Midterms held back the election denialists, but they gained a foothold and they’re not going away

Midterms held back the election denialists, but they gained a foothold and they’re not going away

Everyone fighting to defend democracy in the just-finishing midterm elections breathed a sigh of relief this week when it became clear that the election denialists running to take over the election apparatuses in key battleground states like Arizona, Nevada, and Michigan all lost in their races decisively, in a clean sweep. The concern revolved around the key secretary-of-state races, where the denialists could have wreaked havoc in presidential elections by altering the Electoral College count—which now will not happen in 2024, at least.

But the attack on democracy presented by election denialists has only been blunted. Outside of those battlegrounds, a significant number of them were, in fact, elected to office—including four secretaries of state. All of them were either elected in red states or in red districts within larger blue states where they are in the minority, which limits the amount of damage they can do. At the same time, it means that conspiracists who readily succumb to false information now hold significant and powerful offices—including U.S. senators and congressmen. It’s been normalized, and it could easily continue to spread.

The New York Times assembled a list of all the hundreds of election denialists of various stripes who ran for either federal or statewide elected offices this year, and found that more than 220 of them won last week. The majority of these were elected to House seats—where there was already no shortage of them—and more than a dozen of them now reside in the U.S. Senate.

“What happened with the election results moved us from the precipice,” UCLA law professor Rick Hasen told Camille Squire and Daniel Nichanian of Bolts. “We won’t have many election deniers running elections, and probably none or few in swing states.”

“Still, there are hundreds of Republican candidates who embraced election denialism and won their races,” he said. “Maybe it’s just cheap talk and it is less worrisome—but it is still antidemocratic and shows that denialism could easily surface again in 2024 or beyond.”

The Times found more than 180 Republican election denialists (a number of them incumbents) winning their elections to the House—meaning that more than a third of the members of Congress will have questioned or denied the 2020 election. This also means that a large majority of states will have at least one Republican representative who is an election denialist.

There will be at least 17 Republican denialists in the U.S. Senate (18, should Herschel Walker win his Georgia runoff in December). The most notable of the newly elected senators is Ohio’s J.D. Vance, who won handily against Democrat Tim Ryan, while Markwayne Mullin, the newly elected senator from Oklahoma, is also an ardent denialist. But their ranks include a number of incumbents, notably Kentucky’s Rand Paul.

There were also more than two dozen election denialists who won election to statewide offices—governors, secretary of states, and attorneys general—of Republican-dominated states, notably Alabama Governor Kay Ivey, who won re-election.

More than two dozen Republicans who won state races for governor, secretary of state, and attorney general have questioned the 2020 election, including Gov. Kay Ivey of Alabama, who was re-elected to another term.

Four states now have election denialists as their secretaries of state: Indiana, South Dakota, Alabama, and Wyoming. Indiana’s outcome was especially disgraceful: The new secretary of state, Diego Morales, had been fired previously from the office he sought to lead, and had twice been accused of sexually harassing young campaign workers and staff members of the secretary of state’s office.

Morales, who also had worked as a staffer for Mike Pence when he was Indiana’s governor, said this year on the campaign trail that the 2020 election was a “scam” and that its outcome “is questionable.” He underperformed his fellow Republicans in the state by 5-7 percentage points, but still handily won the election, 60%-40%.

Alabama’s new secretary of state, Wes Allen, has already indicated how his belief that the 2020 election was fraudulent will affect his state. Earlier this year, he announced that, if elected, he would withdraw Alabama from the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC)—an organization that helps states maintain their voter rolls. Allen claimed that ERIC—which has become a popular bogeyman among election denialists—was “started by former members of the Obama administration and groups funded by George Soros.”

Wyoming’s new secretary of state, Chuck Gray, ran unopposed in the general election after duking it out with other MAGA fanatics in the state’s primary election. Gray was endorsed by Trump, and called the 2020 election “clearly rigged.” He has focused on the use of ballot drop boxes, and has promoted the fraudulent 2000 Mules conspiracy claims that the “woke left” has been using drop boxes to steal elections.

Two election-denialist Republican governors—Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas—with the power to select their secretaries of state also won re-election handily last week. Both previously appointed overseers to those positions who either refused to affirm Biden’s election in 2020 or attempted to assist Trump’s efforts to overturn the outcome with fake electors.

And even in states and districts where they lost, the denialists are refusing to give up and go away. In Arizona, the forces behind Kari Lake and Mark Finchem are planning to file legal appeals, and appear to be preparing for a fresh round of “Stop the Steal” demonstrations. Similarly, professional denialists like Steve Bannon and Mike Lindell are still out there flagellating their audiences of millions.

As Elaine Godfrey observes at The Atlantic, it obviously would be foolish to declare the “Stop the Steal” movement finished. “The movement may have fizzled without Donald Trump, but if he runs again in 2024, we haven’t seen the last of it,” she writes. “Even if Trump isn’t on the ballot, an entire swath of the Republican Party is now open to the idea that any narrow loss can be blamed on fraud.”

The midterm elections provided powerful incentives for Republicans to run away from election denialism, because it badly cost Republicans in the midterms. “Some election deniers won,” The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake reported, “but the hard-liners almost always ran behind their fellow Republicans and lost in places where the electorate was the most competitive.”

It was also manifest that election denialism is a losing game. “If you tell people that voting is hard, or voter fraud is rampant, or elections are rigged, it doesn’t make people more likely to participate,” David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, told The New York Times. “Why would you want to play a game you thought was rigged?”

Similarly, Lake’s strategy of encouraging voters to hang on to their ballots until Election Day as a way to prevent fraud backfired badly, since it meant she missed out on early voting. “We would have never, ever thought about telling people to hold onto their ballots,” said Wes Gullett, a Republican strategist. “The only reason to do that is to build this narrative about ‘foul play’ and keep that narrative going, but any time you encourage people not to vote immediately, you lose the opportunity to get that vote in the bank.”

But the fires that drive election denialism are not based on logic or reason, but rather their antithesis: the profoundly irrational appeal of authoritarianism. The repeated failures of their “forensic audits” and election-denialist lawsuits have not deterred them, and it’s unlikely that the disappointment over an illusory “red tsunami” in a midterm cycle will dissuade them.

Trump functionally destroyed Republicans’ trust in American elections in 2020. Pew Research Center found that in the two years since he lost in 2020, faith in voting outcomes among rank-and-file GOP voters remains low, and in some respects, has gotten worse.

“He’s broken the seal,” Sarah Longwell, the publisher of The Bulwark, told Godfrey. Election denial “is part of our politics now.”

Meanwhile, non-Republican voters in these red states will be forced to live with their profoundly anti-democratic election systems, which often operate in defiance of the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act. And in the ruby-red areas where denialists are in complete control—particularly local county authorities in places like Arizona and Nevada—voting rights might become a thing of the past. These districts are also likely to create islands in the states where both voters and officials no longer believe in the value of elections.

As Godfrey says:

The thing about trust is that it’s painstakingly hard to build and relatively easy to demolish. Election denial is now a chronic wound in America’s body politic, only partially healed, and ready to reopen—red and raw—whenever circumstances permit. Those circumstances may arise sooner rather than later if Trump is on the ballot again in 2024. Even if he isn’t, the former president has already broken the tradition of gracious presidential concessions and peaceful transfers of power. He’s encouraged a populist animus toward institutions that will likely remain a litmus test for future Republican candidates. And more than anything, Trump has created a blueprint for exploiting the messiness and complexity of America’s elections. An audience for this type of exploitation is still out there, if Republicans want to take advantage of it.

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