Former President Donald Trump’s unfounded claims about a rigged election have metastasized.
It started as one big, false claim — that the election was stolen from Donald Trump.
But nearly a year later, the Big Lie is metastasizing, with Republicans throughout the country raising the specter of rigged elections in their own campaigns ahead of the midterms.
The preemptive spin is everywhere. Last week it was Larry Elder in California, who — before getting trounced in the GOP’s failed effort to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom — posted a “Stop Fraud” page on his campaign website. Before that, at a rally in Virginia, state Sen. Amanda Chase introduced herself as a surrogate for gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin and told the crowd, “Because the Democrats like to cheat, you have to cast your vote before they do.” In Nevada, Adam Laxalt, the former state attorney general running to unseat Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, is already talking about filing lawsuits to “tighten up the election” — more than a year before votes are cast. And in Pennsylvania, former Rep. Lou Barletta, who is running for governor after losing a Senate race two years earlier, said he “had to consider” whether a Republican could ever win a race again in his state given the current administration of elections there.
Trump may have started the election-truther movement. But what was once the province of an aggrieved former president has spread far beyond him, infecting elections at every level with vague, unspecified claims that future races are already rigged. It’s a fiction that’s poised to factor heavily in the midterm elections and in 2024 — providing Republican candidates with a rallying cry for the rank-and-file, and priming the electorate for future challenges to races the GOP may lose.
“The fever has not broken,” said Benjamin Ginsberg, an elections lawyer who has represented past Republican presidential nominees. “If anything, it’s spreading. People I knew as rational and principled feel they have to say our elections are not reliable because polls show that is the ante for contested Republican primaries and motivating the base in general elections. California recall results aside, it comes at the expense of the principle that our leaders should not make allegations that corrode American democracy without any credible evidence.”
For Republicans, the fantasy that Trump did not lose in 2020 but had the election stolen from him was once viewed as a largely backward-looking concern. Other than the twice-impeached former president, its most prominent promoters were Trump’s discredited hangers-on — the Rudy Giulianis, Lin Woods, Mike Lindells and Sidney Powells of the GOP. But what is animating some in the party today is different — a political grift to placate base voters and to discredit the results of races that do not go their way. It’s not simply that a significant number of House and Senate candidates have supported Trump’s baseless allegations about the last election. They’re already laying the foundation to repeat similar claims of their own.
“That is a simply terrible development for our democracy,” said Trevor Potter, a former chair of the Federal Election Commission who served as general counsel to Republican John McCain’s two presidential campaigns.
It may ultimately be terrible for the Republican Party, too. In Georgia last year, Trump’s baseless claims about rigged elections depressed Republican turnout in two critical Senate runoffs, the loss of which cost Republicans their Senate majority. An erosion in GOP voter confidence in election integrity could once again persuade some of them to stay home in competitive House and Senate races next year — and in the presidential race in 2024 — with nothing less than the balance of power in Washington at risk.
“You pick a state, you pick an election, you pick a national election, and if we try the same approach, we will come in the same second place that we just did,” said Georgia’s Republican lieutenant governor, Geoff Duncan, a Trump critic who is not seeking reelection. “And that’s code language for ‘lost.’”
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