Since the 2020 election, millions of Republican voters have accepted former President Donald Trump’s false claim that the presidential election was stolen from him. And now, here in 2022, many Republican politicians have capitalized on this lie and have won elections of their own.
This election cycle, FiveThirtyEight is tracking the views of every Republican candidate for Senate, House, governor, attorney general and secretary of state on the legitimacy of the 2020 election. And now that we’re halfway through the primary season, we can say definitively that at least 120 election deniers have won their party’s nomination and will be on the ballot in the fall.
How did we arrive at that number?
Categorizing candidates’ stances on the legitimacy of the 2020 election is not a straightforward exercise. Sure, some Republicans openly state the race was stolen, while others (a much smaller number) have unambiguously accepted the legitimacy of President Biden’s victory. But many have tried to walk a fine line between the two — for example, by accepting the results but still expressing concern about mass voter fraud, or by winking at the idea that the election was stolen without saying so outright. So we’ve ended up putting candidates into one of six categories:
- Those who have explicitly said the 2020 election was illegitimate and/or took legal measures to try and overturn the election.1
- Those who raised questions or concerns about the election but haven’t outright denied or affirmed it.
- Those who have accepted Biden’s victory but have still raised questions or concerns about fraud.
- Those who have accepted Biden’s victory without reservations.
- Those who have refused or avoided directly answering questions about the election (e.g., by changing the subject when asked about it).
- Those for whom no information is available.
After doing that for all 1,148 Republican candidates for these offices in nominating contests through the end of June, here are four observations we have so far.
1. Half of Republican nominees have at least flirted with denying the election
As mentioned above, out of 340 Republican nominees for Senate, House, governor, attorney general and secretary of state so far, 120 are full-blown election deniers (35 percent).2 This includes people like Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, who said in a campaign ad that “the fake news, big tech and blue-state liberals stole the election from President Trump,” and Indiana Rep. Greg Pence, who voted not to certify Pennsylvania’s electoral votes (defying his brother, former Vice President Mike Pence) and hasn’t spoken out on the issue since. It also includes at least four people who attended the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol: Pennsylvania gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano, Ohio 9th Congressional District nominee J.R. Majewski, Oregon senatorial nominee Jo Rae Perkins and North Carolina 1st Congressional District nominee Sandy Smith.
An additional 48 nominees (14 percent) have expressed doubts about the election despite the multitude of evidence that it was legitimate. This includes people like Nevada gubernatorial nominee Joe Lombardo and Arkansas gubernatorial nominee Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who have both said some fraud took place but they’re not sure how much; Oregon 5th District nominee Lori Chavez-DeRemer, who did not take a direct stance but used dog-whistle language that undermined faith in the election; and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, who gave credence to Trump’s false claims by proposing an “election integrity commission.”
Here’s a snapshot of the whole Republican primary field so far:
In total, almost half of the GOP’s nominees for these offices have at least dabbled in false election claims. However, a lot of that is simply because the candidate pool overall was sympathetic to these claims, rather than primary voters going out of their way to elect election deniers. Thirty percent (346 out of 1,148) of all Republican candidates for those offices (winners and losers) explicitly denied the election’s legitimacy, and another 16 percent (185 out of 1,148) questioned it. To be sure, that leaves a lot of Republican candidates who didn’t fall into this camp, but it is still notable that such a large share of political hopefuls from one of our two main parties is not ready to accept the result of a fair democratic election.
2. And that’s almost certainly an undercount …
Considering the 2020 election continues to be a major talking point in the Republican primaries, you may be surprised to learn that a sizable chunk of candidates haven’t publicly stated their opinion on the 2020 election either way. We were unable to find a stated position on the 2020 election for 37 percent of Republican primary candidates (421 out of 1,148) and a quarter of GOP nominees (84 out of 340). That means that our finding of the number of nominees so far who believe the 2020 election was fraudulent is almost certainly an undercount — it’s likely that a portion of the candidates for whom we can’t find a publicly stated opinion are, in fact, election deniers. We know this because when we follow up with these kinds of candidates, they often tell us they are — even if they aren’t serious contenders.
For example, when first researching Christopher Mann, the Republican nominee for Oregon’s 1st District, we couldn’t find any stated position on the 2020 election. His campaign website doesn’t say anything about voting, the 2020 election or Trump, and he hadn’t been asked about it in any local media reports or debates that we could find. But when we e-mailed him, his campaign wrote back and clearly stated that he did think the election was stolen. Listing off a number of debunked conspiracy theories about election fraud, including a reference to the bogus “documentary” “2,000 Mules,” Mann’s campaign said he believes “the election was rampant with fraud,” and that “it is most likely that President Trump won the election by the largest margin in history, as well as gaining more votes than any sitting president in history,” a claim that is baseless. (It’s unlikely Mann will win in the general election this fall.)
However, this doesn’t mean that all of the candidates who didn’t respond are secretly harboring election conspiracy beliefs. When candidates responded to our questions, they would also sometimes confirm that they believed the 2020 election was legitimate. Joe Pinion, the Republican nominee for Senate in New York, also didn’t have a public record on the 2020 election, but when we reached out he responded unequivocally: “The election was legitimate and certified. Joe Biden is the 46th President of the United States of America. Full stop.” So these “undeclared” candidates really can’t be presumed to represent either side, and likely include some candidates who deny the legitimacy of the 2020 election and some who don’t.
3. Denying the election is most common in House races — and rarest in secretary of state races
While we analyzed candidates for five different offices, we found that nominees for the U.S. House were the likeliest to embrace Trump’s lies about the election. Full-blown election deniers constitute 40 percent (105 out of 263) of Republican nominees for the House thus far. By contrast, they constitute between just 18 and 22 percent of Republican nominees for the other four offices.
|Elected Office||Fully Deny||Partially Deny||Fully Deny||Partially Deny||% of NOMINEEs Who DENY|
|Secretary of state||16||10||3||1||24|
When you add in the 14 percent (36 out of 263) of Republican House nominees who have questioned the election’s legitimacy, a total of 54 percent of Republican House nominees have publicly at least entertained the notion that the election was stolen. The only comparable office is governor; just 20 percent (four out of 20) of Republican gubernatorial nominees have fully embraced Trump’s false election-fraud claims. An additional 35 percent (seven out of 20) have flirted with them, though.
However, unlike for the House, a sizable number of gubernatorial nominees have also accepted the 2020 election results — four with reservations, four without them, for a total of 40 percent. By contrast, only 18 percent (47 out of 263) of House nominees have acknowledged Biden’s win. (The remainder haven’t taken a position, as far as we could ascertain. This probably reflects how much higher-profile gubernatorial elections are than House elections; it’s easier for a House candidate to avoid taking a stance on this, or any, issue.)
That said, Republican gubernatorial nominees are more conspiratorially minded than Republican Senate nominees, despite Senate elections being just as high-profile as gubernatorial elections. Only 18 percent (four out of 22)3 of the GOP’s Senate nominees so far have fully rejected the election’s legitimacy, and only 9 percent more (two out of 22) have questioned it (a total of 27 percent). On the other hand, 59 percent have accepted it, either with (six out of 22) or without (seven out of 22) reservations. This fits with the Senate’s historical role as the more temperate chamber of Congress than the more populist House.
Arguably, though, a candidate’s position on election integrity is most important in secretary of state races, given that, in most states, the secretary of state is the state’s top election official and the one most involved in conducting elections in the state. But perhaps somewhat surprisingly given Trump’s interest in installing loyalists as secretaries of state, these nominees are the least likely to sympathize with election-fraud claims. Out of 17 Republican secretary of state nominees thus far, only three — Kristina Karamo in Michigan, Jim Marchant in Nevada and Audrey Trujillo in New Mexico — have outright rejected the legitimacy of the 2020 election, while one other — Wes Allen in Alabama — has nodded in that direction. That’s just 24 percent of secretary of state nominees. Of course, at least two of those states are crucial swing states, so these candidates may still pose a threat to democracy if they win.
What’s especially notable, however, about these differences from office to office is that they don’t show up when you look at candidates more broadly (so again, winners plus losers). Republicans who don’t accept Biden’s victory made up a similar share of House candidates as they did Senate, gubernatorial and secretary of state candidates. In fact, the share of total Senate (46 percent) and secretary of state (53 percent) candidates who questioned or denied the election was actually slightly higher than the share of House candidates (45 percent). And yet House nominees are still significantly more likely to entertain these conspiracy theories.
So there appears to be something about House primaries that’s producing more election deniers, and something about secretary of state and Senate races that’s holding them back. Some of this could have to do with the fact that secretary of state and Senate races are statewide affairs, while House races can be taking place in extremely conservative corners of a state. But it may also just be dumb luck. For example, in at least two Republican primaries for secretary of state so far this year (Nebraska and Idaho), a pro-democracy candidate prevailed, but only with a plurality of the vote. Both were running against two opponents who denied the legitimacy of the 2020 election, meaning that a majority of primary voters actually cast votes for an election denier, though they ultimately split the vote.
4. But denying the election isn’t a guaranteed win
Being a candidate who claims the 2020 election was stolen is a bit like being endorsed by Trump (and, unsurprisingly, these two pools of candidates tend to overlap) — it can help in the right race, but it’s not a guaranteed winning strategy. Often, other electoral factors override the appeal an election-denying candidate might have — especially when that’s all they really have to offer voters.
For instance, in the 91 contests in which at least one candidate entertains stolen election conspiracy theories and at least one candidate has accepted Biden as president, Republican voters opted for the pro-democracy candidate 49 times out of 91 (54 percent). The election-denying candidate won just 33 times (36 percent).4 In fact, candidates who accepted the election — either fully or while still raising questions about fraud — represent just 14 percent of total Republican primary candidates (winners and losers). Yet, these two groups were overrepresented in the primary winners: 22 percent of nominees (11 percent in each category) accepted the 2020 results.
This perhaps unexpected mismatch, given the prevalence of election-denying candidates this year, had a lot to do with incumbency. In many of the races where voters had a choice between a candidate who had denied the election results and one who accepted them, the latter was an incumbent facing a lesser-known, far-right challenger who was then predictably crushed in the primary. That was the case in the GOP primary for Texas’s 12th District, where Rep. Kay Granger (who said it was time for Trump to “move on” from the election way back in late November 2020) easily fended off Alysia Rieg, an EMT who called for “election integrity accountability” on her campaign website, a vague term often used as a dog whistle to signal soft support for the stolen election conspiracy theories.
Other electoral factors besides incumbency were at play here, too. In purple districts, for instance, Republicans sometimes decided that a GOP nominee who can potentially attract moderates from the other side in a general election is more appealing than one who can rile up the base. Take Iowa’s 3rd District, where Republicans are hoping to unseat the state’s lone Democratic representative, Cindy Axne. That might explain why voters ultimately nominated state Sen. Zach Nunn, who touted the security of Iowa elections during his campaign, instead of a candidate who appealed more to the Republican base, like vocal election denier Gary Leffler, a retired farmer who attended Trump’s rally on Jan. 6 and then took photos from the steps of the U.S. Capitol building. Similarly, in blue Oregon, the winner and runner-up for Republican nominee for governor both accepted the results of the 2020 election, while the vocal election denier in the race attracted just 11 percent of the vote.
That said, some election deniers also won nominations in purple districts, and even unseated incumbents. Even races where the incumbent ultimately prevailed have sometimes been close. For instance, Rep. Nancy Mace, who voted to certify the 2020 election, had to fend off an election-denying challenger in South Carolina’s 1st District. It was a close election, too: Former state Rep. Katie Arrington, who frequently said the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, attracted 45 percent of the vote to Mace’s 53 percent.
In other words, questioning the results of the 2020 election might not be a surefire path to the nomination, but it hasn’t proven to be a dealbreaker for Republican voters, either. That speaks volumes as to the overall direction the Republican Party is moving in.
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