Specter of Trumpist election deniers hangs over US midterms
Ex-US President Donald Trump embraces Arizona Republican gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake at a campaign rally at Legacy Sports USA on October 9, 2022 in Mesa, Arizona, US. © Mario Tama, Getty Images, AFP

More than half of Republican candidates for either Congress or key state positions in next month’s US midterms question the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election results. This raises fears of further challenges to the democratic process in both the midterms and the 2024 presidential elections.

Supporters of Donald Trump launched a bloody attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021 to try and prevent Joe Biden’s confirmation as the winner of the 2020 presidential elections. Biden was inaugurated two weeks later – but Trump’s mendacious claims of having won the election still create a sore at the heart of the American body politic.

The US is still as divided as ever ahead of the midterms on November 8. There are some exceptions – but by and large Republican candidates have lined up behind the party’s Trumpist faction. Even though Trump is excluded from social networks, fake news is still rampant. Republican candidates have shared more links to unreliable news sources this year than they did in 2020, according to New York University’s Center for Social Media and Politics.

As the possibility of Trump running again in 2024 hangs over America, his false claim that the 2020 vote was stolen has become entrenched. Some 70 percent of his Republican supporters believe it. And it is commonplace for Republican midterm candidates to propagate this untruth.

A bad sell for swing voters?

Most Republican candidates for Congress or key state offices are challenging or questioning the legitimacy of the 2020 results, according to a count by The Washington Post. The tally stands at 291 out of 569 candidates, so 51 percent. A similar survey by The New York Times found the proportion was even greater.

This may well backfire for Republican candidates chasing swing voters in swing states. Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, for example, chartered buses of Trump supporters to the Capitol on January 6. Mastriano does not recognize Biden’s victory and has even suggested that, if elected governor, he might not certify a Democratic win in 2024. But it seems this plays down badly with Pennsylvania’s battleground constituency of suburban voters near Philadelphia and Pittsburgh – voters whose preferences often carry this swing state that plumped for Trump in 2016 then for Biden in 2020. Mastriano is trailing in the polls against his Democratic competitor Josh Shapiro.

But most of the election deniers are on track to win, according to The Washington Post’s calculation. And some are potential stars. Look at Arizona – another purple state that voted for Trump before switching to Biden. “Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, a former TV anchor, is more likable to voters there than Doug Mastriano is in Pennsylvania; she has a chance to win,” said J. Miles Coleman, a political cartographer and co-editor of the renowned Sabato’s Crystal Ball newsletter, the University of Virginia’s election prediction tool. The same is true for Ron Johnson, Republican Senate candidate for Wisconsin – which looked comfortably part of the Democratic “Blue Wall” in 2016, so much so that Hillary Clinton did not visit it during her presidential campaign. Johnson is the “favorite” and likely to be re-elected, Coleman said.

The optimistic reading of the situation is that “once in office, these elected officials will understand how elections really work, with specific rules to follow, and realize they’ve been buying into a myth based on misinformation”, said Lisa Bryant, head of the political science department at California State University, Fresno. However, Bryant conceded that the pessimistic scenario could well unfold.

In the short term, many Trumpist Republican candidates who lose their races can be expected to contest the results. A dozen of the Republican candidates in tight races for governor or senator refused to tell The Washington Post whether they would accept the verdict of the polls. An army of supporters are preparing to monitor the polls, trained by pro-Trump organizations like the Conservative Partnership Institute. Polling staff fear intimidation.

In the medium term, a substantial presence of election deniers in Congress starting next January suggests two tumultuous years in Washington. If the Republicans win control of the House of Representatives, as expected, with a strong Trumpist presence, one may well expect a dyed-in-the-wool Trump supporter as speaker – an even more extreme GOP leader than current Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who fell into line behind the ex-president.

Chaos in 2024?

Chaos is on the cards once again in 2024. What will state authorities elected in 2022 do if the race is tight? The secretaries of state will have control over the conduct of the presidential elections and any recounts.

Governors will be able to certify – or not – the verdict at the ballot box. “Kari Lake has made denying Biden’s 2020 victory a big part of her campaign,” Coleman observed. “If a Democrat won Arizona, would she certify the result?”

In states where Trumpist Republicans have a legislative majority, they might implement Trump’s desire in 2020: to reject the popular vote if it does not suit them and establish their own list of electors to choose the president. In Georgia, Arizona and Michigan – three states where the race was very tight in 2020 – the proportion of election deniers is especially large.

The democratic foundations of the country are at stake if the losers of the elections refused to accept the results.

“The only reason the 2020 presidential results were validated is that Republican officials acted responsibly and followed the law, for example in Georgia,” said Pippa Norris, a senior fellow in comparative politics at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and founder of the Electoral Integrity Project. “They declared the results and the courts backed them up. But if election deniers become secretaries of state in charge of elections, and exercise their power in a partisan way, then we’re going to end up with contested results. All it takes is for one or two swing states to do that, and then no one will agree on the outcome of the election.

“Given what we saw on January 6, 2021, it’s clear that there will be a fundamental problem in the next two electoral cycles at least,” Norris concluded. “And that’s what keeps me up at night. It’s like we’re on the Titanic, heading for the iceberg. Everybody can see it – the iceberg. Everybody knows what’s going to happen. But there’s no turning back.”

This article was translated from the original in French.