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Radicalized GOP label

An ongoing series examining the growth and impact of radicalization in the Republican Party

Read the entire series here.

WASHINGTON — After a mob of Donald Trump’s supporters violently attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6, a reckoning seemed inevitable for a Republican Party that had embraced him and spread his lies about election fraud.

Republicans like Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming all but called him a traitor. Senator Mitch McConnell denounced him in scathing terms, and McConnell’s allies warned that Trump would only turn voters off and weigh the party down, pointing to the embarrassing Senate losses in Georgia.

Seven weeks and one impeachment later, however, that reckoning has been limited, where it is apparent at all.

Indeed, the blade has cut the other way, with the immediate political consequences looming largest not for the 147 Republicans in Congress who backed Trump’s efforts to overturn the election, but for the 17 who voted either to impeach or convict him; many of them are now facing censure and opprobrium from activists back home. The former president is still the most popular potential presidential candidate in his party, and even his biggest Republican detractor in Congress, Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, says Trump probably would win the 2024 nomination if he runs.

As Trump prepares to make his first speech since leaving office at a conservative political conference this weekend, Democrats are hungry to hold Republicans of all stripes accountable for supporting him, hoping that images of the riot he encouraged and the wild conspiracy theories he has fostered will be an albatross for the party that enabled him.

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But reporting by The Boston Globe in the districts of three rank-and-file Republican House members found they have hardly been wounded by their varying degrees of association with Trump, the insurrection, and the efforts of many in the party to subvert democracy while claiming to be saving it.

In the suburbs of Philadelphia, the mountains of western North Carolina, and the plains of Oklahoma, these incumbents are standing by their votes against impeachment — and, for the latter two, to overturn the election — and, so far, they are reaping rewards from their base.

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Although there may be some jockeying in Washington over Trump’s influence, these districts show his dominance with Republicans remains unmatched.

Madison Cawthorn addressed the virtual Republican National Convention from Charlotte, N.C., on Aug. 26, 2020.
Madison Cawthorn addressed the virtual Republican National Convention from Charlotte, N.C., on Aug. 26, 2020. Handout/Photo Courtesy of the Committee on Arrangements for the 2020 Republican National Committee

To pro-Trump activists, a young North Carolina firebrand is the future

WAYNESVILLE, N.C. — Jim Ferrell stood up in front of the Haywood County Republicans, a portrait of Donald Trump hung dead center on the wall behind him, and opened the group’s monthly meeting with a prayer.

“What would God want us to do?” he asked. “It’s not just fighting against Democrats. And it’s not just fighting against stupid Republicans.”

For the people in this room, their 25-year-old congressman, Madison Cawthorn, is decidedly not one of the “stupid” ones.

He is the future.

Eight weeks after he was sworn in, the first-term lawmaker has swiftly become one of the most notorious — and controversial — Republicans in the country. He has worked out with Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and an ardent defender of the former president, boosting baseless election conspiracy theories, including with a speech at Trump’s rally the day of the Capitol insurrection. He has spoken proudly about bringing weapons into Congress and upset some of his Jewish constituents with his tweets.

No, to the activists gathered in this town between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Smoky Mountains that misty February night, “stupid Republicans” are the ones who defy Trump. Cawthorn, on the other hand, is the kind of firebrand they love, one who has embraced conservative social media and said his priority is communicating, not legislating.

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“He’s speaking for every American that’s been silenced,” said Constance Cronk, 71.

Not every Republican in western North Carolina is as impressed with Cawthorn. The young congressman has created new hairline fractures in a state party already divided over Trump. Out-of-state Never-Trumper Republicans have put up billboards in his district calling on him to resign. But he is betting that his combative political instincts will keep him dominant in a district represented before him by deeply conservative Mark Meadows.

And for now, many Republicans put off by Cawthorn, and not a little afraid of what he represents, are tempering their criticism, just as the party establishment did with Trump, enabling his rise.

“We’re gritting our teeth,” said one elected Republican who requested anonymity to speak frankly about intra-party dynamics, “and we’re just hoping, once the national spotlight dies down regarding the president, he’ll settle into a routine and practice the art of governing.”

Cawthorn burst onto the political scene as a dark horse in the crowded primary last year for the seat left open when Meadows became Trump’s White House chief of staff.

Partially paralyzed since a spring break car accident when he was a teenager, Cawthorn had not completed college or made significant early career moves, but he quickly captured his party’s attention and took down the favorite, Lynda Bennett, who had been endorsed by Trump and Meadows. He then brushed aside accusations of aggressive sexual behavior, anti-Semitism, and racism, and easily defeated the Democrat in the race, former military prosecutor Moe Davis, in the general election.

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Cawthorn generated controversy almost immediately. On election night, he tweeted “Cry more, lib,” annoying his future constituents in deep-blue Asheville, the biggest city in his district. But he also drew attention for his darker rhetoric.

In December, he told a Florida conference for young conservatives he planned to contest the certification of Joe Biden’s Electoral College win, and urged the crowd to pressure their representatives to do the same.

“Please get on the phone, call your congressman and feel free, you can lightly threaten them, and say you know what, if you don’t start supporting election integrity, I’m coming after you,” Cawthorn said.

On Jan. 6, he took the stage at Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally and told the crowd it had “some fight in it.” As he made his way to the Capitol for the electoral vote count, which a mob of Trump supporters soon would interrupt by storming the building, the crowd showered him with praise.

“Give them hell,” one woman shouted. “Fight for us.”

Back home in North Carolina, some Republicans recoiled. The former sheriff in his home county said he regretted endorsing Cawthorn, while Chuck Edwards, the Republican state senator from Cawthorn’s hometown of Hendersonville, blasted Cawthorn’s words as “inflammatory.”

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“It exacerbates the divisions in our country and has the potential to needlessly place well-meaning citizens, law enforcement officers, and elected officials in harm’s way,” he wrote.

By the end of January, Cawthorn seemed to relent; he signed a letter congratulating Biden on his victory and told CNN he believed the election was “not fraudulent.” But there is still a page on his website highlighting “election irregularities.”

Supporters reacted as President Trump arrived at the airport in Asheville, N.C., on Aug. 24, 2020.
Supporters reacted as President Trump arrived at the airport in Asheville, N.C., on Aug. 24, 2020. DOUG MILLS/NYT

The tension over Trump and the riot is playing out in North Carolina beyond Cawthorn’s district. Senator Richard Burr, a Republican who is not running for reelection in 2022, was swiftly censured by the state party after voting to convict Trump in his impeachment trial.

Meanwhile, much of the base here has closed ranks around Cawthorn, casting his statements before the riot as a youthful indiscretion.

And his appeal to members of a party who are still marinating in conspiracy theories is undeniable.

“I’ve not seen anything that he said that threatened any physical violence,” said Larry Ford, the acting chairman of the Clay County GOP, on the Georgia border, who blamed “agents provocateurs” for the violence at the Capitol, even though many of those arrested professed support for Trump.

“I don’t think the full story has come out,” Ford said.

That sort of embrace of Trump’s claims has turned some Republicans off, including Bill Olson, a 71-year-old Republican who was waiting to pick up an order of warm doughnuts in Asheville, a place Democrats view as a hipster, liberal haven in a sea of rural red. Olson, who sheepishly admitted he voted twice for Trump, believes Cawthorn should resign.

“Anybody who supported Trump after he said the election was stolen ought to have their head examined,” Olson said, adding that he “probably” is going to change his voter registration.

The doughnut line held other signs of what demographic experts say could eventually threaten Republicans like Cawthorn in this district: progressive transplants from other states, who have been drawn to Asheville and the surrounding area in larger numbers.

Amy Ratcliffe, 40, had just moved to Asheville from Los Angeles and said she was disappointed that Cawthorn was her representative.

“I just expected better,” she said, vowing to register to vote and get involved in local politics.

Representative Brian Fitzpatrick spoke during a news conference with members of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus at the US Capitol in December.
Representative Brian Fitzpatrick spoke during a news conference with members of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus at the US Capitol in December. Oliver Contreras/Bloomberg

A middle-of-the-road approach in the Philadelphia suburbs

DOYLESTOWN, Pa. — When national Democrats settled on their prime House targets for the 2022 midterms, they landed upon Brian Fitzpatrick, a 47-year-old former FBI agent representing a purple patch of the Philadelphia suburbs won by Joe Biden last year.

Fitzpatrick “stood with” QAnon and other right-wing conspiracy theories when he voted against impeaching Donald Trump for inciting the US Capitol riot, the Democratic ad aired in his district this month claimed, as images of Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and scenes from the insurrection floated in the background.

The political attack was an early glimpse of Democrats’ strategy to hold their narrow House majority in 2022: tie moderate Republicans in swing districts like Fitzpatrick to the party’s fringe, hanging QAnon and Trump-supporting rioters around their necks.

But Fitzpatrick, who has carefully distanced himself from his party’s fringes without ever truly seeming to take a stand against them, is a model for how a Republican can keep enough suburban Republicans and even some moderate Democrats happy enough to hang onto his seat.

In an era of extremes, Fitzpatrick has studiously taken a middle-of-the-road approach. After Jan. 6, Fitzpatrick called Trump’s conduct “outrageous” and “reprehensible.” But at the end of the day, he did not vote to impeach him, arguing that a Senate trial would further “divide” the country — and thus handily avoiding the recriminations suffered by his Republican colleagues who took that step.

A few weeks later, however, he joined just 10 other House Republicans to strip Greene of her committee assignments due to her embrace of conspiracy theories and celebration of political violence.

His split-the-baby approach infuriates activists on the right and left, but has helped him win three elections in the closely divided suburbs north of Philadelphia, where he has managed to fend off Trump-y primary challengers as well as well-funded Democrats in the general election. He brands himself as an “independent voice” free from the excesses of either party.

“I like Fitzpatrick,” said Richard Turner, a 72-year-old retired portfolio manager and Democrat from New Hope who voted for him. “I think we need more centrist people in Congress. … I like people who shake hands across the aisle.”

Fitzpatrick, often clad in fleece and khakis, builds his victories on people like Turner. He is a household name in Bucks County, which dominates the district he won with 57 percent of the vote in November. Many voters fondly remember his older brother Mike, a congressman and former county commissioner who died of cancer last year. An EMT from historically blue Levittown, Fitzpatrick regularly attracts Democratic votes, which is how he ended up over-performing Biden by several percentage points in the district.

“I will never run a campaign against a Fitzpatrick in Bucks County,” said one local Democratic strategist, who asked not to be named while speaking well of his party’s nemesis.

The county is rapidly changing. A cluster of towns that form a dividing line between the upper and lower parts of the county, referred to by some local political strategists as the “NPR belt,” has moved to the left as its more educated residents tire of the Republican Party. Meanwhile, the southern part of the district has lost some of its working-class Democrats to Trump.

Fitzpatrick has managed to work those trends to his advantage, though he still faces fierce opposition from the left and the right.

Both conservative and liberal activists have spent years urging voters to look closer at Fitzpatrick’s record, with liberals arguing that he rarely bucks the party line and conservatives pointing to multiple acts of defiance against Trump.

“You can’t be a little bit pregnant,” said New Hope Democrat James Devine, 59, summing up his frustration with Fitzpatrick’s decision to condemn but not impeach Trump. “You take an oath to protect and defend the United States, you do that.”

Local activist Kierstyn Zolfo echoed that frustration, saying she was incredibly disappointed when he declined to impeach Trump for inciting the mob. “He is notorious for sitting the fence,” Zolfo said.

But the chapter of the progressive group she organizes passed on the opportunity to protest against Fitzpatrick when he was in his district for two weeks in February, in part because he voted to censure Greene. Fitzpatrick was also the lone Republican from Pennsylvania who did not contest the state’s presidential election results in Congress.

“I called him to thank him for that vote ... because we want to do positive reinforcement,” she said of his vote to censure Greene.

Andy Meehan, president of the RightForBucks organization and a congressional candidate in the 2020 Republican primary, at his home in Holland, Pa.
Andy Meehan, president of the RightForBucks organization and a congressional candidate in the 2020 Republican primary, at his home in Holland, Pa.Tracie Van Auken For the Boston Globe

Those same votes that are earning him praise from the left in his district have infuriated some on the right.

“Trump supporters are livid at Brian Fitzpatrick,” said Andy Meehan, a local financial adviser who unsuccessfully challenged him in the Republican primary last year.

Meehan, who refers to Fitzpatrick as a “Never Trump Fake Republican RINO” in his Twitter bio, says that conservatives are angry at his attempts to appease the left.

“You can always rely on him to come out with some mealy mouthed position that plots himself between one side and the other,” said Meehan, who has not decided whether to challenge Fitzpatrick again in 2022. “He’s got this maniacal addiction to bipartisanship.”

Meehan was one of several hundred people from Bucks County who attended Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington on Jan. 6, but said he and his group never went to the Capitol.

Republicans in the district are closely watching Fitzpatrick’s actions in Washington, but so far, he hasn’t seemed to lose his shine.

Debbie Brown, a 66-year-old Republican retiree from Newtown, said she was “very disappointed” that Fitzpatrick voted to strip Greene of her committee assignments.

But Brown, who still supports Trump, said she plans to vote for Fitzpatrick again and does not want him to face a primary. “He’s very well liked,” she said.

Representative Tom Cole spoke during a House Rules Committee hearing on the first impeachment of President Trump in 2019.
Representative Tom Cole spoke during a House Rules Committee hearing on the first impeachment of President Trump in 2019. Andrew Harnik/Associated Press

A Republican institution navigates Trump waters in red Oklahoma

ADA, Okla. — For years, Representative Tom Cole forged a reputation as a moderate social conservative in a solidly Republican district of a reliably red state.

The former fourth-ranking House Republican, Cole, 72, has the name recognition and full campaign coffers that come with serving 10 terms in Congress. But Republicans and even some Democrats attribute Cole’s staying power to more than just incumbency: He is widely respected and well liked, part of an old guard of establishment Republicans who have sought to put country over party.

“He is always willing to answer the tough questions and be honest, and he takes the time to explain his thought process,” said Emily Virgin, a Democrat and minority leader in the Oklahoma House of Representatives.

That is why she and many others were surprised when Cole joined 139 House Republicans in January in voting to overturn the November election results that declared Joe Biden president. But a close look at the political headwinds that swept through Cole’s district during Donald Trump’s presidency helps explain his vote. The political polarization there, as in much of America, has become deeper, the rural-urban divide starker, and the Trump-admiring element of the Republican Party louder, analysts said.

“The challenge for Cole is that the people he predominantly hears from support Trump,” said Lance Janda, a history professor and chairperson of the social sciences department at Cameron University in Lawton. “He is trying to keep them happy while trying to carve out a choice — a Republican choice, a conservative choice — he can live with.”

There is an independent streak in Oklahoma. It was a hotbed for socialism in the early 20th century. And voters legalized medical marijuana statewide in 2018, so it is not uncommon to see smoke shops at shopping plazas or marijuana leaves spray-painted on the sides of rustic buildings.

Emily Virgin, a Democrat and minority leader in the Oklahoma House of Representatives, in the rotunda of the state capitol building on Feb. 24.
Emily Virgin, a Democrat and minority leader in the Oklahoma House of Representatives, in the rotunda of the state capitol building on Feb. 24.Trace Thomas for The Boston Globe

But in recent years, religious conservatism has faded and given way to Trumpian conservatism, said Rachel Blum, an assistant professor of American politics at the University of Oklahoma. Now you can find “whatever flavor of red you want,” she said of the political environment.

Cole’s job has gotten harder as Trump activated the conservative base, intensifying the political clashes between pro-Trump Republicans and progressive Democrats in Oklahoma’s scarce blue pockets, as well as between rural Republicans and the traditional business wing of his party.

His district spans all of these divisions. It skirts the capital of Oklahoma City and encompasses 15 counties to the south, including the cities of Ada, where the Chickasaw Nation has its headquarters, and Norman, a majority-white college town with a liberal bent that is home to the University of Oklahoma.

Most of the district’s 765,000 population is concentrated in the more urban north. The rest is largely rural, with country roads winding through grassy farmland where a few Trump flags still fly and lonely pumpjacks draw out oil from the earth.

Cole, a former history professor and a member of the Chickasaw Nation, has maintained steady support by reaching across the aisle, consistently bringing in funding for the University of Oklahoma and the area’s military institutions, and consolidating support from Native American tribes.

In the Trump years, he tried to thread a needle among the Republican factions: He stayed out of the limelight and stayed late at his town halls, mixing with voters.

Days after rioters attacked the US Capitol on Jan. 6, Cole issued a statement saying “the shameful perpetrators” should be held accountable and that the president “should also realize that his words carry meaning and accept responsibility for them.” But he still came out against Trump’s impeachment.

“Impeaching President Donald Trump, who has conceded the election and will leave office in a week, is not the answer,” he said. “Doing so will only worsen divisions nationwide.”

Cole hasn’t escaped the wrath of his most liberal constituents, who point to his record of voting with Trump more than 95 percent of the time. As he poured antifreeze into his dusty 1982 Chevy El Camino in Ada, Choctaw activist David Hill denounced Cole for aligning himself with what he called an anti-Indian president who has exacerbated racism.

“I don’t keep track of all of his activities, but the mere fact that he supported Trump and his presidency is enough to make me leery of anything that Cole would advocate for,” said Hill, a member of the American Indian Movement, which fights for the civil rights of Native Americans.

Still, Cole’s biggest threat, if there is one, is most likely to come from the energized right. Some pro-Trump Republicans, nourished on far-right-wing distortions, falsely believe that left-wing activists likely planned the Capitol insurrection, and that some House Republicans, like Cole, have cowered instead of defending Trump.

“There is unrest in the system, there is a feeling that this district is not being represented by a conservative voice,” said James Taylor, a Republican teacher and pastor who has challenged Cole in a Republican primary three times and plans a fourth next year.

Jeff Gonda, a doctoral music student with a focus on choral conducting at the University of Oklahoma, at the school's Catlett Music Center in Norman, Okla., on Feb. 24.
Jeff Gonda, a doctoral music student with a focus on choral conducting at the University of Oklahoma, at the school's Catlett Music Center in Norman, Okla., on Feb. 24.Trace Thomas for The Boston Globe

Conservatives trying to hew closer to the center find it a struggle to navigate this political minefield. Jeff Gonda, 33, a graduate student at the University of Oklahoma music school, said he prefers to keep his mouth shut.

“There are people who call me a communist and a fascist, and I’m like, ‘It can’t be both,’ ” he said.

Yet so far, few believe Cole will be in danger of losing his seat. He seems to have appeased at least some pro-Trump Republicans, who say Cole was right to vote on the issue in a way that reflects their desires.

Those in Cole’s district who are frustrated with his support of Trump would rather talk about Biden’s faults. Walking his dog in Norman, Carl Russell, 60, a truck driver and registered Independent, said he voted for Trump in 2016 because of his foreign policy stances. But he found the Capitol attack outrageous and described Republicans who believe the election was stolen as “not rational.”

Still, he doubted that Cole’s blasting Trump would make a difference.

“He’s pretty old,” he said. “He’s not going to be around a lot longer, anyway.”


Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood. Liz Goodwin can be reached at elizabeth.goodwin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin. Reach Jazmine Ulloa at jazmine.ulloa@globe.com or on Twitter: @jazmineulloa.