His defeat may only just have been established but Larry Elder was already claiming fraud in the California gubernatorial recall election before a single ballot had been counted.
A website funded by Elder's campaign claimed the day before Tuesday's vote it had detected fraud in the "twisted results" -- underlining the new Republican orthodoxy that echoing Donald Trump's fantasies of stolen elections has currency even in the bluest corners of America.
The right wing talk radio host was just the latest in a growing number of Republicans counting on winning Trump's endorsement by echoing the so-called "Big Lie" -- the former president's baseless allegations of voter fraud in the 2020 election that he lost irrefutably to Joe Biden.
Elder eventually appealed to his supporters to be "gracious in defeat" after the scale of his loss to Gavin Newsom became apparent, with two-thirds voting against unseating the Democratic incumbent.
But not before Elder had told backers in Santa Barbara, without a shred of evidence: "They're going to cheat, we know that."
While Trump's bogus claims were debunked by state governments, courtrooms nationwide and Congress, there are still deep concerns that the tactic could succeed in 2024.
In multiple swing states, proponents of the Big Lie are being backed by the Republican firebrand to become chief elections official, sparking fears that the people who did the most to undermine confidence in the last election could be the ones running the next.
The endorsements come ahead of a rally planned for Saturday in Washington to protest against prosecutions of suspects in the January 6 insurrection, when a mob incited by Trump's fraud allegations ransacked the US Capitol in an unsuccessful bid to halt the certification of the 2020 election.
- 'Real danger' -
The United States differs from most advanced democracies in that secretaries of state and other officials charged with administering elections are themselves picked in a partisan vote.
But Richard Hasen, a professor at the University of California, Irvine specializing in election law, says Trump's endorsements take the process to a "whole new level of politicization."
"This is, I think, a real danger that we face now: people who don't respect the integrity of the process are the ones counting the votes," he told AFP.
Among the Trumpists the former president has endorsed for secretary of state are Mark Finchem of Arizona, Jody Hice in Georgia, Jim Marchant in Nevada, and Michigan's Kristina Karamo.
Trump lionized Finchem as a "true warrior," citing his "incredibly powerful" backing of the Big Lie -- and his support for a discredited ballot recount in Arizona's Maricopa County by a company whose leader has shared debunked conspiracy theories about the election.
Finchem was pictured in a crowd near the US Capitol during the January 6 insurrection, although he has denied entering the building, or any other wrongdoing.
Hice, a congressman who voted against certifying the 2020 results, is challenging Georgia secretary of state Brad Raffensperger, the official who infuriated Trump when he declared Biden the fair winner in the state.
Marchant sued unsuccessfully to have his five-point congressional loss overturned, citing baseless fraud concerns.
- 'Undermining trust' -
Karamo has also echoed the Big Lie and has appeared at a Michigan rally with discredited Trump ally and My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell to cast doubts on the integrity of the 2020 vote.
Secretaries of state are powerful political figures who wield enormous authority over election rules and equipment, and are usually the people that make the results official.
Just a few conspiracy theorists being elected to the office could upend the battle for control of Congress in 2022 and the presidential election two years later.
"Trump has never stopped litigating the 2020 election. And this serves a number of purposes. It riles up the base and delegitimizes the Biden presidency and Democratic victories generally," said Hasen, the UCI professor.
"And it also could potentially serve as the basis for trying to flip election results."
Government watchdog Common Cause is backing the Freedom to Vote Act, introduced by the Democrats in Congress on Tuesday, which would ban removing election officials for partisan political purposes.
"His Big Lie has just been metastasizing and really undermining trust in our elections in a way that is very dangerous," Stephen Spaulding, senior counsel at the organization, told AFP.
But Spaulding believes the greatest remedy to electoral dark arts remains robust turnout at the ballot box.
"In 2020, we had the highest voter turnout in more than a century in the middle of a pandemic, so voters really showed up," he said.
"So ultimately, voters need to continue to show up in record numbers."