ARIEL: Hi. This is Ariel (ph) and Powell (ph) in Sterling, Mass. We just got a new puppy, and the only thing that seems to calm him down is listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
POWELL: This podcast was recorded at...
ASMA KHALID, HOST:
1:19 p.m. Eastern time on Wednesday, June 22.
POWELL: Things may have changed by the time you hear it.
ARIEL AND POWELL: OK. Here's the show.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")
KHALID: I'm glad to be of service.
SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: (Laughter).
KHALID: I'm really not sure we're the most soothing voices, but, you know.
ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: What I would give to have my dog be an NPR fan.
DAVIS: You'd call it a pup-cast (ph).
KHALID: (Laughter) That was good, Sue. Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.
DAVIS: I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.
LOPEZ: I'm Ashley Lopez. I cover politics.
KHALID: And today on the show, the ongoing threat to American democracy. Yesterday's January 6 committee hearing focused on the pressure campaign former President Donald Trump, his campaign staff and outside advisers placed on elected officials and election administrators around the country to subvert the will of the voters in the 2020 presidential election. They did not succeed in overturning the 2020 election, of course, but they did succeed in poking holes in American democracy. And in the months since then, the pressure on democracy has only persisted.
And, Sue, I want to start with you. You were in Nashville last week reporting at the Faith and Freedom Coalition convention put on by this conservative Christian group. And President Trump spoke. He was still pushing election fraud claims.
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DONALD TRUMP: I said, well, what happens when you have more votes than you have voters? Doesn't matter - it doesn't matter, doesn't - nothing matters.
KHALID: And, Sue, from your reporting, it sounds like these kinds of comments still have some purchasing power among at least some of the folks you were speaking with.
DAVIS: Oh, absolutely. I mean, one of the truths about Donald Trump's ongoing lies about the election is that they have really taken hold. I mean, this is a coalition of, you know, faith voters, most of them very conservative. This was thousands of people. I spent two days talking to them, and to the one, I did not speak to a person that believed that the election was decided fairly. So even as you have all this testimony in Washington from Republican officials, from former Attorney General Bill Barr, from people that worked in the administration, from Republican election administrators, it hasn't made a dent. And further, I'd even say that this is the kind of crowd where they're not even paying attention. They're not watching the hearings. They don't - it doesn't have any credibility. And the message that Donald Trump has tried to deliver, while completely wrong and devoid of actual truth or fact, is not true here. They believe him, and they do not believe the 2020 election was legitimate.
KHALID: So, Ashley, I want to bring you into this conversation as well. You were reporting at the Texas Republican Convention the other day, where delegates explicitly put election denial into their platform. And I saw some of the coverage of this. And I will say, I was - it just seemed so kind of otherworldly to me that there is a state party where this is being put into explicit language during the time period where we're all hearing this coverage of the January 6 hearings.
LOPEZ: I mean, if you were to talk to people who were there, though, this isn't surprising at all. Just like Sue, I didn't come across a single person who thought that Joe Biden legitimately won the 2020 election. I will say, though, like, people did kind of stop at the line of, like, supporting people who were at the Capitol - you know, the insurrectionists. Like, no one - I didn't hear a single person say that they thought that was OK. So I thought that was pretty interesting. Everyone's like, look; I don't agree that, you know, Biden legitimately won that election, but I did not agree with the people who sort of ransacked the Capitol that day.
DAVIS: I also think this is important because I do think - especially as Trump considers that he might run for president again, he kind of leaned really heavily into that in the speech in Nashville that he was going to do it - I think it makes his case stronger to the base because there is this sense that, like, something was taken from him.
KHALID: He was wronged.
DAVIS: Right - like, there was - and this is righting a wrong. And if he chooses to run again, I think that that will make a very compelling case to - these are the kind of voters that decide the nomination, right? Like, it's not reflective of the broader electorate, but they play a huge, outside role in deciding the nomination, and they believe this. And so I think that even as all this other information about Trump's role on January 6 comes to light and Congress continues to examine it, it digs the base in deeper behind him, and that plays to his advantage.
LOPEZ: I also, like, didn't come across anyone who blamed Trump at all for the insurrection, that, you know - Republican voters, like, a couple of them even said, like, we're the party of, you know, self-reliance and, you know, personal responsibility. Like, we blame all those people who were at the Capitol for their behavior. And they don't think that Trump had any role in that whatsoever.
KHALID: So a question for both of you. How closely would you say the voters that you met at these respective conventions actually mirror the view of Republican voters as a whole?
DAVIS: That's a good question because it was important for me to go out. It's always good to go out and talk to people because I know what I know based off polling data, right? And, like, polls show that the vast majority of self-identified Republicans - I think it's 60-, 70%, depending on which poll you look at - do not believe that the election was fair. That's a lot of people, right? And I feel like that tracks. Like, going into conventions where there's thousands of Republican voters and making it almost impossible to find someone who thinks that Joe Biden is a legitimate president had a heavy impact on me. It's like, oh, wow; this is a really deeply ingrained component of our politics now that is going to be an issue in 2024. And I think that, you know, even looking at the general electorate, we're still talking about 30-, 40% of the country. I mean, this is not fringe. It's not. It's a significant component of American society that now holds this view. Now, whether that view can be changed, I don't know. But I did not get the sense, talking to voters who feel this way, that there was much room for them to change their interpretation of the 2020 election.
LOPEZ: Yeah, but in conferences like this, this is still a subset of voters who's, like, really animated - right? - cares a lot about politics. And in general, like, I wouldn't say that most of the populace is as animated as these voters are, as engaged. And so, I mean - I think, like, the positions that these, like, these kinds of voters hold are always going to be less pliable because these are people who are not just super political, they're very active and, like, I don't know. I feel like...
KHALID: They're the activists in the party, you're saying.
KHALID: All right. Ashley Lopez, thank you very much for joining us. We always appreciate it. And come back soon.
LOPEZ: Yeah. Thank you.
KHALID: OK. We are going to take a quick break, and we will be back in a moment.
And we're back. And we're joined now by special guest Zach Hirsch of North Country Public Radio. Hey there, Zach.
ZACH HIRSCH, BYLINE: Hello.
KHALID: So I want to talk now about Elise Stefanik. She is the No. 3 House Republican. She replaced Liz Cheney, who was booted out of leadership for her willingness to impeach Donald Trump. And Stefanik is all in on election denial now.
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ELISE STEFANIK: Tens of millions of Americans are rightly concerned that the 2020 election featured unprecedented voting irregularities, unconstitutional overreach by unelected state officials and judges, ignoring state election laws and a fundamental lack of ballot integrity and ballot security.
KHALID: You know, this struck me because I remember hearing and seeing Elise Stefanik, actually, at the Harvard Institute of Politics some years ago. And it struck me that folks saw her as perhaps this moderate voice in the Republican Party.
KHALID: That is not what she sounds like today.
DAVIS: No. I mean, she's changed a lot, but politics have changed a lot. Stefanik came into Congress as sort of a Romney-Ryan Republican, a very, like, Bush-era, Ivy League kind of vibe about her. She came into Congress as a moderate, wanting to work across the aisle. But the thing I always say about Elise Stefanik that you have to keep in mind - and this is true of a lot of lawmakers - she has changed as her district has changed. She has been very savvily aware of the people she represents and how they have shifted to the right, and she has shifted right along with them. If you look at her congressional district, this is one of those places that elected Barack Obama twice. And now, going into the next election with the new districts, it's considered an R plus 17 district. That's a measure that just says this is really, really, really...
KHALID: Republican (laughter).
DAVIS: ...And this is Trump country. They love Donald Trump where she comes from. So I think her politics are best explained by the evolution of her district into a very different political place. But she has just moved right along with it.
KHALID: And, Zach, I mean, that shift is something, it seems, that's causing controversy because, you know, here she is questioning the 2020 election, but in the past, she has been working with some very pro-democracy groups around the globe.
HIRSCH: Mm hmm. Yeah, that's right. And it's a really interesting contrast. I mean, she spent a lot of her career doing that stuff. You mentioned the Institute of Politics, which ended up firing Stefanik after January 6. But she's also been with the National Endowment for Democracy. She's on the board of directors, in fact. And that group kind of embodies everything the United States is supposed to traditionally stand for on the world stage. They help activists and civil society groups in countries with autocratic leaders. And after January 6 and with some of the misinformation she was amplifying leading up to the 2020 election, that really upset a lot of the staff who are working there because that totally went against their core mission.
KHALID: And, you know, you talked about the Harvard Institute of Politics severing ties with her. But you've been reporting on Stefanik's role with the National Endowment for Democracy. You know, I'm curious how this has all been playing out.
HIRSCH: They took the opposite approach. I mean, they had some internal meetings. They heard the concerns from staff. They did put out a statement about January 6 saying, you know, they're appalled by the violence that day, but they ended up not removing Stefanik. And I tried to reach out to them. They didn't end up commenting for this story. But I did connect with staff members who were part of those meetings. And they were told, essentially, that, you know, the endowment is bipartisan. We can't be singling out individual board members or members of Congress for their politics because that will sort of compromise our political neutrality. And so they kept Stefanik on their board. And, in fact, she was a speaker at an Endowment event applauding some human rights activists. And then when her term was up this year, she was renewed for another term.
DAVIS: So how does she engage at these events? I mean, is she still sort of actively promoting democratic elections and fair processes? What's her level of engagement now?
HIRSCH: You know, she is. I mean, I can't say how many other events she's been part of. I know she was part of this one, big, public event, the October 2021 Democracy Awards. And all of her sort of election conspiracy theory stuff that she's been amplifying wasn't there at all. And it's kind of fascinating. She's talking about Nicaragua's consolidation into dictatorship. She's talking about, you know, the need to defend democracy there and support the activists doing that important work there. But around the same time as that very event, her campaign was putting out really controversial campaign ads that a lot of people might have heard about, falsely accusing Democrats of colluding with immigrants to stage a, quote, "permanent election insurrection." So it's really this weird contrast.
DAVIS: I mean, she benefits, as I think a lot of Republicans do, where, you know, they make these controversial decisions or statements, and they get criticized or attacked by it in the media. But in some ways, I think it makes her stronger back home. Like, again, this is a district that is very pro-Trump. So when she's being criticized by those forces - by Democrats, by mainstream media - she's kind of inoculated about it in her own election bubble. And so I don't think that she feels particularly vulnerable to that level of criticism because it's like, consider who the critics are.
KHALID: But what you've been describing, Sue, is a politician who's been extremely savvy at realizing the direction of her district and, frankly, as we were talking about earlier even, in some ways the direction of the activists within the Republican Party because...
KHALID: ...That's where the energy is right now. It sounds like the energy is in the conversation of election denial, right? Like, this is where a lot of the energy and activism is at this moment in the current Republican Party.
DAVIS: Sure. And, like, if you look at, especially for the House folks, like, most House Republicans don't face contested general elections. Almost all of them win reelection in their primaries. And there is no oxygen in a Republican primary right now for someone who is a critic of Donald Trump or who wants to run on a message of saying the 2020 election was a free and fair election. So that's just the reality. And I think Stefanik is very smart. She is very savvy. She does get these political dynamics, and she's playing them to her favor. Sure - I think there's a lot to criticize there (laughter), right? There's a lot to be cynical about that. But it doesn't mean that she's going to have political negative effects for her own political fortunes.
KHALID: All right. That is a wrap for today. Zach Hirsch of North Country Public Radio, thank you so much for joining us.
HIRSCH: Yeah. Thank you all.
KHALID: And just a heads-up that tomorrow we will be in your feeds as usual, but just a little bit later in the day because we'll be there to wrap the latest from the January 6 committee hearings. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.
DAVIS: And I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.
KHALID: And thank you all, as always, for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")
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