and Twitter. 

In his statements Mr. Trump has often promoted the Arizona “forensic audit” backed by Republican state senators, which critics say is a deeply flawed, partisan effort. He has repeated debunked conspiracy theories about allegations of fraud that involved “routers” in Arizona’s Maricopa County, while continuing to insist that he won the “Rigged and Stolen” election. He promotes Trump-friendly Newsmax and One America News (OAN) while hammering at one of his favorite targets, the rest of the media, for not repeating his claims.

On Thursday he targeted Michigan. 

“Why are RINOs [Republicans in name only] standing in the way of a full Forensic Audit in Michigan?” Mr. Trump wrote. “The voters are demanding it because they have no confidence in their elections after the Rigged 2020 Presidential Election Scam.”

David Eggert/AP/File
Michigan state Sen. Ed McBroom, shown at the Capitol in Lansing in 2019, has said that an eight-month investigation into Michigan’s presidential election has turned up no evidence of fraud.

One of the alleged RINOs Mr. Trump mentioned by name was state Sen. Ed McBroom, a conservative, fourth-generation dairy farmer from Waucedah who some colleagues call the “King of the Upper Peninsula.” 

Senator McBroom is chairman of the Michigan Senate Oversight Committee. In response to complaints about fraud from the Trump campaign and Republican voters, he led an eight-month investigation on the subject, involving hours of testimony and subpoenas for relevant records.

In June he released a 55-page report that found some “glaring issues” in the Michigan election system but no “significant acts of fraud.” 

“Our clear finding is that citizens should be confident the results represent the true results of the ballots cast by the people of Michigan,” the panel concluded.

Since then some members of the Michigan GOP who back the former president’s false election claims have pushed for the party to retaliate against Senator McBroom. A state party panel rejected a proposal to call for his resignation, but on Friday the Republican Party committee of Macomb County, the state’s third-largest county and a jurisdiction that voted for Mr. Trump in 2020, voted to censure him.

“In the ballot box, I couldn’t do it”

Mr. McBroom is far from the only Republican to run afoul of the 2020-focused mood among some factions of the party.

Jason Watts is a 20-year member of the Republican Party and former treasurer of the 6th Congressional District GOP committee. He was ousted from his party post earlier this year after publicly admitting that he did not vote for Mr. Trump for president in 2020.

“Did I work for Trump’s reelection? Yes. But in the ballot box, I couldn’t do it,” says Mr. Watts.

A new breed of Republican has become engaged in committee politics since 2016, Mr. Watts says. After 2020 the change accelerated. Of the party activists he’s known a long time, maybe 20% embraced Mr. Trump, he says.

“The rest are no longer there,” says Mr. Watts.

Part of the reason that belief in election fraud has become acceptable in some parts of the state party is because suburban areas that used to be reliably Republican are slowly turning blue, he says.

“What I’m seeing is that, especially in places like here in Kalamazoo, county parties are refusing to deal with Democratic shifts,” says Mr. Watts.

The nearby suburb of Portage, for example, was long a GOP stronghold. But it began to shift in 2012. It went for Mr. Trump in 2016 but then shifted hard blue in 2020, according to Mr. Watts.

“And I don’t think [the Kalamazoo GOP] is doing anything to reverse that trend,” he says.

The task ahead: bridge old and new GOP

Across the nation grassroots Republicans have been receptive to Mr. Trump’s stolen-election claims. In a recent CBS/YouGov survey, 69% of Republicans said that there was widespread voter fraud in 2020, for instance.

The power of conservative media is one reason for this trend, says David A. Hopkins, a political scientist at Boston College. News outlets such as OAN have raised the bar for what it means to be pro-Trump.

Mr. Trump’s message also fits into a preexisting framework of belief among conservative voters, says Professor Hopkins. 

“The idea that Democrats steal elections through shenanigans in big cities is a very long-standing conservative theme,” says Professor Hopkins.

Party leaders thus have the difficult job of balancing between remaining party traditionalists and the Trump-oriented new breed.

For instance, Scott McGraw, chair of 6th District Republicans and the Kalamazoo GOP, has a nuanced view of local Republican Rep. Fred Upton’s vote to impeach then-President Trump in January.

He wishes Representative Upton had voted the other way, he says. At the same time, he’s not in favor of attempts by some party members to punish Representative Upton in some way.

“My hope is that we look at the whole thing. Fred has been a great congressman for us for 36 years,” says Mr. McGraw.

Asked about the election fraud issue, he says a lot of people believe the election was stolen, and that there’s a “huge” continuing push at the grassroots level for another audit. He says he personally hasn’t gotten over it.

He says he’d like to move on, but if the desire for an audit is so great it prevents that, they should push for one.

“There were a lot of improprieties going on,” he alleges.

The party needs to come together, in his view, because unless it unites, it won’t be able to beat Democrats in upcoming elections.

“We’ve always been split in two, but this is the worst that I think I’ve seen,” he says.

“I'm passionate about the truth”

Back at the Kalamazoo County GOP meeting, a weekly discussion hosted by a local county commissioner, the speaker billed as an IT expert is talking about vote tabulation and ballot chain of custody issues. His name is J.D. Glaser. The audience is sharing doughnuts and coffee.

Attendees hold hands in the air, waiting to get called on. Some have had their hands in the air so long they use their other hand to prop up their elbow.

The talk centers on what they can do to push the forensic audit issue forward.  

“I don’t know everything, but I’m passionate about the truth and I’ll die for it,” says the man wearing the eagle and flag shirt. 

Mr. Glaser starts naming people in state government to send letters to and lobby. He asks audience members to recruit others to their side. 

He mentions the number of affidavits they have alleging malfeasance. He complains about RINOs blocking their way. He alleges without evidence that 55,000 votes were switched from Mr. Trump to President Joe Biden in Kalamazoo County.

He quotes the Bible to support the point that you can’t have love or mercy without justice.

“If you just have the goal of sending two people to jail, a lot will change,” he says.

This comment causes the county commissioner to bristle, and Mr. Glaser walks it back. But he adds that if people in the room want justice, “you have to start acting on this stuff.”

The meeting ends with a prayer, as a woman, with head bowed, promises to continue fighting.

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