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Question at Minnesota GOP gubernatorial debate: Did Joe Biden legitimately win the electoral college?

Hugh Hewitt deserves a pat on the back for asking this question. It’s an uncomfortable one at a GOP event since it’s destined to leave the candidates caught in no-man’s land. If they admit Biden won, they’ll alienate Republican primary voters. If they insist Trump won, they’ll risk alienating swing voters in the general election. And that’s not a luxury a Republican candidate can afford in a state Biden won by seven points.

It’s an essential question because it cuts to the heart of what it means to be a Republican in 2021. Are you willing to entertain a dangerous lie to avoid confronting your own voters with a hard truth? How much damage are you willing to do to the country to get ahead politically?

If, as governor, Trump asks you to overturn the results of your state’s election in 2024 based on a bare pretense of fraud, will you do it? Hewitt didn’t ask that but the answers here are a window onto how each candidate might respond.

So, definitely, this question should be asked of all GOP candidates to make them show their cards. But we should also expect that all of them (save a few who occupy a particular niche) will answer it the same way, with noncommittal prattle about “election integrity” and how no one can truly say, etc. The five candidates in the clip below blather on for minutes on end but all of their responses boil down to the same thing: Yes, Biden won, but I know that saying so will wreck my career. Watch a few minutes (and turn up the sound, as the audio’s not great):

Realistically, the only niche of candidates that’ll answer differently than these five did are those running in solidly red jurisdictions, where there’s little risk to endorsing the conspiracy theories cherished by the voting majority. If you’re running in Marjorie Taylor Greene’s district then sure, it’s in your self-interest to say that Biden cheated. But every Republican competing in a competitive race will have to tap dance the way these five did. (And by the way, here’s the explanation for why 9,000 more ballots in Arizona were “returned” than were sent out, which the first candidate mentions.)

Aaron Blake notes another example of a Republican candidate who knows better resorting to propaganda to flatter Trump and his voters:

What’s especially pathetic about Moreno is that he has little chance of cracking the top three in the Ohio Senate primary. Josh Mandel, J.D. Vance, and probably Jane Timken will finish ahead of him no matter what. What Moreno’s showing us here is that, for a Republican candidate, “stop the steal” isn’t even really about “getting ahead” at this point. It’s a matter of basic electoral viability. You embrace it the way you embrace gun rights, not because doing so will give you an advantage in a primary but because it’s an ideological litmus test that’ll disqualify you if you fail.

Frankly, given the frenzy with which Ohio’s Republican candidates keep trying to out-MAGA each other, I wonder if Moreno might eventually face attack ads for having acknowledged earlier that Biden won.

For GOP candidates, there’s no way out of this trap. Ramesh Ponnuru makes a point today that I’ve made before, that the party is stuck in a hostage situation with someone who’s clearly willing to shoot the hostage.

Jonathan Karl of ABC has reported that on the last day of his presidency, Trump threatened to destroy the Republican Party by starting a new one. That was two weeks after he had cost Republicans two Senate seats and consequently control of the chamber by attacking Georgia Republican officials and casting doubt about whether elections were administered honestly.

Since then, Trump has openly talked about how Republican voters won’t show up in 2022 or 2024 if Republicans don’t “solve the Presidential Election Fraud of 2020” — which can easily be read as a threat against Republicans who don’t indulge his landslide fantasy. If Kemp beats Perdue in the primary, Trump will likely campaign against him in the general election without worrying that a Democrat will profit from it. If Kemp then loses, Republicans looking for lessons about Trump will pay more attention to the end of his governorship than his primary victory.

Some Republican voters are MAGA but most are “Never Democrats.” Trump isn’t. He’d rather see a Democrat prevail than a Republican who’s defied him, as the latter’s victory calls into question his control over the party. Unless and until the “Never Democrat” wing of the party decides that it too prefers to see Dems win than MAGA Republicans — which it won’t, by definition — an asymmetry exists in which Republican candidates have to pander to Trump and his base to keep them happy and willing to turn out in the general election. They’re willing to shoot the hostage, the “Never Democrats” aren’t. And the candidates onstage last night in Minnesota know it, which is why not one would dare tell the truth.