Can election denialism be a winning issue in November?
(The Hill) — A number of Republican candidates who have pushed dubious claims about the last election, or questioned the legitimacy of elections, are winning their respective primaries, raising questions about whether election denialism can be a winning issue in the general election.
Some of the most prominent primary winners include Nevada secretary of state candidate Jim Marchant (R), who claimed he himself had suffered election fraud in 2020 after an unsuccessful bid running for a House seat. He told a candidates forum earlier this year “your vote hasn’t counted for decades.”
Another recent primary winner, Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano (R), asked a state Senate committee following the 2020 election to hold a hearing after questioning the integrity of the election, which Rudy Giuliani participated in. Mastriano penned an op-ed a month afterward making dubious claims about the election, citing the hearing testimony, and later referenced that hearing during a candidate debate.
Some of those races have high stakes.
Should Marchant become the next secretary of state in Nevada, he would be overseeing state and local elections. Mastriano is running for Pennsylvania governor, who appoints the state’s top elections official. Neither campaign responded to The Hill’s requests for comment.
Adding to growing concerns is recent polling indicating that some of these candidates are competitive. A poll out of Pennsylvania last month, for example, showed Mastriano trailing Democratic rival Josh Shapiro by single digits.
Nonetheless, experts and strategists who spoke to The Hill are skeptical that touting such claims will be a winning issue come November.
In the case of Mastriano, Republican strategist Terry Sullivan said he believes other issues factored into voters’ decisions during the primary.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of voters who were going to the polls based solely on that issue,” Sullivan said.
Todd Belt, the director of the political management program at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management, said that those remarks “resonate with the hardcore Republican base.”
Belt noted that the messaging could be effective during primary season because there’s usually lower voter turnout generally around that time, with only the most enthusiastic within a party’s base heading to polls. He said that the most energized voters for the Republican Party have included those who have denied the election results or voted for former President Trump.
“It remains to be seen whether or not that will help them in the general election because we may see a number of Democrats as a countervailing force … enthusiastic about voting because of what’s going with the January 6 committee, and so that might be a wash when it comes to the general election,” Belt noted.
Some Republican strategists believe that focusing on those issues in the general election is a non-starter as candidates try to appeal to a wider subset of people.
“There’s no situation where this benefits a Republican candidate in the general, none,” said Republican strategist Doug Heye.
He added that “if you are not focused on inflation, and those things that have Joe Biden’s approval rating in the tank, you’re not doing what you’re supposed to be doing. You know, you can still win, right? A lot of things can happen, but you’re not doing the job that you’re supposed to be doing. And you know, if you win, it will be in spite of yourself.”
One Republican strategist who asked for anonymity to speak candidly agreed that candidates should be focusing instead on issues like inflation.
“If you’re a Republican in this environment, you should be wholly and solely focused — no matter if you’re running for attorney general or Congress or U.S. Senate — you should be focused on issues that tackle, you know, inflationary pain that families and individuals are suffering, economic woes that we’re seeing, the general malaise people feel about, you know, today’s American and a bit of the short-term future,” the strategist said. “And it would be a mistake to deviate from that as a Republican.”
Marchant and Mastriano were both quick to declare victory in their primaries, even after they had cast doubt on the way elections were conducted in the past, as The Associated Press noted. But their earlier comments continue to dog their campaigns—and some continue to double down.
“It’s not just conspiracy. It’s a fact. People have had some outrageous or questionable things happen to them. That’s 2020, 2021. And even in this recent primary [in] 2022, they believe their voting rights have been infringed upon. We need to get that solved,” Mastriano told The Epoch Times last month.
Concerns over candidates like Marchant and Mastriano come as the number of candidates who have espoused dubious claims about elections has swelled.
The pro-Democracy nonprofit States United Action has tracked the number of election deniers who are running in statewide offices this cycle.
Data released last month showed at the time that at least 35 candidates who the nonprofit classified as election deniers were running for governor in 20 states; at least 15 were running for attorney general in 13 states; and at least 23 were running for secretary of state in 17 states.
Among the candidates who have yet to win their primaries is former local news anchor Kari Lake, who’s running for Arizona governor and is endorsed by Trump.
During a debate held late last month, she asked gubernatorial challengers if they agreed that the last election was “corrupt” and “stolen,” leading three of the four candidates to raise their hands.
Over in Michigan, attorney Matt DePerno (R), who has also been endorsed by Trump and is running for Michigan attorney general, has also made questioning election integrity a focal point of his campaign.
DePerno’s and Lake’s campaigns also did not respond to requests for comment.
Still, some point out that plenty of viable candidates are not touting these views.
“One thing that is really important to highlight is that there are really good pro-democracy candidates that are running on both sides. This is not a, you know, a lot of people want to make this a ‘Republican versus democracy’ issue, but it’s not,” said Thania Sanchez, the senior vice president of research and policy development with States United Action.
“So even though yes, half of the races have an election denier running, that means half of the races do not have an election denier running,” she added.