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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

How the worst fears for democracy were averted in 2022

Pamella Secrest, a registered Republican in Silver Springs, Nev. Dec. 19, 2022, who voted for the Republican candidate for governor but not for secretary of state. A precariously narrow but consequential slice of the electorate broke with its own voting history to reject openly extremist Republican candidates — at least partly out of concern for the health of the political system.

By Charles Homans, Jazmine Ulloa and Blake Hounshell

Not long ago, Joe Mohler would have seemed an unlikely person to help bury the political legacy of Donald Trump.

Mohler, a 24-year-old Republican committeeman and law student in Lancaster Township, Pennsylvania, voted for Trump in 2016. He voted for him again in 2020 — but this time with some misgivings. And when Trump began spouting lies and conspiracy theories about his 2020 loss, Mohler, who grew up in a solidly conservative area of southeastern Pennsylvania, was troubled to hear many people he knew repeat them.

Last January, after county Republican leaders aligned with a group known for spreading misinformation about the 2020 election and COVID vaccines, Mohler spoke out against them — a move that he said cost him his post as chairman of the township GOP committee.

“I just realized how much of a sham the whole movement was,” he said. “The moment the veil is pulled from your face, you realize how ugly the face is that you are looking at.”

Mohler was part of a precariously narrow but consequential slice of the electorate that went against its own voting history this year in order to reject Republican candidates who sought control over elections, at least in part out of concern for the health of the political system and the future of democracy.

After deciding that preserving the integrity of elections was his single most important issue in 2022, he voted in November for the party’s nominee for Senate, Mehmet Oz, who hedged carefully on the question of who won the 2020 election but eventually said he would have voted to certify Joe Biden’s victory had he been in office. But in the governor’s race, Mohler decided he could not vote for Doug Mastriano, the Republican candidate, who as a state senator was central to efforts to overturn Pennsylvania’s 2020 election results.

Mastriano had pledged to decertify voting machines in counties where he suspected the results were fraudulent and to appoint as secretary of the commonwealth, the office overseeing elections in Pennsylvania, someone who shared his views.

“It was just so reprehensible,” Mohler said. “I didn’t want anybody like that in the governor’s office.”

The decisions of voters like Mohler, discernible in surveys and voiced in interviews, did not necessarily lay to rest concerns about the ability of the election system to withstand the new pressures unleashed upon it by Trump. But they did suggest a possible ceiling on the appeal of extreme partisanship — one that prevented, in this cycle, the worst fears for the health of democracy from being realized.

Mastriano lost by nearly 15 percentage points to the Democratic candidate, Josh Shapiro — part of a midterm election that saw voters reject every election denier running to oversee elections in a battleground state.

In Arizona, Michigan and Nevada, Republican primary voters nominated candidates campaigning on Trump’s election lies for secretary of state, the office that in 40 states oversees the election system. In all three, those candidates lost. The rout eased the immediate concern that strident partisans who embraced conspiracy theories about hacked voting machines, foreign meddling and smuggled ballots might soon be empowered to wreak havoc on election systems.

The election results suggest that a focus on Trump’s election lies did not merely galvanize Democrats but also alienated Republicans and independents. Final turnout figures show registered Republicans cast more ballots than registered Democrats in Arizona and Nevada, but election-denying candidates nevertheless lost important races in each of those states.

Republican candidates in statewide contests who embraced Trump’s election lies also significantly underperformed compared with Republicans who did not. This was true even in districts that voted overwhelmingly for Trump in 2020, suggesting that the defection of ticket-splitters like Mohler likely played a role.

In a survey of voters in five battleground states conducted by the research firm Citizen Data for the advocacy group Protect Democracy, one-third of those who cast ballots for a mix of Democrats and Republicans in November cited a concern that GOP candidates held views or promoted policies “that are dangerous to democracy.”

And in a postelection survey conducted by Impact Research, a Democratic polling firm, 69% of independents and Republicans who voted for a Democrat for the House said that democracy was critical to their decision.

“That gives me some optimism that the general election voter wants a return to some normalcy and some stability,” said Ethan Demme, a former GOP chairman in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County, who formed a new third party in Pennsylvania after Trump supporters attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Democrats welcomed crossover voters with open arms. After all, they’d been looking for them.

In Pennsylvania’s governor’s race, Shapiro commissioned focus groups of Trump voters to glean insights into how to peel them away from Mastriano.

About one-third of Trump’s voters did not buy into Mastriano’s claims about the 2020 election, and Shapiro’s team found that voters with such misgivings were also receptive to appeals on other issues.

“Those voters had real sensitivity to not only Mastriano’s history and position on democracy issues, but also his positions on abortion, marriage equality, and climate change,” the Shapiro campaign wrote in a postelection memo.

The campaign’s strategy reflected an awareness that election denialism could be an indicator of other weaknesses as much as a weakness itself.

“This extreme conversation about voter fraud, it attracts an extreme flavor of people,” said Kristopher Dahir, a councilman and pastor in Sparks, Nevada, who ran as a Republican for secretary of state this year. After losing the primary to Jim Marchant, a prominent figure in the election denier movement, Dahir endorsed Marchant’s Democratic opponent, Cisco Aguilar, who won in November.

Mastriano was outspent by Shapiro 14-to-1 on television and digital ads between Labor Day and Nov. 8, and lost by nearly 15 points.

The highest-profile races for secretary of state were similarly lopsided. National Democrats spent nearly $8 million on advertising in Nevada to promote Aguilar; Republicans spent nothing to help Marchant. In Arizona, Mark Finchem was buried by more than $14 million in ads run by Democratic groups.

A significant factor in the imbalance was Trump, who vocally promoted election denier candidates in Republican secretary of state primaries but put almost none of his money where his mouth was. Save America PAC, his leadership PAC, spent only $10,000 of its $100 million-plus war chest on secretary of state candidates who made it into the general election. A spinoff super PAC, MAGA, Inc., chose to spend money on races for Senate instead.

The narrowness of some of the election deniers’ losses, and the diversity of factors that likely played into them, have led some experts to caution that November’s results should not be mistaken for a wholesale rejection of anti-democratic politics.

“Anyone who believes that we’re out of the woods because a handful of election deniers lost close races in swing states is deluding themselves,” said Brian Klaas, a scholar on authoritarianism at University College London.

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