Every election has different candidates, different moods, different circumstances. But all elections in America, going back to 1789, are generally about one thing: the future.
Voters in every election are asked whether they want to keep the status quo or usher in change. For open elections, it is about two different candidates’ visions of the future. But it is always about what’s next for America.
Political parties understand this. In the past, Republicans absolutely understood this. Ronald Reagan sold a new, optimistic vision of America in 1980. In 1994, Newt Gingrich-led Republicans wrote down what they wanted to do in a Contract With America for the midterm elections, and were rewarded by retaking the House for the first time in decades. In 2000, George W. Bush laid out a future theory for compassionate conservatism . Even Donald Trump’s 2016 slogan Make America Great Again was rooted in an idea of what he wanted America to be if he were elected.
But today, all the Republican Party can talk about is the past. On Friday, once again, the Republican headlines were all about internal disagreements about what happened on Jan. 6, 2021. In the most important ways, the past is all that matters for them now.
The Republican National Committee meeting in Salt Lake City should really be a jubilant, exciting time. President Biden, a Democrat, is experiencing the lowest approval ratings of his presidency. Democrats have their domestic agenda blocked by fellow Democrats. Election experts agree: the slim Democratic majorities in Congress will very likely flip to Republican majorities following the midterm elections later this year.
However, the conversation this week wasn’t about what Republicans could do in 2023 with this new power. Instead, it was about debating Biden’s victory in the 2020 election and trying to mitigate what happened a few months later, when supporters of former president Trump violently descended on the Capitol. Nine people on Capitol Hill that day eventually died, and approximately 150 people were injured, including many law enforcement members.
Indeed, the most consequential thing the Republican National Committee did Friday was pass a resolution that labeled the first attack on the Capitol in 200 years as “legitimate political discourse” and censured Republican Representatives Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger for serving on a committee investigating what happened.
Hours later came the counterpoint from former vice president Mike Pence. Speaking in Florida to the conservative legal group the Federalist Society, Pence said he had “no right to overturn the election” in 2020, again disputing a common Trump line.
“Frankly there is no idea more un-American than the notion that any one person could choose the American president,” said Pence, who was a target of both Trump and the mob’s ire on January 6.
Look around the nation. Virtually every open Republican primary, from governor to House to Senate, is rooted in the same question that opened a recent Ohio Republican Senate primary debate: Who won the 2020 election? Despite no thread of evidence that anyone other than Biden won, Republican candidates feel compelled to play into Trump’s lie in order to comply with the party’s matra.
Locally, in the Congressional race in New Hampshire’s First District, Republicans are engaged in a discussion about 2020. It is a defining question of the contest, the winner of which is likely to be a member of Congress due to Republican redistricting in the state.
Possibly topping all of this is what happened in Oklahoma. Trump won every county in the deeply Republican state in both 2016 and 2020. The Oklahoma State Election Board has rejected any notion of voter fraud, determining claims of voting machine manipulation were “entirely without merit.” But still, Oklahoma Republican Party Chair John Bennett said in a Facebook video that election integrity was a top issue of voters in his state. And now there are 22 bills in the legislature there to change voting laws.
Republicans are following their leader Donald Trump, whose latest rallies are mainly about the election he lost, not the party’s future. Looking back is now what the party and its members want to do.
But all the discussion about the past might complicate their future in elections.