Politico

Trump’s election conspiracy boosters largely accept their own defeats

Many of the nation’s most outspoken 2020 election deniers are staying quiet or conceding defeat after their own election losses this cycle.

Prior to the election, experts had warned that democracy itself was at risk of being overrun by an army of acolytes of former President Donald Trump who would take a page out of his playbook and refuse to accept any loss.

But with a few exceptions, and with some races yet to be finalized, that has not happened, heartening those who feared the worst.

“I’m pleasantly surprised that several election deniers have conceded and some others that haven’t have at least seemed to remain quiet,” said David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research, a nonpartisan group that works to support elections officials.

In states including Michigan and Wisconsin — epicenters of Trump’s baseless claims that voting machines were rigged and Democrats stole the election from him — a number of candidates who fanned conspiracies about fraud in the 2020 election have accepted their own losses in 2022.

Those include Trump-backed candidates who were vying for secretary of state, attorney general and governor; posts that, in certain cases, would have given them direct input in overseeing future elections.

The margins of loss in some cases were wide, making it more difficult to launch a redux of 2020, when baseless lawsuits flooded swing-state courts. And not every election denier has lost. Indeed, many running for House seats won their contests and will serve in the next Congress.

But the broader trend underscores that Trump himself was likely the critical ingredient in spreading and amplifying falsehoods about the election system and demanding legal challenges to overturn the results.

“Some of the election denialist language turned out to be bluster to please the Trumpian base of the Republican Party,” said Rick Hasen, a professor and director of the Safeguarding Democracy Project at the UCLA School of Law. “Even if some of these denialists wanted to contest the results of the election, they don’t command the same attention that Trump does, and things could have fizzled.”

Hasen added some caution, however: “That’s not to say the movement wouldn’t be more successful again if Trump were on the ballot in 2024.”

One of the most notable examples is Matthew DePerno, who was running to become Michigan’s top law enforcement officer. Trump had taken an outsize interest in DePerno’s race for attorney general and even held a fundraiser for him at his Mar-a-Lago resort.

DePerno, who remains under investigation for allegedly tampering with voting machines, conceded to the current attorney general, Dana Nessel, after losing by nearly 9 percentage points.

Trump-backed Tudor Dixon, who was vying for Michigan governor and had previously refused to commit to accepting the results of her race, also conceded her loss. So too did Tim Michels, the Wisconsin election denier who claimed Republicans would “never lose another election” if he were elected governor.

Other losing Republicans who spread conspiracies about the 2020 election, including Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano and Nevada secretary of state nominee Jim Marchant, have yet to concede their losses. But they have not claimed that fraud or misconduct was responsible for their defeats.

The GOP candidates who have challenged their losses have done so in largely opaque terms, suggesting that more votes may yet come in rather than suggesting that fraud is underway.

GOP candidate for Michigan secretary of state Kristina Karamo, who claims to have witnessed fraud in the 2020 election and lost to incumbent Jocelyn Benson by 14 points, recently told supporters “there is more to come.” In Washington, Republican Joe Kent has suggested that ballot curing could help him close the gap after his upset election loss was called last night. And in Arizona, losing secretary of state candidate Mark Finchem took to Twitter on Saturday to call it “#FakeNews lies” that the GOP Senate candidate Blake Masters had lost to Democratic incumbent Mark Kelly.

“We are still counting hundreds of thousands of votes,” he said. The Arizona vote tabulations remain ongoing, but both Finchem and Masters are trailing significantly with little left to count and multiple major news organizations have declared Kelly the winner.

“I remain concerned about the coming weeks, as final results become known in Arizona, Nevada and elsewhere, and we learn who controls Congress,” Becker said. “We’ll have to be vigilant about election deniers backed into a corner,” he said.

While the candidates themselves have stayed away from conspiracies around their losses, Trump has not. In a Nov. 10 post on his site Truth Social, he declared that elections officials in Nevada, where a count is also still underway, and Arizona “want more time to cheat.”

In the Nevada Senate race, Republican Adam Laxalt sent a tweet that gave no oxygen to Trump’s baseless claim as his lead over Democratic incumbent Catherine Cortez Masto evaporated on Saturday evening. He explained that she might “overtake us” and thanked his supporters for their prayers. Moments later, Cortez Masto was declared the winner, ensuring Democrats will retain control of the Senate. Laxalt was a state co-chair of Trump’s campaign and filed lawsuits seeking to overturn the results there.

David Levine, an elections integrity fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, said, “After what took place in 2020, I had a ‘hope for the best, prepare for the worst’ outlook.” Levine, a former elections director in Ada County, Idaho, said he “feared some would try to succeed in 2022 where former President Trump failed.”

Though Levine and others are feeling relieved so far about the absence of major election conspiracies this post-voting cycle, they caution that not everything is settled.

That’s particularly true about Arizona, where there are hundreds of thousands of ballots that voters returned to secure metal drop boxes on or just before Election Day that are still being counted. While Finchem and Masters lost by margins big enough to declare winners, the governor’s race is far closer.

The epicenter of the count is Maricopa County, the state’s most populous, where a crush of same-day ballots have elections officials working around the clock to manually verify signatures. They are doing so against a storm of misinformation from Trump supporters implying Democrats are rigging the election against Republican Kari Lake. Lake is running against Katie Hobbs, who is the state’s current secretary of state.

On Friday, the Republican National Committee claimed there were “deep flaws” in the county’s elections administration, even though the Maricopa supervisor of elections, Bill Gates, is a Republican, and its longer process of verifying ballots was instituted by the GOP-led Legislature. On Saturday, protesters gathered outside of Maricopa’s elections office with signs reading “Lake won” and “Hobbs is a cheat.”

The conspiratorial fervor reached such a pitch on Saturday that Gates’ office issued a series of tweets addressing “disinformation super spreaders” and “social media bots.” It read: “Please read Arizona election law & the elections procedures manual before asking leading questions about how something seems suspicious.”

Extremism researchers had already said that election-related political violence was more likely to happen in states like Arizona with contentious races.

In 2020, during the pandemic, ballots that were returned on Election Day to drop boxes tilted toward the GOP and Trump, while in the last midterm elections in 2018, they helped Democrat Kyrsten Sinema flip a Senate seat blue. Even so, Lake has repeatedly taken to Twitter and Fox News to insist those outstanding ballots are “hard-core Republican voters.”

“I’m relieved that my greatest fears haven’t come to pass thus far,” said Levine, “but we can’t let our guard down until the midterms have concluded and the results are certified.”

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