Earlier this month, the MAGA world was elated when Republican attorney Charlie Spies resigned from his position as the Republican National Committee’s top lawyer after two tumultuous months on the job.  

Following a sustained campaign to oust the veteran party attorney and strategist from his role as chief counsel to the RNC, Trump partisans saw the removal of Spies as a final, triumphant blow to the “establishment” wing of the GOP within the national organization. “President Trump woke up to the fact that he didn’t want a RINO in there who is doing nothing on the election integrity front,” declared Steve Bannon on his popular podcast. Trump himself crowed in a now-deleted Truth Social post that Spies’ ouster was “great news for the Republican Party.”

Despite framing his departure as voluntary, Spies was most likely forced out of his role by the former president after months of vociferous protest from the MAGA faithful. From the moment Spies’ RNC appointment was announced, Trump supporters began uncovering old quotes and videos of him criticizing the former president and rejecting conspiracy theories about the 2020 election. Though Spies was eager to help his most fire-breathing RNC colleagues in their “election integrity” drive, he could not escape from his past. 

Spies was always a curious choice for chief counsel of the new RNC. When the Trump campaign took over the organization in early March after the candidate secured enough delegates for his party’s nomination, nearly all of the leadership positions went to committed Trump loyalists. This included Trump’s daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, as co-chair. Spies, the lone outsider brought on during the transition, was recruited by top Trump aide Chris LaCivita, who serves as the RNC’s chief of staff. LaCavita is a battle-hardened veteran of Republican politics who has helped bring discipline and structure to Trump’s third presidential run. He hired Spies for his experience in campaign finance and deep understanding of election laws — or rather, how to evade them. Spies could be seen as the candidate of the small but influential “professional” wing of the Trump campaign (which includes the top Trump aide Susie Wiles).

Trump himself crowed in a now-deleted Truth Social post that Spies’ ouster was “great news for the Republican Party.”

The hiring of prominent election denier Chirstina Bobb to lead the RNC’s new “election integrity” division as senior counsel was far more consistent with Trump’s hires. In 2020, Bobb played multiple roles in the effort to delegitimize, and ultimately, overturn the election, including through dogged promotion of conspiracy theories as a reporter for the  pro-Trump broadcaster One America News Network. While parroting falsehoods on television, Bobb moonlighted as an unofficial adviser on Trump’s legal team, which was then plotting how to keep the president in office. Bobb focused most of her energy on her home state of Arizona, where she coordinated with the Trump team and state officials in an effort to install “fake electors” who would vote for Trump instead of the actual winner of the state, Joe Biden. These efforts have since landed Bobb — like so many of Trump’s lawyers — in legal trouble. She was among the 18 people indicted in Arizona last month for their role in the “fake electors” scheme. 

Among the MAGA faithful, in contrast, Spies was seen as an establishment plant working to undermine these efforts from within. (That he lasted as long as he did was likely due to the efforts of LaCivita and other Trump aides who reportedly vouched for the lawyer). But the truth is he had no serious political disagreements with the tactics or goals of his more Trumpian colleagues. He was forced out for the unpardonable offense of having once told the truth. By rejecting the lie that the 2020 election was stolen, Spies had revealed himself to be a disloyal “RINO,” forever suspect, and unworthy to serve in the Party of Trump. 

In the years since Spies made those comments, however, he and other Republicans who initially pushed back against claims of widespread voter fraud have countenanced the Orwellian push for “election integrity” that Trump and MAGA Republicans like Bobb have made central to their political program. Spies’s decision to jump onto the Trump train evinced a broader authoritarian shift within Republican politics. Today, there are scarcely any “never-Trumpers” left inside the GOP. The party has devolved into an organization that is no longer just ambivalent about democracy; it is downright hostile towards it. 

As dramatic as this transformation has been, it should not obscure the fact that the Republican attack on voting rights and democratic elections did not begin with Trump. Old guard Republicans are as much to blame for the sorry state of American democracy as MAGA Republicans like Bobb. Indeed, there are few figures who embody the GOP’s pre-Trumpian assault on democracy more than Charlie Spies. 

Before Trump came to Washington in 2016, Spies was a rising star in Republican politics. In 2015, he found himself ranked at number two on Politico’s list of the 50 most important “thinkers, doers and visionaries transforming American politics.” Spies shared his top spot on the list with longtime president of Citizens United, David Bossie, whose organization had helped open the floodgates of corporate money into American politics five years earlier with the notorious Supreme Court ruling, Citizens United v. FEC. Since then, Spies had made himself indispensable to Republican politicians looking to unleash the power of Super PACs. The Intercept would describe him in 2016 as “arguably the most important Republican campaign finance lawyer in American politics.” In Politico’s flattering profile, Spies was credited with creating a “playbook that allows candidates to maximize the new flood of money into politics.” 

Spies established his reputation during the 2012 presidential election, when he co-founded and ran the pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future, which raised and spent more than $150 million to support that year’s Republican candidate. Though his candidate ultimately lost, Spies became widely known as a campaign finance whiz who understood the intricacies of election law and how to navigate the post-Citizens United landscape. “As long as we have a Constitution, outside money’s not going anyplace,” Spies boldly proclaimed in 2013. 

Three years later, Spies once again backed the presidential candidate widely seen as the establishment favorite, Jeb Bush. Proving once again that he was a master of political fundraising, the lawyer advised Bush to launch an “exploratory” super PAC months before he officially announced his campaign. This clever maneuver allowed the candidate to skirt campaign finance regulations and raise enormous sums before he was even in the race, making a complete mockery of the election laws that forbid super PACs from coordinating directly with candidates and their campaigns. Spies went on to serve as general counsel and treasurer for Bush’s super PAC, which would ultimately rake in more than $120 million for the candidate who failed to win a single primary. 

After his candidate dropped out of the race, Spies spent the rest of the 2016 election taking shots in the press at the man who eventually did win the nomination. Like many in the GOP establishment, Spies found Trump vulgar and toxic to the Republican brand, even suggesting at one point that some Trump supporters were “probably Democrats.” Spies had many complaints about Trump, including his disturbing ability to “whip up crowds” and direct them at “segments of society that get scapegoated.” On a more personal note, he lambasted Trump for going “out of his way to offend” the big donors who had funded candidates like Bush and Romney. Spies would also rebuke the candidate for his baseless claims that the election was “rigged,” which foreshadowed the “big lie” that he would espouse after losing the 2020 election. “[T]here is not and has not been any indication of systemic rigging of elections in America, and it’s extremely dangerous to make those unfounded claims,” said Spies.

Old guard Republicans are as much to blame for the sorry state of American democracy as MAGA Republicans like Bobb.

More than four years later, after Trump predictably refused to accept the results of the 2020 election, Spies would yet again push back on the former president’s claims of fraud. “I may get booed off the stage for this, but I have to say that’s simply not true. There is just zero evidence that’s true,” he said at that year’s CPAC, responding to a question about rigged voting machines. Sure enough, Spies earned jeers from both the crowd and his co-panelists, who by then had fully embraced the conspiracy theories then being propagated by MAGA pundits like Christina Bobb. 

Over the previous months, Bobb had cemented her own reputation as a MAGA warrior by parroting easily disproved allegations of systemic election fraud on OAN. Less than a week before Spies shot down election conspiracy theories, Bobb’s “investigations” had culminated in a segment on her weekend political show called “Arizona Election Heist,” which made numerous allegations of election fraud in Arizona’s Maricopa County. Among the multiple falsehoods promoted by Bobb was the claim that votes had been pre-loaded into the county’s tabulating machines and that there had been 11,000 more votes than registered voters in the county (in fact, there were about half a million more registered voters than votes cast in the county of 4.5 million). Later that year, Bobb was named as one of the co-defendants in a defamation lawsuit filed against OAN by Dominion Voting Systems, the voting machine company that Bobb and her colleagues had previously accused of rigging the election in states like Arizona and Georgia. 

At the same time that Bobb was publicly promoting claims of fraud on her show and working to help Trump and his team overturn the election, she was also raising money to fund the widely condemned “sham” audit of the Maricopa County vote. It would later be revealed that Bobb had coordinated with the pro-Trump cybersecurity firm conducting the audit, relaying messages directly from the former president. 

Unlike many of those who promoted false claims of widespread fraud after the 2020 election, Bobb appears to be genuine in her delusions. As The New York Times put it in a 2022 report, Bobb is one of Trump’s “truest of true believers,” so much so that even her own colleagues have felt her embrace of conspiracy theories to be “over the top.” Still, Bobb’s unwavering devotion to Trump and her central role in the “stop the steal” movement established her as one of Trump’s most loyal foot soldiers. In March 2022, she left OAN for a staff position at Trump’s leadership PAC, Save America, which has since become known primarily for paying the former president’s exorbitant legal bills.

Spies and Bobb represent two very different sides of the same right-wing assault on democracy that has been unfolding for the better part of the last 50 years. On the one hand, Spies embodies the outsized influence of money in politics and the incredible power of big donors and lobbyists in Washington, which has steadily eroded trust in America’s political system. On the other hand, Bobb represents a MAGA base that has grown fundamentally distrustful of American institutions and unwilling to accept electoral defeat without resorting to political violence (or threats of violence). 

For most people, the image of a riotous mob storming the halls of the capital is far more gut-wrenching and horrifying than the thought of lobbyists swarming the capital with boatloads of corporate cash to shape the country’s laws. The MAGA mob is a much more immediate and visible threat to democracy than the K-Street crowd. But democratic erosion is a long-term trend, and establishment Republicans like Spies and Mitch McConnell have arguably done far more damage to our democratic institutions over the years than Donald Trump and his army of malcontents. 

In 2020, most old guard Republicans publicly condemned Trump’s brazen efforts to overturn the election, but not out of some deep-seated commitment to democracy and the rule of law. Rather, they balked at Trump’s blundering attempt because of how utterly harebrained and ridiculous the entire scheme was. While many top Republicans rejected the lie that the 2020 election was stolen, this did not stop them from exploiting these same claims to pass a slew of voter suppression laws in its aftermath (Just a few months after Georgia governor Brian Kemp defied Trump’s election interference efforts in Georgia, for example, he signed one of the most restrictive voting laws since Jim Crow into law).

The RNC will continue this effort to undermine voting rights in the coming months. Indeed, the party has already filed dozens of election-related lawsuits that, if successful, could disenfranchise an untold number of voters. Not surprisingly, the organization has concentrated most of its energy and resources on key battleground states, where limiting turnout has become an important part of the GOP’s election strategy. 

Unlike many of those who promoted false claims of widespread fraud after the 2020 election, Bobb appears to be genuine in her delusions.

Within the first week of Spies and Bobb joining the organization, the RNC filed multiple lawsuits against state officials in swing states like Nevada and Michigan alleging that voter rolls are “bloated with ineligible voters.” These lawsuits employ faulty data to push for the removal of more voters from the registration rolls. More recently, the RNC filed a federal lawsuit with the Trump campaign challenging an election law in Nevada that allows election officials to count mail-in ballots postmarked by election day up to four days after the election. Nineteen states have similar rules on the books, and the RNC has previously sued to overturn such laws in Mississippi and North Dakota, where they hope to find a more sympathetic judge. 

The RNC’s “election integrity” strategy goes well beyond lawsuits. Last month, the party revealed its plans to mobilize and deploy over 100,000 “dedicated volunteers and attorneys” across battleground states to “monitor” this year’s election. In 2020, Republican volunteers on the ground were responsible for producing most of the baseless claims that drove the Trump team’s hapless legal effort to invalidate votes and decertify elections in states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Georgia. Many of these poll watchers harassed and threatened election workers during and after the election, forcing some into hiding and driving many others to quit out of fear for their safety. Now, an “army” twice the size will mobilize yet again to “guard the vote” at polling stations across the country. As part of the program, the RNC plans set up “Republican Party War Rooms” and operate “Election Integrity Hotlines” in each battleground state, fielding all questions and reports of perceived malfeasance, with hundreds of lawyers waiting on standby to file legal challenges in real time. 

According to reports, Spies was closely involved in crafting these strategies and “enthusiastically embraced” the expanding drive for “election integrity.” Thus, in addition to his work in campaign finance, where he helped lay the foundation for our dark money system, Spies was ready to argue “against the right to vote and in favor of voter intimidation and election subversion,” as Democratic lawyer Mark Elias put it back in March.

With his departure, Bobb will likely play a greater role in developing the program going forward. This is a victory for the MAGA partisans who pushed for Spies’s ouster. But it could also be good news for those defending our elections from the right’s sham quest for “election integrity.” Time and again, establishment Republicans like Spies have proven to be far more capable foes of democracy than their MAGA peers. With so much at stake, one can only hope for continued success in the MAGA right’s ongoing effort to purge the GOP of every last competent person willing to serve in their anti-democratic crusade.

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