Editor’s Note: Geoff Duncan, a Republican, is the 12th lieutenant governor of Georgia serving alongside Gov. Brian Kemp. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
The political stars appeared to be aligning for the Republican Party ahead of the November midterm elections. According to CNN’s Poll of Polls, President Joe Biden’s approval rating dipped below 40%. Inflation hit a fresh 40-year high, and gas eclipsed $5 per gallon for the first time ever. Vulnerable Democratic incumbents rushed for retirement, while many Democratic Party officials questioned the 79-year-old President’s capability.
Then came last week’s start of the January 6 congressional hearings – and the stark reminder of the unanswered questions the GOP must confront before it can reoccupy the White House.
Simply put, any public official unwilling to immediately and consistently condemn the invasion of the Capitol on January 6 isn’t qualified to hold elected office. This should include congressional candidates, those vying for leadership positions in the next Congress, former President Donald Trump, as well as anyone in the “shadow race” underway for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024.
It is wrong to assume that voters will punish GOP candidates who stand up to Trump’s selfish election lies. Nationally, a May 2022 CBS News/YouGov poll found nearly half (48%) of Republican respondents described a fact-finding mission into January 6 as either “very” or “somewhat” important.
In my home state of Georgia, voters recently faced a choice between two Republican candidates for governor whose only significant policy difference involved the 2020 election. Incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp resisted Trump’s efforts and certified the results of the 2020 presidential election, stating his duty to “follow the laws of the constitution of this state.” His opponent, former Sen. David Perdue, grounded much of his candidacy on election lies, referring to the 2020 contest as “rigged and stolen.”
Georgia Republicans chose Kemp over Perdue by more than a 50-point margin, marking an embarrassing end to the latter’s career in public office. To be sure, Georgia’s results do not reflect the results of every primary race in the country, but they send a strong message of a potential changing trajectory within the Republican Party.
As the January 6 hearings have and will continue to lay bare, former influential members of Trump’s inner circle knew the truth. Former Attorney General William Barr was blunt in his word choice – dismissing the conspiracy theories, an assessment that Trump’s own daughter and senior adviser, Ivanka Trump, said she “respected.”
These are views that all elected Republicans should share. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy initially had it right in the aftermath of the attack when he declared Trump “bears responsibility.” These days, he has changed his tune for seemingly shallow political reasons and is claiming “everybody in the county” bears some degree of responsibility.
Despite his obfuscation, McCarthy’s bid for the House Speaker’s gavel may not be derailed. The current Democratic House majority is threadbare. Of the 33 races considered “toss up” by Cook Political Report, 24 are held by Democrats compared to just nine by Republicans. Layer on Biden’s dreary job approval and the odds are in the GOP’s favor of retaking the House this fall.
But dancing around the obvious truths of January 6 could disqualify aspiring White House hopefuls. A successful Republican candidate must do more than run against Biden’s perceived shortcomings or win a Republican primary. He or she must appeal to middle-of-the-road voters who may think the country is headed in the wrong direction – as 74% of independent voters did in a recent Reuters/Ipsos survey – but also understand that the 2020 election was not stolen. In other words, this candidate must appeal to the type of voters who think the attack on the Capitol was abhorrent and that “[t]he person who owns Jan. 6 is Donald Trump,” as the Wall Street Journal editorialized.
Before any Republicans can offer ourselves as credible alternatives to the status quo, we must get our own house in order. That means spending less time trying to splash on the Trump-branded cologne or stampeding to the far-right fringe.
It means a genuine effort at putting forward substantive ideas to address not only the issues dominating polls – inflation, the economy and fuel prices – but also the thornier political third rails, such as health care, the federal deficit and gun violence that require a sober-minded approach. Most importantly, it requires leaving no doubt where we stand on the insurrection.
Any notion that Trump’s conduct up to and during January 6 would look better over time is being put to the test by the harrowing scenes and the damning testimony in the ongoing hearings. It is time for Republicans across the country to realize – as we recently did in Georgia with the resounding defeat of Perdue – that Trump is a political falling knife with an extremely small handle.