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Americans Don’t Want Election Deniers
In the midterms, voters spurned candidates who lacked a commitment to free and fair elections.
Earlier this year, Kari Lake, a former Arizona TV news anchor, became a superstar among Trump loyalists thanks to her unwavering election denialism, cocksure demeanor, and cheeky confrontations with reporters. Trump himself was overheard in a Fox News documentary, lecturing Arizona’s Senate challenger Blake Masters in a phone conversation, “Look at Kari. Kari’s winning with very little money. And if they say, ‘How is your family?’ she says, ‘the election was rigged and stolen.’”
Lake certainly thought she was winning. When asked on CNN if she would accept the results if she lost, she responded, “I’m going to win the election, and I will accept that result.” And yet, when election results were finalized, Lake came up short by about 18,000 votes.
A pro-democracy Republican likely would have won the gubernatorial race in Arizona, as the state is hardly blue. A clear majority of Arizona voters preferred Republican House candidates to Democrats. The mainstream Republican running for re-election to serve as State Treasurer won with 56% of the vote. Yet Lake failed to keep pace.
A post-election review of the race reported in the Arizona Republic identified swing voters who recoiled from Lake specifically because of where she stood on the 2020 election. One Phoenix-based voter, Stephen Frankini, backed Masters for Senate because he didn’t want to see Democrats pass federal gun control measures but split his ticket when it came to governor. “I don't particularly care for the stolen election rhetoric,” Frankini said, “Normally, I would vote Republican, but that's getting kind of ridiculous now.”
These anecdotes track the voter turnout data of Arizona’s Maricopa County, where the majority of Arizonans live. Nate Cohn of The New York Times reported that “75 percent of registered Republicans [in Maricopa] turned out, compared with 69 percent of Democrats. That was enough to yield an electorate in which registered Republicans outnumbered Democrats by nine percentage points. Yet Republicans like Masters and Lake lost their races for Senate and governor.”
This is a theme that reappeared over and over again in the 2022 midterm elections. Across the country, up and down the ballot, voters spurned candidates who lacked commitment to the most basic of democratic principles: accepting the results of free and fair elections.
In the Senate, Democrats held onto the majority by defeating five Republican candidates who, at some point in their campaigns, either questioned or rejected the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election: Arizona’s Blake Masters, Georgia’s Herschel Walker, Nevada’s Adam Laxalt, New Hampshire’s Don Bolduc and Pennsylvania’s Mehmet Oz. Furthermore, the aisle-crossing Republican incumbent Lisa Murkowski, competing in Alaska’s new top-four ranked-choice-voting system, fended off an intra-party challenge from the Trump-endorsed election denier Kelly Tshibaka.
In the House, Republicans barely claimed a majority after flipping a net of just nine seats, well below the post-World War II average of a 26-seat gain for the opposition party in a midterm. The Washington Post identified 24 House candidates in competitive districts who questioned or denied the 2020 outcome in some fashion. Seventeen lost, and only two of the seven winners ousted a Democratic incumbent.
The midterm scenario that perhaps most terrified democracy defenders was a wave of election deniers winning Secretary of State races, seizing control of election apparatuses, and throwing future elections to Trump and his allies. Nevada’s Jim Marchant not only ran for Secretary of State on an election denialist platform, but led an “America First Secretary of State Coalition” of like-minded candidates, with several in presidential swing states. At an October rally, while standing next to Donald Trump, Marchant pledged, “when my coalition of secretary of state candidates around the country get elected we’re going to fix the whole country, and President Trump is going to be president again in 2024.” With the exception of Indiana’s Diego Morales, he and his entire six-candidate slate lost.
Meanwhile, Republican candidates who refused to push Trump’s election hoax performed as one might expect them to in a midterm election with an unpopular Democratic president, rising inflation, and a generally unhappy electorate. Consider, for example, Nevada’s Republican governor-elect, Joe Lombardo.
In an October debate, Lombardo was asked if he believed that the 2020 election was rigged for Biden. He replied, “No, I do not. I think there was some modicum of fraud, but nothing to change the election.” When asked to respond to Trump’s denialist rhetoric, he said “It bothers me” and “I don’t stand by him in that aspect.” Lombardo, walking a very fine line, joined Trump for a rally the following week and called him “the greatest President.” We learned after the election that Trump threatened to pull his endorsement after the debate and was appeased by Lombardo’s public praise. Lombardo’s two-step was awkward, but apparently sufficient to avoid the fate of the Nevada Republicans more closely associated with election denialism. Laxalt and Marchant were defeated while Lombardo was the lone Republican in 2022 to flip a gubernatorial seat.
The midterm election results are in sync with the National Election Pool exit poll, in which 61% of respondents said Biden was legitimately elected, 24% of whom were Republican, creating a bipartisan majority of Americans who accept the results of the 2020 election. Unfortunately, a majority of Republicans, 69%, still say that Biden was not legitimately elected. That exactly tracks the incoming Republican House majority. One-hundred and fifty-four members of the 118th Congress are on The Washington Post denier list, 69% of the House Republican Conference.
We can be heartened by the American majority’s commitment to democracy, and simultaneously concerned about the sustainability of its democracy if one of its two major parties remains beholden to an anti-democracy faction. Our constitutional and statutory guardrails have proved sturdy so far. But just like physical infrastructure, democratic infrastructure must be monitored, maintained, and fortified.
In particular, we need an updated Electoral Count Act to reduce the risk of congressional mischief when certifying presidential elections. A bipartisan Senate reform bill—making clear that the Vice President can’t unilaterally select the winner, and cutting off avenues for rogue state legislators to submit fake electors to the Electoral College—has already attracted 16 Republicans including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. But it diverges from the House version which passed in September with scant Republican support. Little time is remaining in the 117th Congress to iron out differences (or, more likely, force the House to accept the Senate version), and the incoming Republican House majority cannot be trusted to pass a strong reform bill. Hopefully, the law will pass before the new Congress is sworn in on January 3.
While the anti-democratic strains coursing through the electorate are troubling, the larger swaths of Americans stepping up to defend democracy are far more heartening. Successful democracies require a public that places broad democratic principles above any narrow pursuit of power by individuals or factions. Despite fears about cultural polarization eroding support for democratic institutions, voters in 2022 proved that they are still up to the task.
Bill Scher is a contributor to the Washington Monthly, POLITICO Magazine, and Real Clear Politics. He is a co-host of the weekly online political show "The DMZ," and the host of the history podcast "When America Worked."
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