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Midterm stakes grow clearer: Election deniers will be on many ballots


Herschel Walker, the UGA football legend and Republican senatorial hopeful, campaigns at the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame in Macon, on May 18, 2022.

By Reid J. Epstein


Republican voters in this week’s primary races demonstrated a willingness to nominate candidates who parrot Donald Trump’s election lies and who appear intent on exerting extraordinary political control over voting systems. The results make clear that the November midterms may well affect the fate of free and fair elections in the country.


In Pennsylvania, Republican voters united behind a nominee for governor, Doug Mastriano, who helped lead the brazen effort to overturn the state’s 2020 election and chartered buses to the rally before the Capitol riot, and who has since promoted a constitutionally impossible effort to decertify President Joe Biden’s victory in his state.


In North Carolina, voters chose a GOP Senate nominee, Rep. Ted Budd, who voted in Congress against certifying the 2020 results and who continues to refuse to say that Biden was legitimately elected.


And in Idaho, which Trump won overwhelmingly in 2020, 57% of voters backed two Republican candidates for secretary of state who pushed election falsehoods, although they lost a three-way race to a rival who accepts Biden as president.


The strong showings Tuesday by election deniers, who have counterparts running competitively in primaries across the country over the coming months, were an early signal of the threat posed by the Trump-inspired movement.


When talking to voters, many Republican candidates have focused heavily on a broader list of promises to restore conservative governance. And in many general election races, candidates from both major parties are likely to focus on inflation and the economy.


Still, the election issue hangs over several races in presidential battleground states. Republicans trying to reclaim governor’s mansions and take over top offices overseeing elections have fallen over one another for the past year and a half to cater to voters who believe myriad false claims about the 2020 contest.


The biggest single test will be next Tuesday in Georgia, where Trump has backed a slate of candidates running on election-denial platforms against the incumbent governor, secretary of state and attorney general.


Trump’s choice for governor, former Sen. David Perdue, appears likely to fall short against Gov. Brian Kemp, whom Trump still blames for his 2020 loss in Georgia. All three races could wind up in runoffs if no candidate secures a majority of the primary vote.


Perdue and Rep. Jody Hice, who is challenging Brad Raffensperger, the secretary of state, have each falsely argued that rampant voter fraud marred the 2020 Georgia contests. Perdue began a debate with Kemp by declaring: “The election in 2020 was rigged and stolen.” Hice said he would not have certified Biden’s victory.


In the state’s Senate race, the leading Republican candidate, Trump-backed football great Herschel Walker, said Wednesday that he wasn’t sure if Biden had been lawfully elected in 2020.


“I don’t know,” Walker told a New York Times reporter after a speech in Macon, Georgia. “I do think there was problems. And I think everybody else thinks there was problems, and that’s the reason right now everybody’s so upset.”


But no Republican nominee for a major swing-state office has done more to amplify bogus election claims than Mastriano in Pennsylvania.


A state senator and retired Army colonel, he spent $3,354 in campaign funds to charter buses to Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. A Senate Judiciary Committee report said that video footage had confirmed that Mastriano had “passed through breached barricades and police lines” near the Capitol, although he has denied that he breached the lines and there is no evidence that he entered the Capitol itself.


This March, Mastriano held a campaign event in Gettysburg at which attendees signed a petition calling on Pennsylvania to decertify the state’s 2020 results, according to The York Daily Record.


The decertification push has become the latest litmus test in 2020 election denialism. It has also rattled Republicans in Wisconsin, where one of the party’s four major candidates for governor has made undoing Biden’s 2020 victory in the state the central plank of his campaign.


Trump has encouraged the decertification effort in Wisconsin and offered a late endorsement to Mastriano. The former president has conditioned his endorsement, the most valuable seal of approval in Republican politics, on amplifying false claims about the election.


Once in office, Trump-backed candidates are likely to try to follow through on promises to alter election law — in some cases, by simply making voting more difficult, but in others, by going so far as to give Republican-controlled state legislatures the right to overturn election results.


In Pennsylvania, Kathy Barnette, a Jan. 6 rally attendee who pushed many false stolen election claims and campaigned on a slate with Mastriano, placed third in the state’s GOP Senate primary with about 25% of the vote.


And the two men locked in a photo finish for first place, Dr. Mehmet Oz and David McCormick, have also cast doubt on the 2020 election results, refusing to say Biden won fairly.


In interviews before Pennsylvania’s primary, Republican voters made an array of false election claims and said they wanted their nominees to pass new voting laws once in office.


Standing outside a gun shop in Butler County, just north of Pittsburgh, Mike Ackelson, 57, said he saw “voter fraud as the biggest issue by far.” Ackelson, a local sports broadcaster, said he was convinced Trump had won the 2020 contest because early vote counts on election night favored him — even though votes are routinely counted for many hours or even days after polls close.


“How does someone gain that much overnight?” Ackelson said. “I’m tired of this big cloud of smoke about what’s been going on.”


That ballot counting phenomenon may, however, replay itself in Pennsylvania’s Senate primary. Oz on Wednesday morning had a lead of about 2,500 votes over McCormick. But with tens of thousands of votes left to be counted, McCormick’s campaign has expressed confidence he will prevail.


As in the past, Trump has shown no desire to wait until one candidate has a decisive advantage before declaring a winner. On Wednesday, he urged Oz to declare victory and get on with things. “It makes it much harder for them to cheat with the ballots they ‘just happened to find,’ ” Trump wrote on Truth Social, his social media platform.


In what could be a dangerous maneuver, Pennsylvania Democrats encouraged and tried to help Mastriano’s candidacy, despite his election stance and his calls to make voting more difficult. He has said he would seek to end no-excuse absentee voting in the state, appoint a secretary of state focused on election fraud, add to the number of poll watchers in Pennsylvania, enact a universal voter identification law and end the state’s contracts with voting machine operators.


Josh Shapiro, the state’s attorney general who ran unopposed for the Democratic nomination for governor, spent more than $530,000 — more than Mastriano spent on television in his entire campaign — on a single TV ad designed to lift the far-right Republican’s standing among the GOP base.


“He wants to end vote by mail, and he led the fight to audit the 2020 election,” the ad says. “If Mastriano wins, it’s a win for what Donald Trump stands for.”


Many political observers, including some worried Republicans, view Mastriano as an underdog to the better-funded Shapiro — but the current environment is far friendlier to the GOP and Democrats across the country are dogged by Biden’s low approval ratings.


In North Carolina, Budd, who objected to the 2020 results after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, began his campaign by calling Biden’s victory “legitimate.” After a year of the primary campaign and following Trump’s endorsement, he’d backtracked, and Tuesday said he had “constitutional concerns about 2020.”


Even Republican candidates who don’t subscribe to the most radical theories aiming to overturn past elections are playing political footsie with those who do.


Rebecca Kleefisch, a former lieutenant governor of Wisconsin who has long been the establishment Republican preference in the state’s August primary for governor, has migrated from saying last year that Biden had won the state’s contest fairly.


By February, she was saying that she didn’t know if Biden had won and she didn’t know if she would have certified the state’s 2020 results. In late April, with three primary rivals running to her right, Kleefisch said, “I feel like it was rigged.”


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