They have broken with Donald Trump. They have gone public with their concerns about the threat that he poses to democracy and the rule of law. But vote for Joe Biden? That is a bridge too far.

A split has emerged in the “Never Trump” movement in the Republican party. There are some who denounce the former US president and contend that, in what is essentially a two-party system, there is a moral imperative to vote for his Democratic opponent in November.

Then there are the Republicans who forcefully disparage Trump but stop short of endorsing Biden, suggesting that both choices are unpalatable, forcing them to consider another option such as writing in a different name on the ballot.

This category includes Mike Pence, Trump’s former vice-president, who said in March he would not be backing his former boss but also made clear: “I would never vote for Joe Biden. I’m a Republican.”

There is also Chris Christie, an ex-governor of New Jersey who ran against Trump in the Republican primary elections. He told a recent event at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics that he would never support Trump but nor could he bring himself to vote for the current president. “President Biden, in my view, is past the sell-by date,” Christie said.

He was joined this week by Paul Ryan, a former speaker of the House of Representatives. He told Yahoo Finance: “Character is too important to me and it’s a job that requires the kind of character that he [Trump] just doesn’t have. Having said that, I really disagree with [Biden] on policy. I wrote in a Republican the last time, I’m gonna write in a Republican this time.”

While such dissent from Trump and his authoritarian ambitions is welcome, critics say, refusing to support his opponent because of policy differences draws a false equivalence between them. If a significant number of Republican voters do likewise, not voting or writing in a name such as “Ronald Reagan”, it could prove costly to Biden in a close election.

Joe Walsh, a former Republican congressman and Tea Party activist turned Trump foe, said: “I have zero respect for guys like Chris Christie, Mike Pence and Paul Ryan who come out and say. ‘I’m not gonna vote for Trump but I won’t vote for the only guy who can beat the guy who’s unfit.’ To me, that’s cowardly. What they’re doing is staying relevant as Republicans. They want to run again as Republicans.”

Walsh, who challenged Trump in the 2020 Republican primary, added: “Here’s the deal. If, as a Republican, you say I’m voting for Joe Biden because Trump is unfit, you end your career as a Republican. I did that five years ago. [Former congressman] Adam Kinzinger did that this past year. Then you end your relevance as a Republican. Guys like Chris Christie, Paul Ryan, Mike Pence don’t want to give that up. It’s purely a political decision.”

Kinzinger broke from his party after the 6 January 2021 insurrection at the US Capitol and was later one of two Republicans, along with Liz Cheney of Wyoming, who joined the House committee to investigate the attack. He did not seek re-election in the 2022 midterms.

Kinzinger said this week: “While I don’t agree with all of Joe Biden’s policies, he’s not out to get democracy so I intend to vote for him. Even if he was like Elizabeth Warren, a little further left, he would not be a threat to democracy, but he’s probably fairly moderate in Democratic terms lately. I certainly don’t think he’s as big of a threat as Trump is.”

Despite 88 criminal charges against him, Trump wrapped up the Republican nomination in March. But his support remains soft around the edges. This week, two months after exiting the race, Nikki Haley secured more than 21% of the vote in Indiana’s primary election, held on a day when TV news was dominated by the Trump trial and adult film performer Stormy Daniels.

Last month, in another sign of persistent discontent with Trump among the party faithful, Haley received nearly 17% of the primary vote in Pennsylvania. Biden has launched an advertising campaign to target Haley voters in predominantly suburban areas in swing states. A number of anti-Trump Republicans have been willing to aid the effort despite the risk of blowback from their own party.

This week Geoff Duncan, a former lieutenant governor of Georgia who has spoken out against Trump’s election lies, endorsed the president and urged fellow Republicans do likewise. He wrote in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper: “I am voting for a decent person I disagree with on policy over a criminal defendant without a moral compass.”

The former Reagan administration official Bill Kristol has also made peace with casting his vote for Biden, describing him as a “conventional Democrat” and “better than I expected on some things, especially foreign policy”.

But Kristol said he respects Pence, Ryan and Christie’s unwillingness to take the extra step by voting Democratic. “It’s not a crazy decision. It’s fair enough. They can’t abide Trump, they’re not going to vote for him, but it’s in a way not their responsibility that the other party hasn’t provided them with an acceptable alternative.”

Kristol, director of the Defending Democracy Together advocacy organisation, hopes that line of thinking will appeal to Republicans who backed Trump twice and might resent being told to defect to the Democrats. “As a practical matter, it’s worth it to get some of those voters just to not vote for Trump,” he said.

Kinzinger, the ex-congressman, agreed: “For some people I do think there has to be permission to write-in somebody or vote against the two just because, if they’re never going to vote for Joe Biden, I’d much rather them just skip the ballot line. But those that can stomach it should certainly consider voting for Joe Biden.”

Senator Mitt Romney twice voted to convict Trump in his impeachment trials but is undecided about endorsing Biden. Photograph: Jon Cherry/Reuters

There are prominent figures still sitting on the fence. Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, who twice voted to convict Trump at his impeachment trials, has not yet made clear whether he will back Biden. He told NBC’s Meet the Press last December: “If I endorsed them, it would be the kiss of death – I’m not going to do that.”

Cheney, who lost her seat in Congress to a Trump-backed rival, told the Washington Post newspaper in March that she was still undecided about whether to formally endorse Biden. She does intend to “educate” Americans about how dangerous Trump is in the lead-up to election day.

But another group of Trump sceptics in the Republican party have gone in a different direction, portraying Biden as a “woke” radical outside the political mainstream and Trump as therefore the lesser or two evils.

Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader in the Senate, eviscerated Trump after the January 6 insurrection; Trump routinely bashed McConnell as an “Old Crow” and hurled racist insults at his wife, Elaine Chao. Yet once Trump secured the Republican nomination in March, McConnell endorsed him for president.

Bill Barr, a former attorney general who said last year that Trump “shouldn’t be anywhere near the Oval Office”, has now declared that he wants to see Trump back inside it. He told CNN: “I think Trump would do less damage than Biden, and I think all this stuff about a threat to democracy – I think the real threat to democracy is the progressive movement and the Biden administration.”

Chris Sununu, the governor of New Hampshire, backed Haley during the Republican primaries but now supports Trump in the general election. He explained in an interview with the Guardian: “Look, I worked hard for Trump not to be the nominee but he is the nominee of the party and, while I don’t care for Trump, I’ll take a Republican administration over this progressive, leftwing socialist administration any day of the week.”

The governor said of Biden: “He’s created a culture here that America doesn’t want to see. A culture of not dealing with the border. A culture of lying about inflation – inflation is crushing families. Depending on how families feel their financial pressures in November will determine who wins the election.”

To seasoned observers of the Republican party’s surrender to Trump, such sentiments come as little surprise. Kurt Bardella, a Democratic strategist, said: “You cannot make the case credibly that you are concerned for the health of democracy and then lend your support and, more importantly, your vote to the architect of the undoing of democracy. You own that. You’re not just a bystander at this point; you are an accomplice.”

Bardella, a former spokesperson and senior adviser for Republicans on the House oversight committee, was also scathing in his verdict on those who announce they will not vote for Trump only to present Biden as equally intolerable.

“Talk about a lack of intestinal fortitude. Anyone who wants to try to put Joe Biden on the same plane as Donald Trump should have their mental health checked because that is just an absurd false equivalency. This is a very black and white issue here. You’re either pro-democracy or you’re not. All the other issues that we disagree about – and there are many – don’t matter if we don’t have a functioning democracy.”

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