'It’s really bad news for Republicans': Continued GOP defections could upend party primaries
The great GOP exodus continues in some of the very states that will prove most critical in the battle for control of Congress in the midterms. In Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports that some 19,000 voters have left the Republican Party since Donald Trump’s Jan. 6 siege at the Capitol. And while that represents a tiny slice of the state’s 8.8 million registered voters, the number of voters who have left the GOP accounts for about two-thirds, or 64%, of overall defections—up from a third or less in typical years, according to the Inquirer.
The data on exactly who is leaving the GOP—pro-Trumpers or never-Trumpers—are still a little murky. Based on interviews, the Inquirer concludes that the defections are fueled more by a swath of older, formerly loyal and highly engaged Republicans who have been turned off by Trump’s takeover of the party.
“Former Republicans interviewed largely were united in why they left,” writes the outlet, “They saw it as a protest against a party that questioned the legitimacy of their votes and the culmination of long-simmering frustration with Trump and his supporters, who now largely control the GOP.”
Lifelong Republican Diane Tyson, 68, renewed her license at the DMV on Jan. 5 and opted to wait until after the pro-Trump Jan. 6 rally in Washington before deciding whether to change her party affiliation. The attack that unfolded along with her watching her congressman vote to nullify the Keystone State’s election results sealed the deal. Tyson officially became an independent on Jan. 7.
“I knew I could not be a Republican anymore,” she said. “I just can’t—it’s not who I am. The Republican Party has gone down a deep hole that I want no part of. I don’t want an ‘R’ after my name.”
Similarly, 70-year-old Tom Mack, who has been a Republican since the late 1970s, offered, “It’s not the Republican Party I know. … It’s drifted far away from my beliefs.”
If the Inquirer is right about about the demographics of the GOP defectors and the trend holds, the Republican Party could end up saddled with a slew of right-wing primary winners heading into the 2022 general election contests. The party will also be losing some of its most active and loyal voting base—the people who are more likely to turn out in off-year elections and non-presidential cycles.
The whole cocktail will make it that much harder for Republican candidates who prevail in the primaries to muster the votes to beat Democrats in the midterms. “If these voters are leaving the party permanently, it’s really bad news for Republicans,” Morris Fiorina, a political scientist at Stanford University, told Reuters.
Reuters homed in on GOP defections in the three battleground states of Florida, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina and found that roughly three times more Republicans as Democrats had left their party in recent weeks. In all three states, the outlet also noted that defections were concentrated in the urban and suburban areas surrounding big cities—areas where sagging GOP support for Trump helped deliver the presidency to Joe Biden.
Based on interviews, Reuters also concluded that Trump was the main catalyst fueling the exodus, though some party switchers did say they don’t believe the Republican Party was supportive enough of Trump.
But the sentiment of Nassau County Floridian Diana Hepner, 76, suggests that Republican Party leaders really blew their opportunity to pivot away from Trump following the election and reestablish itself as something beyond a cult of personality.
“I hung in there with the Republican Party thinking we could get past the elements Trump brought,” Hepner said. “Jan. 6 was the straw that broke the camel’s back.” Now Hepner is hoping to be a “centrist influence” on the nominating contests in the Democratic Party.
Political observers generally agree about the inflated rate of GOP defections, what remains to be seen is whether the trend continues and how it affects the contours of the nominating contests that are already taking shape.
In North Carolina, for instance, the GOP saw a slight uptick in party affiliations following Trump’s acquittal, a reversal after weeks of declining registrations following the lethal Jan. 6 riot. There’s still a lot of time between now and next year, but the Jan. 6 riot does appear to be an inflection point. And despite Trump’s acquittal, the impeachment trial really gave Democrats an opportunity to reinforce for voters Trump’s culpability for the murderous assault on the Capitol.