McDaniel did not mention former President Donald Trump, who has for years criticized early, absentee and mail-in voting and falsely claimed the methods led to widespread voter fraud that cost him the election. Y a spokesman said his comments were not directed at the former president.
But privately, Republican operatives admit that Trump has put their party in an electoral bind and that the problems extend beyond voting methods.
“We can sit here and talk about voting by mail and use that as an excuse, but that’s like an alcoholic saying he won’t drink gin anymore, only beer,” said a senior GOP campaign official. “We have 99 issues and voting by mail is one.”
There is a growing sense of alarm among the ranks of the Republican Party that the conspiracy theories Trump promoted about early voting and mail-in ballots not only hurt them badly in the recently completed midterms, but could take several cycles to remedy. . Republican committees and groups have been working to educate voters on laws related to early voting and plan to intensify those efforts. But they’re not just up against Trump and his hulking megaphone, but also a slew of conservative leaders who are now falsely claiming that early voting and mail-in ballots are tainted.
“[P]people are taking notice, even the Trumpists,” veteran Republican strategist Karl Rove, who heads RITE, a new voter integrity project, said in an interview. “It is a sad comment that we have to do that and there is resistance. It’s creating a class of people who can believe for a long time that elections are robbery as long as there are mail-in ballots, and that makes people say that my vote doesn’t count, that I don’t need to bother voting.”
Republicans hoping to change their voters’ perceptions of voting by mail have seen some positive developments in recent days, as some major skeptics have emerged, noting that Democrats have emphasized early voting to rack up big advantages before of the day of the elections.
After the Georgia runoff election showed Republican Herschel Walker would likely lose, Fox News host Sean Hannity questioned the “reluctance some Republicans in many states have to vote early and vote by mail,” and he said it was time for the party to change its ways. “He’s absolutely right,” agreed House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy. Another Fox host, Laura Ingraham, was visibly agitated when she discussed the issue with former Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, who said Republicans need to store ballots early.
“How come we didn’t? We didn’t do it in 2020, because people were saying, ‘Don’t vote early, because that’s corrupt,’” Ingraham said. “Lots of people did. [say that]at the top of the Republican Party.”
Two top potential contenders for 2024, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and former UN ambassador nikki haleyThey have also said that Republicans need to be smarter about early and absentee voting. And conservative commentator Charlie Kirk tweeted after the election that “one of the first lessons we have to learn from the midterms is the power of early voting.”
But those in the trenches believe that a true adoption of voting outside of Election Day will take some time. That’s because Republicans have historically been skeptical of election administration. And over the decades, many have also assumed that efforts to expand voting access mean opening avenues for fraud.
“Red states are taking the right steps to ensure that elections are secure. Our problem now is messaging and operational. We start by dismissing the Trump BS lies and telling people the truth about his vote and the power of his vote,” said a Republican strategist who worked on the Georgia midterm elections. “Who would have thought telling people ‘the election is rigged’ and then asking them to vote wouldn’t work?”
As Republicans begin to lay the groundwork for the party to embrace early and mail-in voting, they face a major hurdle: Trump has shown no enthusiasm for embracing the cause.
He has promoted conservative filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza’s documentary “2000 Mules,” which portrays vote-harvesting as a nefarious, highly coordinated operation choreographed by Democrats. And last week, she wrote on Truth Social: “REMEMBER, YOU CAN NEVER HAVE FAIR AND FREE ELECTIONS WITH MAIL BALLOTS-NEVER, EVER, EVER. IT CANNOT AND CANNOT HAPPEN!!!”
Trump has also added confusion by conflating absentee ballots, which can be requested before Election Day, and mail-in ballots, which are sent to all registered voters and used in only eight states, including California and Colorado. Unexcused absentee ballots are available in twenty seven states, including Arizona, Georgia and Florida. The former president suggested, without evidence, that sending millions of ballots by mail allows someone to take someone else’s ballot, fill it out, and mail it.
Top players point to Georgia as a prime example of the problems Trump-style skepticism can create. The former president criticized mail-in voting during the 2020 cycle, and Republican officials believe that by doing so he cost himself and Senate Republicans victories in the state. His campaign against the voting method only accelerated during the Georgia Senate runoff that followed his electoral defeat, during which both Republican candidates lost. And it has persisted through the 2022 cycle.
During Tuesday’s runoff election, Sen. Raphael Warnock won 64 percent of the absentee mail vote and nearly 58 percent of the early vote, according to figures published by the office of the secretary of state.
Republicans have singled out Florida as a state where they have successfully embraced early voting. And in California, Prioritized Republicans early voting and ballot harvesting, which is legal in the state, and they were able to hold several hotly contested House seats and win a open seat in the Central Valley during this cycle.
“The RNC abides by the rules set by each state and will leave no stone unturned to win as many races as possible on the ballot. The RNC invested millions of dollars before than ever to get Republicans to the polls during early voting periods and has successfully participated in states with election laws that allow for ballot collection,” said Nathan Brand, RNC spokesman.
It is widely expected that the RNC will focus on correcting perceptions about absentee, mail-in and early voting as part of its next review of party performance after the midterms. Blake Masters, the losing Arizona Republican Senate candidate who is on the review team, said the party needs to “modernize” to compete with the “Democrats’ GOTV early voting machine.”
Republicans too lawsuits filed to more strictly enforce or tighten state laws around absentee and mail-in voting, which critics say could disenfranchise voters.
It is a stance the NCR has taken for many cycles. But in the wake of the midterm elections, even some party members say too much time is being spent on litigation and not enough on voter education, outreach and mobilization.
“Republicans spent an inordinate amount of time complaining and suing over election rules,” said Kevin McLaughlin, former executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee for the 2020 election cycle and director of the GOP-aligned nonprofit Common Sense Leadership Fund. “Imagine how effective we would be if we spent half that time developing a strategy and, call me crazy, engaging voters.”