More than 80 candidates who have made false claims about the 2020 election or supported Donald Trump's "Big Lie" are running for state offices that run, oversee or protect elections, according to a new report.
Trump has targeted numerous state-level races after Republicans like Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey refused to help him try to overturn his loss and election officials like Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (a Republican) and Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs (a Democrat) repeatedly discredited his baseless claims of fraud. But the trend is not limited to the handful of battleground states that decided the 2020 election.
At least 51 Republican candidates who have falsely claimed that Trump won the election, spread lies about the election's legitimacy, backed "forensic" audits, promoted conspiracy theories or took other actions to undermine election integrity are running for governor in 24 states, according to States United Action, a nonpartisan group tracking election deniers running for office. In some states, multiple election deniers are running in the same primary.
At least 21 election deniers are running for secretary of state in 18 states, an office that would put them in power to oversee voting in their states. Another 11 election deniers are running for attorney general, which would position them to get involved in election litigation and law enforcement matters.
"We are seeing Democrat and Republican statewide officials who defended the will of the people in 2020 being challenged or primaried by Election Deniers in red and blue states alike," former Republican New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, the co-chair of States United Action, said in a statement. "Elections are national events run by the states, so these positions are critical to a government of, by, and for the people. It's important that we pay attention, and early, to the rhetoric about our election system happening in these down-ballot races."
Secretaries of state in particular proved to be key in undermining Trump's post-election crusade. Secretaries of state from both parties certified election results and fended off lawsuits from Trump and his allies. Raffensperger, for example, also resisted a barrage of calls from Trump asking him to "find" enough votes to overturn the election. He and many other top election officials endured months of death threats for their efforts.
Trump has thrown his endorsement behind Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., who is mounting a primary challenge to Raffensperger. After the 2020 election, Hice backed multiple lawsuits seeking to overturn the results of the election in Georgia, saying he was "not convinced at all" that President Biden won the state even after three recounts confirmed the results. Hice has also spread conspiracy theories that voting machines flipped votes from Trump to Biden. Hice objected to the certification of Biden's victory in Congress on Jan. 6, 2021, which he called "our 1776 moment," even after hundreds of Trump supporters assaulted Capitol Police officers and hunted lawmakers through the halls of Congress.
Trump is also backing state Rep. Mark Finchem in his campaign against Hobbs as secretary of state in Arizona, which Trump lost to Biden by fewer than 11,000 votes. Finchem attended the "Stop the Steal" rally ahead of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot and has acknowledged his ties to the Oath Keepers, a far-right militia whose leader and other members have been charged with seditious conspiracy in the riot. Finchem has repeatedly insisted that Trump won the 2020 race, was a key supporter of the failed Maricopa County "audit" and has since introduced legislation that would require all voters' ballots to be published online and require all ballots to be counted by hand — a nod to the numerous conspiracy theories around Arizona's so-called audit. Finchem is also co-sponsoring a bill that would allow the state legislature to "accept or reject" the results of a presidential election, without establishing clear criteria for such a rejection.
Trump is also targeting Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, who fended off multiple legal challenges to the state's election. Trump has endorsed Kristina Karamo, a community college professor who gained a following in conservative circles after claiming she had seen fraudulent ballots counted in Detroit while acting as a poll challenger, assertions that have been rejected in court and by local election officials. Karamo later pushed conspiracy theories that voting machines had switched votes from Trump to Biden and that antifa, not Trump supporters, were behind the Capitol riot.
More than a dozen other election deniers are running in many other states, according to States United Action, including such swing states like Nevada, Colorado, Minnesota, New Mexico and Ohio. (Biden won the first four and Trump carried Ohio, all by relatively narrow margins.)
Benson warned that these election deniers are vying for positions that could potentially allow them to "change election results."
Misinformation spread by Trump supporters and threats against election officials are all part of a "multi-tier effort designed to, in some ways, create a ripe environment that could accept the results of an election being overturned because there's been so much confusion and chaos and instances of illegitimacy suggested through various means," Benson told reporters on Wednesday. "This misinformation campaign is also a critical component of enabling these individuals … to be poised to block or overturn election results that they don't support."
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The nearly two dozen election deniers running for secretary of state represent only a small number of the election conspiracists seeking power over elections at multiple levels. Trump allies are also working to place supporters in key local election positions at the county and municipal levels.
"Sometimes the vote counter is more important than the candidate," Trump said earlier this month.
"There are local efforts to place individuals on local canvassing boards who also play a role in certifying our elections," Benson said. "You have a clear line for election subversion in the future if these individuals are elected with his support."
Trump is also recruiting candidates to challenge governors that opposed his post-election efforts. He recently convinced former Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., to challenge Kemp in this year's GOP primary, much to the chagrin of many Georgia Republicans who are still reeling from losing both U.S. Senate seats in a January 2021 runoff election after Trump stoked conspiracies about the November election.
Perdue has said he would not have certified the 2020 election and filed a baseless lawsuit in December, nearly a year after his loss to Democrat Jon Ossoff, claiming that election officials in Fulton County, a Democratic stronghold, had "circumvented the majority vote" and echoing other debunked conspiracy theories about the results. He recently proposed the idea of an election police force, an idea also pushed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Trump is also aiming to replace Ducey, the Arizona governor — who is leaving office due to term limits — with former TV news anchor Kari Lake, who has called for "decertification" of the 2020 election, which is not legally possible. Lake was a key supporter of the Maricopa County audit and has repeatedly claimed that the election was "stolen." Last fall called for Hobbs, the Democratic secretary of state who is herself also running for governor, to be imprisoned for unspecified crimes, and similarly suggested that journalists should be "locked up" for failing to support pro-Trump election lies.
Election deniers are running for governor in about two-thirds of the states with gubernatorial elections this year, including in such swing states as Florida, Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada and Pennsylvania. (In 2020, Biden carried all those states except Florida.)
"All of these people are running in the very same election system that they're criticizing," Republican Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer said on a press call. "The irony is, there's no greater sign of approval that you're willing to spend a year of your life, some of your money, some of your friends' money running for the system. Nobody runs against Vladimir Putin. You know what the outcome's going to be in a truly rigged election. So why would you waste your time and money? The reality is, these people are revealing their true opinion that they don't think that the system is wholly corrupt, that they have so much confidence in the system that they're willing to invest their political future and professional future in that very system. … I think that's truly revealing."
The effort to install election deniers in key state offices comes as Republican-led legislatures across the country impose new voting restrictions that opponents worry will suppress voter turnout, especially in urban areas and communities of color that tend to vote Democratic. State legislatures last year introduced more than 260 bills that would "interfere with the nonpartisan administration of elections," according to States United Action, and 32 were signed into law in 17 states. Republicans have already kicked off this year's legislative sessions with a flurry of new proposed voting restrictions, even in states that already passed sweeping new laws in response to Trump's conspiracy theories last year.
"The anti-democracy playbook is simple: change the rules and change the referees, in order to change the results," Joanna Lydgate, CEO of States United Action, said in a statement. "With extreme candidates running on election lies as a campaign issue up and down the ballot, it's never been more important to elect leaders from both sides of the aisle who respect the rule of law and the will of the voters."
Read more on the voting-rights battle and the 2022 midterms: