Former President Donald Trump’s lies about widespread election fraud remain the driving force in GOP politics 18 months after his loss, shaping everything from a Senate election in Arizona to state legislative battles in Wisconsin while continuing to sow doubt in American democracy and setting the stage for a possible second attempt to steal the election in 2024.
“We cannot move on,” Mehmet Oz, the television personality who is Trump’s endorsed candidate in Pennsylvania’s GOP Senate primary, said during a debate last week when asked about the 2020 election. He noted he had spoken about the election with Trump.
There is no evidence to support Trump’s claims of a stolen election, conspiracy theories about mass voter fraud have been repeatedly debunked, and multiple Republican-led reviews of the election across the country have uncovered zero evidence of wrongdoing. Trump’s lies have inspired both the Jan. 6 insurrection in the U.S. Capitol and a wave of GOP-backed laws restricting voting rights and giving Republican appointees more power over elections.
As campaign season moves into high gear with a month of primaries starting Tuesday, claims the election were “stolen” are central to Republican messaging and often receive thunderous applause at GOP events and rallies. Polling indicates a majority of Republican voters continue to believe the election was stolen, and those who do are the most excited to vote in the midterm elections. Trump routinely threatens politicians who resist a complete and total embrace of the lies.
While there are isolated bits of resistance from establishment Republicans, the bulk of the party has embraced candidates who continue to insist Trump won. All but one of the GOP candidates running in a crowded Senate primary in Ohio on Tuesday insist the election was stolen, as do leading Senate candidates in Georgia, Nevada and Arizona. The incumbent governor of Alabama, Kay Ivey, opened one of her television ads by proclaiming: “The fake news, big tech and blue state liberals stole the election from Donald Trump.”
Voters’ concerns about inflation, immigration and crime have created a pro-GOP political environment heading into the midterm elections, where Democrats will need to defend their thin majorities in both chambers of Congress. The party is hopeful, but far from certain, that the all-out GOP embrace of the so-called big lie will cause at least some swing and independent voters to reject Republicans in key races.
“I remain very confident that if we can continue to elevate these positions, voters on both sides of the aisle will do the right thing,” Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said in an interview with HuffPost. “It just remains to be seen whether or not that message will cut through a lot of the other noise and rhetoric that is percolating in this election cycle.”
The most vivid examples of the rise of election denial come from Republican conventions in Michigan and Colorado in recent weeks. GOP activists steeped in election falsehoods dominated both, and both nominated multiple Republicans who falsely claim Trump won the 2020 election.
In Colorado’s secretary of state race, the GOP convention backed Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters — who is facing 10 counts of criminal conspiracy charges related to election tampering after she helped leak election data to a far-right message board. In Michigan, Republicans are nominating Trump-backed Kristina Karamo for the same position. Karamo has repeatedly spread conspiracy theories about the vote count in Michigan, where Biden won by 150,000 votes. (She has also embraced QAnon, among other inflammatory statements.)
“This is not just about 2022,” Trump said during a rally to support Karamo and Matthew DePerno, another election denialist who won the Michigan GOP’s nomination for attorney general. “This is about making sure Michigan is not rigged and stolen again in 2024.”
Benson has been trying to fend off lies about the election since November 2020, with armed protesters once gathering outside her house to demand she “stop the steal.” She told HuffPost she was not surprised by Karamo’s nomination.
“To have an opponent who personifies that deceit, that misinformation, those lies, those conspiracy theories, it was inevitable given the way in which the attacks on democracy have played out,” Benson said.
“Roughly 80% of Republicans believe the election was somehow stolen, despite a complete lack of evidence.”
Halfway embraces of Trump’s election lies have not been enough for the former president. Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, who is now running for the GOP nomination to challenge Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly, had generally refused to deny Biden won Arizona in 2020. But last week, he released an “interim report” on the 2020 election that alleged there was fraud in the vote but provided no evidence to support that conclusion. He went on former Trump political guru Steve Bannon’s radio show to promote the findings.
That wasn’t good enough for Trump. He released a statement saying Brnovich “wanted to be politically correct,” and essentially ruled out endorsing him in the race. (Businessman Jim Lamon and Blake Masters, a venture capitalist backed by tech billionaire and democracy skeptic Peter Thiel, are also running for the GOP nomination to battle Kelly.)
In Wisconsin, Republicans were set to let a state contract for a fruitless search for election fraud led by a retired state Supreme Court justice named Michael Gableman expire. The state had already spent nearly $700,000 on the review, and was paying Gableman $11,000 a month, even as he missed multiple deadlines for finishing the report.
But after Trump not-so-subtly threatened to endorse a primary challenge to the speaker of Wisconsin’s state Assembly, Robin Vos, Gabelman’s contract was extended at a lower salary.
“Anyone calling themselves a Republican in Wisconsin should support the continued investigation in Wisconsin without interference,” Trump wrote in a statement. “I understand some RINOs have primary challengers in Wisconsin. I’m sure their primary opponents would get a huge bump in the polls if these RINOs interfere.”
The belief the 2020 election was stolen remains a minority view, with polls finding somewhere between one-third and 40% of Americans insisting Biden did not legitimately win the election. But polls also have found roughly 80% of Republicans believe the election was somehow stolen, despite a complete lack of evidence for that position.
That has put Republicans who do maintain Biden won in a difficult spot. Nevada Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, a Republican, is not running for reelection after the state party censured her for refusing to buy into Trump’s tales of voter fraud in the state, which Biden narrowly won. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who has repeatedly publicly clashed with Trump, is trailing in the polls to Trump-endorsed Rep. Jody Hice heading into a May 24 primary.