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Some Republicans approve of Russia's help in elections

Rick Newman
Senior Columnist

American intelligence officials say Russia is still trying to interfere with U.S. elections, as the November midterms approach. And Russian dictator Vladimir Putin has said he prefers Donald Trump in the White House.

That’s okay with some Republicans, according to a Yahoo Finance/SurveyMonkey poll of 2,509 Americans conducted July 25-27. In the survey, 11% of people who identify as Republican or lean Republican say it’s “appropriate” for Russia to help Republicans keep control of Congress in the upcoming elections. Another 29% say it’s “not appropriate, but wouldn’t be a big deal” for the Russians to help. So combined, 40% of Republicans either approve of Russian interference, or don’t strongly object to it.

It’s illegal for foreign nationals to contribute money or offer any “thing of value” in connection with a U.S. election, at any level of government. Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence (appointed by President Trump), has said consistently that Russia interfered in the 2016 election that put Trump in the White House. He has also said Russian efforts to disrupt U.S. elections are “ongoing.” Virtually nobody in the intelligence community disputes this.

It’s far less clear whether those Russian efforts, which involved aggressive social-media campaigning and other measures the FBI is still investigating, swung the election to Trump in 2016. But the mere prospect seems to unnerve Trump, who has repeatedly attacked the idea that Russian operatives played any meaningful role in his election. And Trump routinely mocks the inquiry by special counsel Robert Mueller, whose mission is to determine what Russia did, and who may have collaborated.

There’s intriguing evidence Russians are still up to their old tricks, and may be testing out some new ones. Facebook has reportedly told members of Congress it recently discovered and disabled at least 30 accounts that may have been operated by Russians posing as American political activists. That’s one tactic the Russians used in 2016, when they tried to instigate conflict among people interested in touchy political issues, such as gun rights and social justice.

In mid-July, the FBI arrested an alleged Russian operative, Maria Butina, who for several years worked to connect Russian officials with influential people in the American conservative movement, including the National Rifle Association. The FBI may be investigating whether Russian money made its way into political activities funded by the NRA, which would be illegal. The NRA spent heavily on Trump in 2016. In response to public questions on the matter from Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the NRA said the questions were “overbroad” and couldn’t’ be answered. “The NRA’s responses to Wyden have been surprisingly cagey,” says Brendan Fischer of the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center, a campaign finance watchdog. “It would have been fairly easy to deny any foreign funding, but their responses were very carefully worded.”

Yahoo Finance partnered with SurveyMonkey on a poll to see how much Americans care about Russian interference. (Read the methodology here.) When we asked for people’s views about Russian interference in 2016, 57% of all respondents said it’s not appropriate and it’s a big deal, while 22% said they didn’t think Russia tried to interfere. Thirteen percent said Russian interference in 2016 was inappropriate, but not a big deal, while just 3% of all respondents said Russian interference was appropriate. Among Republicans, 4% thought Russian interference was appropriate. Here are the full results, including the breakdowns by party:

Source: SurveyMonkey poll for Yahoo Finance

The questions were different when we asked about the upcoming 2018 elections. We asked Republicans and Democrats separately how they would feel if the Russians interfered in a way that helped their own party, and the opposing party, in November. And minorities in both parties said they wouldn’t mind an illegal assist. While 40% of Republicans said they’d approve or only mildly object, 14% of Democrats felt the same way. Here are those numbers, with the relevant findings highlighted:

Source: SurveyMonkey poll for Yahoo Finance

Views toward Russian interference may be skewed, in part, by the combative nature of the Trump presidency. “I think these results are driven by partisan loyalties,” says Emily Ekins, director of polling for the libertarian Cato Institute, who has authored a detailed analysis of Trump voters. “While it’s a shockingly high number of Republicans who say it’s not a big deal, what you’re seeing is, they’re defending the candidate they voted for – Donald Trump.” In a less divisive environment, without Trump, she thinks the portion of Republicans okay with Russian interference would probably be lower.

The majority of Americans remain strongly opposed to Russian interference. Among all respondents, 72% are strongly opposed to the Russians helping Republicans, and 77% are strongly opposed to the Russians helping Democrats. It’s worth keeping in mind that neither political party represents a majority of Americans, so a minority view within a party represents an even smaller slice of the overall electorate.

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Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman

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