Could obsession with election fraud sink the GOP?

Illustration by Zoë Petersen

Republican candidates who promote election denialism to win their primaries could face a very different electorate in next year’s general election

Elections are about the future, so why are so many Republicans making next year’s midterms about the past?

In races across the country, top Republican candidates are looking back to 2020 by either making “election integrity” a key part of their campaigns, supporting partisan audits even though earlier state-mandated audits found no evidence of widespread fraud, or questioning and in some cases denying the results of last year’s election.

Election denialism is a good strategy for firing up a base that believes in false claims that former President Donald Trump’s loss was due to voter fraud, and it’s also one of the surest ways to earn a Trump endorsement. But some Republicans believe looking in the rearview mirror is counterproductive.

“Relitigating 2020 is a recipe for disaster in 2022,” Arkansas Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson told “Meet the Press” Sunday.

“Let’s talk about the future,” he said. “The election is past. It’s been certified. The states made decisions on the integrity of each of their elections and made improvements where need be. It’s about the future it’s not about the last election, and those kind of comments are not constructive.”

‘Yesterday’s news’

The reality for Republican candidates is 63% of Republican and Republican-leaning voters believe President Joe Biden’s win was due to voter fraud, but only 32% of American adults believe that, according to a June Monmouth University poll. So, to win their primaries, Republicans are leaning into an inaccurate 2020 election fraud narrative that’s unpopular among the general electorate.

Virginia’s Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin has tried straddling the issue, calling for an audit of voting machines but also saying he doesn’t believe there was widespread voter fraud in the state. Youngkin’s Democratic opponent, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, has hammered him over it, accusing Youngkin of casting doubt on election results and elevating Trump’s conspiracy theories.

“This behavior is dangerous and it’s disqualifying,” McAuliffe wrote in a statement.

Youngkin, who faces off with McAuliffe in a tight race on Nov. 2, ultimately said in a statement in September that he would have certified the election — an implicit admission that election denialism isn’t a winning position, at least in a state Biden won by 10%.

“If we relitigate 2020 over and over again, it won’t change the result in 2020, but we’re sure to lose in 2024,” Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., told “Meet the Press” last month. “If all you do is talk about the past, you’re yesterday’s news.”

Cassidy was one of seven Republican senators who voted to convict Trump over the then-president’s role in the Jan. 6 fatal Capitol riot, and he isn’t up for reelection until 2026. He said if Republicans focus on issues like inflation, the border and Afghanistan, they’ll win, “but if we choose to be bullied we’ll lose.”

Trump wields his coveted endorsements with intention, doling them out overwhelmingly to candidates who’ve at least raised questions about last year’s results. Trump’s early endorsements include an attorney accused by Republicans of pushing false election fraud claims for Michigan attorney general, and a Texas attorney general being investigated by that state’s bar association over his efforts to overturn the election. Trump has also endorsed challengers to the handful of Republicans in Congress who voted in favor of impeaching and removing him from office, most notably Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., whose consultants are being pressured to drop her because of her opposition to Trump.

Trump has taken special interest in state secretary of state races in a handful of swing states he lost. His picks for the top election officials in Arizona, Georgia and Michigan would be more supportive of subverting future elections that don’t show results they favor.

Trump has warned that his supporters will sit out upcoming elections if Republicans move on from 2020.

“If we don’t solve the Presidential Election Fraud of 2020, Republicans will not be voting in ’22 or ’24,” Trump wrote in a statement earlier this month. “It’s the single most important thing for Republicans to do.”

Who is helped or hurt?

The focus on 2020 could define the midterms, turning it from a referendum on the party in power into a referendum on Trump and what his detractors have called “the big lie.”

That’s the direction the race for Arizona governor is trending. The leading candidates are the state’s top election official, Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, and Republican and former TV news anchor Kari Lake, who said she wouldn’t have certified the state’s results if she were in office.

Could that trend work in Democrats’ favor?

Historically, the party in power loses seats in Congress during a president’s first midterm, and with Biden’s approval rating eroding, Democrats could be eager to make 2022 about Trump.

In Virginia’s gubernatorial race, it’s already happened. At the final debate last month, McAuliffe called Youngkin “a Trump wannabe,” and the state Democratic Party chair accused Youngkin of being “all in on Donald Trump’s baseless election conspiracy theories.”

Democrats are launching campaigns on the strength of their record defending the election, like Arizona’s Hobbs and Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who sued to block a Republican-initiated “forensic investigation,” and is now running for governor on a platform that emphasizes voting rights and protecting democracy.

“This should be a 100 percent, straight-up referendum on Biden,” former Rep. David Jolly, R-Fla., told The New York Times. “Instead, you have Trump the narcissist trying to inject himself into what should be a glide path for Republicans to an incredibly successful election, by making it all about him.”

D. Hunter Schwarz

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