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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Far-right Republicans press closer to power over future elections

Jim Marchant in Carson City, Nev., in March 2021. He is the Republican nominee for Nevada secretary of state and an organizer of a Trump-inspired coalition of candidates who falsely insist the 2020 election was stolen.

By Reid J. Epstein and Nick Corasaniti

The potential for far-right Republicans to reshape the election systems of major battleground states is growing much closer to reality.

As the halfway point nears of a midterm year that is vastly friendlier to Republicans, the party’s voters have nominated dozens of candidates for offices with power over the administration and certification of elections who have spread falsehoods about the 2020 presidential contest and sowed distrust in American democracy.

The only way to restore trust, these candidates say, is by electing them.

In Michigan, Pennsylvania and now Nevada, Republican voters have elevated candidates who owe their political rise to their amplification of doubts about Joe Biden’s victory, and who are now vying in elections for governor, secretary of state and attorney general — offices that will hold significant sway over the administration of the 2024 presidential election in critical swing states.

The rise of election deniers is far from over. Primary contests coming later this month in Colorado and in early August in Arizona and Wisconsin will provide more clarity on the depth of Republican voters’ desire to rally behind candidates devoted to the false idea that the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump.

With Republicans widely predicted to make gains in November, it is possible that 2023 will bring newly installed far-right officials willing to wield their influence to affect election outcomes and a possible Supreme Court ruling that could give state legislatures unchecked power over federal elections. Even some Republican candidates and officials who for a time defended the 2020 results as legitimate have begun to question whether Biden’s victory was on the level.

“We are in a dangerous place at the moment,” said Ben Berwick, the counsel for Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan group dedicated to resisting authoritarianism. “There is a substantial faction in this country that has come to the point where they have rejected the premise that when we have elections, the losers of the elections acknowledge the right of the winner to govern.”

On Tuesday, Nevada Republicans chose as their nominee for secretary of state Jim Marchant, an organizer of a Trump-inspired coalition of far-right candidates united by their insistence that the 2020 election was rigged. Marchant, a former state legislator from Las Vegas, told voters during a February debate that “your vote hasn’t counted for decades.”

On the November ballot, Marchant joins Doug Mastriano, the Republican nominee for governor of Pennsylvania, who won his primary last month after promoting efforts to decertify the 2020 results, and Attorney General Ken Paxton of Texas, who in December 2020 sued to overturn Biden’s victory, as well as like-minded figures in other states including New Mexico.

The number of election deniers who have won Republican nominations is quickly rising in congressional and state legislative races across the country. At least 72 members of Congress who voted to overturn the 2020 election have advanced to the general election, according to a New York Times analysis.

And in Georgia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Texas — four competitive states that have already held primaries — 157 state legislators who took concrete steps to overturn or undermine the 2020 election will be on the ballot in November.

These primary results come as the House select committee’s hearings into the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol have revealed how nearly every senior figure in the Trump orbit except the president himself believed Biden had won the election despite Trump’s claims.

Still, the former president’s lies, adopted and advanced by his followers, continue to threaten to upset the country’s democratic order nearly 18 months later.

For many election-denying candidates, victory is far from assured. Some of the most prominent ones, like Mastriano, face tough general-election campaigns, and their success may depend on factors like their personal fundraising networks, the health of the economy and policy debates that have nothing to do with election administration.

And voters have at times been hesitant to embrace candidates whose central plank is elections. Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia swept aside former Sen. David Perdue’s 2020-centric challenge, and Brad Raffensperger, the state’s secretary of state, also handily beat a Trump-backed rival.

Still, in primary after primary, election deniers have ascended, signaling that Trump’s falsehoods about the 2020 election have become deeply embedded in the Republican base.

Hanging over several marquee 2022 races is the prospect of 2024, when a Democratic presidential nominee — Biden, if he runs again as promised — might have to confront the open question of whether victories in certain states would be certified.

In several battleground states, Republicans who have said they would not have certified Biden’s 2020 victory are running for governor or secretary of state, positions that oversee elections and the appointment of Electoral College delegates.

In particular, races for secretary of state — once little-noticed contests to choose the top election official in most states — have become extraordinarily high-profile and politicized.

“I don’t know of a single proven competent election official that says, ‘Gosh, I can’t wait to be on the front page,’” said Pam Anderson, a Republican running for secretary of state in Colorado. “Because usually that’s a really bad thing.”

Anderson is running in a Republican primary against Tina Peters, the Mesa County clerk, who is under indictment related to allegations that she tampered with elections equipment after the 2020 election. Peters has become something of a hero to the far-right base, walking the red carpet at a documentary screening at Mar-a-Lago and speaking at Republican events across the country.

Promoting 2020 falsehoods has also bolstered the prospects of candidates for secretary of state who have no experience managing elections, like Kristina Karamo, who is the likely Republican nominee in Michigan after winning the most delegates at the state party’s convention.

In a Monday podcast interview with Steve Bannon, the former Trump adviser, Karamo made a series of false allegations about a “stolen” 2020 election in Michigan. Mark Finchem, a leading Republican candidate for secretary of state in Arizona who also appeared on the podcast, said the contest had been “stolen by a number of ways.”

“If we’re not successful” in November, Karamo told Bannon, “we’re going to lose our country.”

Karamo did not respond to messages. Reached on his cellphone, Finchem said he was driving and “probably shouldn’t be talking on the phone” and hung up. He did not respond to further requests for comment.

With the conservative base angry about Trump’s loss, some Republicans who initially safeguarded the 2020 results have since backtracked.

In the days after the election, Frank LaRose, the Ohio secretary of state, condemned “conspiracy theories and rumors” about fraud. “There’s a great human capacity for inventing things that aren’t true about elections,” he said in an interview at the time.

In a new interview on Tuesday, LaRose, who is seeking a second term in November, said he trusted the 2020 outcome in Ohio — which Trump won handily — but not in a few other states Biden carried narrowly.

“There are things that happened in other states that shouldn’t have happened,” LaRose said. “You know, would those have changed as a result of the election? That’s an unknowable thing.”

Worries about candidates who have championed anti-democratic positions have also motivated Democratic voters in some places, though polls show that many voters in both parties are focused more on economic issues like inflation and gas prices.

Maggie Toulouse Oliver, the Democratic secretary of state in New Mexico, said that she was running for reelection to help keep the position in Democratic control — her GOP opponent, Audrey Trujillo, has called the 2020 election a “coup” — and that she feared the threat was not being wholly realized at the national level.

“We’re going to see at least one, if not more, election deniers rise to these offices in 2022,” she said in an interview. “And I think we need to be scared and concerned about every single one of them.”

Republican candidates are using the perceived threat of election fraud to encourage their supporters to vote.

In Arizona, the leading Republican candidate for governor, Kari Lake, has said that Gov. Doug Ducey, a fellow Republican who is term-limited, should not have certified Biden’s 2020 victory in the state and has predicted the 2022 general election will also be rigged against Republicans. “I think we’re going to have to win by a mile to maybe eke out a win,” she told The Times earlier this year.

Matthew DePerno, the Michigan Republican Party’s choice for state attorney general, rose to prominence after filing a series of lawsuits that claimed election irregularities in Michigan. Though the suits were dismissed, he obtained permission to examine voting machines in Antrim County, which has been the source of many election conspiracy theories in Michigan.

DePerno said in an interview that he believed there had probably been enough fraud in Michigan to steal a victory from Trump. If he wins in November, DePerno said, he would most likely begin a state investigation into the 2020 election.

“Literally every single day we hear about these issues and voters’ concerns about the last election,” he said, “and how we can make changes in the future to prevent that from happening again.”

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