Republicans use Rittenhouse verdict to court GOP voters

Republicans are lionizing Kyle Rittenhouse as they move to capitalize on the 18-year-old's newfound celebrity on the Right to score points with the conservative base in their campaigns.

After Rittenhouse was acquitted in a Wisconsin courtroom of murder and other felony charges stemming from his involvement in the Kenosha riots, prominent Republicans cheered, and he even sat for an interview with Fox News's Tucker Carlson. Statements of support poured in from former President Donald Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and Republicans running in competitive congressional primaries, including Senate candidates Blake Masters in Arizona and Jane Timken in Ohio.

"That could have been any of us," Masters said. "That could have been my son."

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Republican Mark McCloskey traveled to Kenosha for the trial, hoping to convert his support for Rittenhouse into a boost in his Missouri Senate prospects.

Meanwhile, in Texas, underdog Republican Don Huffines, waging an uphill battle to unseat Gov. Greg Abbott in a March 1, primary, was thick with praise for Rittenhouse, saying he "acted bravely to defend himself and his community," adding "Kyle's courage and resilience inspire us all."

In August 2020, Rittenhouse, then 17, crossed state lines packing a firearm and traveled to Kenosha in the middle of civil unrest stemming from the shooting of Jacob Blake, a black man, by a white police officer. In confrontations with multiple individuals on the streets of Kenosha during the riot, Rittenhouse fired his weapon, killing two people. A jury ruled that he acted in self-defense.

Republican strategists say Rittenhouse has captured the imagination of high-profile GOP political figures and the party's 2022 candidates because the issues surrounding his trial hit conservative sweet spots in the culture clash-driven politics of the Trump era.

For grassroots Republicans, the Rittenhouse verdict bolstered Second Amendment rights, represented a victory for the rule of law over an unfair prosecution propelled by a leftist witch hunt, and repudiated a liberal media that they believe branded the accused guilty from the get-go — and as a white supremacist to boot, despite the lack of evidence that he was motivated by racism.

"No, he should not have been there. And, also, no, he should not have been convicted of murder. Both things can be true," said a Republican operative in the Midwest. "It's a win-win. Gun rights won out in a court of law, and the liberal media got their comeuppance."

President Joe Biden responded to the verdict with calls to respect the jury's decision, saying the American system of justice should be respected. But Biden reflected the dismay of many Democrats who believed both that Rittenhouse was guilty of murder and that he inserted himself into the Kenosha riots because of racial animus toward black people.

In comments to reporters, Biden said, "I stand by what the jury has concluded … the jury system works, and we have to abide by it."

But in a prepared statement issued later, the president acknowledged that the Rittenhouse acquittal left "many Americans feeling angry and concerned, myself included." His was among the more mild expressions of disappointment expressed on the Left.

Although many Republicans have latched on to Rittenhouse in their latest effort to make common cause with the GOP base and outflank primary opponents, some have been more measured than others. Where some Republican contenders have lauded Rittenhouse personally, others have devoted more attention to the legal implications of the outcome of his trial.

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"The Rittenhouse verdict affirms that the right to self-defense and our 2nd Amendment rights are paramount and cannot be taken away," Timken said. "This case also demonstrates the need to back the blue and protect law and order," she added.

"Democrat leaders' decisions to cede our cities to criminals and rioters in Kenosha and across the country created a lawless vacuum that went against the very principles of our nation and must never happen again."

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