Tens of thousands of Republicans have left the party in the weeks since the Jan. 6 riot at the US Capitol, a move that sidelines members who could have loosened Donald Trump’s ever-tightening grip on the GOP.
In six key states, 57,000 voters have quit the GOP, becoming Democrats, Libertarians or just unaffiliated, according to a Bloomberg analysis. Nationally, some estimates put the number at more than 100,000.
That’s a sliver of the 74.2 million people who voted for Trump in November, but some Republican leaders, like Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, see the departures as a “warning sign.”
Yet the actual effect on partisan politics might be the opposite of what was intended. The remaining Republicans are likely to be those most loyal to Trump — which could help Trump-backed candidates get elected in primaries that often are decided by just a few votes. And in states that favor Republicans, that could bolster their chances in a general election.
Polls show Trump’s role in encouraging supporters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 has tarnished the Republican brand nationally. Still, three quarters of Republicans are telling pollsters they want the former president to continue playing a prominent role in the GOP.
Trump, unlike other recent ex-presidents, is making a clear bid to continue leading his party, starting with a speech in Florida on Sunday to the Conservative Political Action Conference. He’s also vowing to punish Republicans who criticized him over the Jan. 6 riot and is pledging to support their challengers in GOP primaries.
That’s where the departures could make a difference. With fewer moderates in the party, it becomes more beholden to Trump’s populist base — who will likely stay engaged — ahead of House and Senate elections next year.
The shifting dynamics could sway the outcome of Republican primaries next year in several states where most if not all the voters must be registered Republicans. The retirements of Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania and Richard Burr in North Carolina are already drawing multiple Republicans who’d like to replace them. And a possible candidate in North Carolina might be Trump’s daughter-in-law, Lara Trump.
Republicans will also nominate someone to run against Democratic Senator Mark Kelly in Arizona, who’s serving a partial term. And 87-year-old Republican Chuck Grassley of Iowa plans to soon announce whether he’ll seeking re-election.
In Iowa, at least 3,139 Republicans have left the party since Jan. 6 — a small percentage of the 700,000 Republicans in the state. But the all-important Iowa caucuses, which traditionally have kicked off the presidential nomination process, are often decided by hundreds of votes. Ex-Republicans would not be able to participate in the caucus and boost an anti-Trump candidate unless they rejoined the party.
With lower turnout and multiple candidates, primaries are often decided by narrow margins. In 2016, a five-way Republican primary for a Colorado Senate seat was decided by 45,725 votes. That same year, even John McCain, the celebrated Arizona senator and one-time GOP standard-bearer, had to fight off three challengers whose combined totals came within 13,909 votes of him.
The tarnished image of the GOP since Trump encouraged throngs of his supporters to march on the Capitol and “stop the steal” has inspired even some Republican officeholders to move on.
In reliably conservative Arkansas, State Senator Jim Hendren — a possible candidate for governor next year against Trump’s former press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders — announced that he, too, was leaving the Republican Party because of Trump’s actions on Jan. 6.
But the party switching that began Jan. 6 seemed to be a new phenomenon, enabled in part by the ease of switching registration online.
Robert Farnham, 51, a financial services consultant from Charlotte, North Carolina, who said he had been a registered Republican from when he voted for George H.W. Bush in 1988, seized the opportunity.
“I saw myself as a middle-of-the road independent,” Farnham said.
“And then the Capitol thing was just a nightmare. Seeing that, it really solidified my thinking that where the Republican Party is today is not where it was in the 80s,” he added. “I thought one of the ways I could show my displeasure is to make that statement from a party registration standpoint.”
On Jan. 20 — Joe Biden’s inauguration day — Farnham formally joined the Democratic Party.
He is typical of North Carolina Republican defectors. Those leaving the party in the increasingly bipartisan state are overwhelmingly white and mostly male with an average age of 49. And they’re mostly suburban, concentrated in precincts surrounding Charlotte, Raleigh and Durham, the kind of voters Democrats need to win over.
Unlike Farnham, most former Republicans decided to remain unaffiliated, meaning they could participate in either primary.
In Colorado, 11 Republicans have quit for every Democrat who’s left, according to data compiled by Benjamin Engen, a Colorado economist and Republican strategist. That’s a departure from the past four years, when traditional Republicans who dropped out were largely replaced by the kind of populist blue-collar voter that Trump brought into the party, Engen said.
Fewer than 5% of the departing Republicans in Colorado have registered as Democrats. The rest are unaffiliated or have registered with a third party. In Colorado’s semi-closed primary system, those unaffiliated voters can vote in either party’s primary but are less likely to vote Republican.
“It’s that vocal minority who’s going to show up and vote in a primary election,” Engen said. “There’s no incentive to have a moderating voice.”
Party registrations are often a lagging indicator of people’s actual voting patterns, said Matthew Thornburg, a political scientist at the University of South Carolina Aiken who studies voter behavior. But party registrations can also bind people to a party long after their attitudes shift.
“These people might have been Biden voters anyway, and then this attack happened at the Capitol and they finally said, ‘I’ve got to do something,’” he said.“But if these voters are people who are being turned off by the Trumpiness of the Republican Party, then they’re being removed from the pool of voters in the Republican primaries.”