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As President Trump wailed that the 2020 election was being stolen from him last winter, former Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt sprang into action to back up his wild claims.
Laxalt, Trump’s Nevada campaign co-chairman, filed an injunction to stop Nevada’s largest county from counting mail ballots. He spoke at a “Stop the Steal” rally. He claimed he had evidence of “dead voters that have been counted.” He said “illegals” had cast thousands of ballots, suggesting undocumented immigrants had flipped the state against Trump. He sued to get Joe Biden’s win overturned. Even after Nevada had certified its results, he filed a Dec. 31 lawsuit that alleged Nevada’s Republican secretary of state hadn’t kept noncitizens from voting.
“Serious questions remain as to whether we did indeed hold a secure and accurate election in Nevada,” Laxalt wrote in a mid-November op-ed. “We now know that there are thousands of illegal votes consisting of a combination of dead voters, out-of-state voters, double voters (those who cast ballots in Nevada and another state), among other improper votes.”
Now, Laxalt is gearing up for a return to centerstage—one of a number of Republicans across the country who have embraced and promulgated Trump’s election lies as they seek to win Senate seats next fall.
Most of the GOP front-runners in key Senate races are clinging to the lie that Trump actually won the 2020 election, seeking to out-Trump one another to win the GOP base. In the process, they run the risk of alienating swing voters in purple states. But as the national Republican Party pledges to stay neutral in open-seat GOP primaries, Trump is barreling in like a wrecking ball, elevating his most sycophantic and conspiracy-minded allies while wounding some of the candidates Republican leaders and strategists think would be the strongest in the general election.
The pattern makes clear that six months after Trump’s election lies drove his supporters to attack the U.S. Capitol, the Republican Party is, if anything, even more firmly in his grasp. And if these candidates win, the Senate Republican conference—one of the few places where establishment-minded old-guard Republicans wield any real sway within the party—will become more Trumpy and less democratic going forward, increasing the risk that 2024 could end even messier than 2020 did.
Trump’s conspiracies about the 2020 election have become an issue in nearly every one of the top Senate battlegrounds, with the former president elevating some candidates and disparaging others as Republicans scramble to get his blessing in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin. New Hampshire is the only one of the eight top Senate battlegrounds where this dynamic has yet to play out in full.
Some Republicans worry that Trump’s furious insistence on fealty and refusal to let 2020 go could cost them their chance of netting the one seat they need to retake the Senate in 2022.
“The point is to win,” said former Virginia Sen. George Allen, who ran Senate Republicans’ campaign efforts for the 2004 cycle. “And that means [nominating a candidate] who is going to be most persuasive to motivate people to vote for them to be the next U.S. senator as opposed to who’s the most ardent about expressing grief about the last election.”
2020 all over again?
This dynamic has already played out and cost Republicans before.
Georgia Democratic Sens. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff won their runoff races in January and gave Democrats Senate control partly because Trump’s false, aggressive attacks on Georgia’s election system turned off suburban swing voters and convinced some Republicans that there was no point in voting in a rigged election.
This tension has continued heading into the 2022 midterms.
Allen said conservative activists have repeatedly responded to his Facebook posts touting local GOP candidates with the sentiment “It doesn’t matter, the vote doesn't count, Democrats have rigged everything,” and expressed concern that the attacks on the 2020 election results and anyone who doesn’t support him enough could depress GOP turnout.
But Republicans in Georgia and across the country appear ready to double down on the strategy of 2020, at Trump’s behest.
Sen. Warnock is up again in 2022 and is a top GOP target in the swing state. But Trump froze the GOP field by repeatedly, and publicly, pushing former University of Georgia football star Herschel Walker as his preferred candidate to face Warnock, even though Washington Republicans are worried he might not be up for the challenge. “Run, Herschel, run!” Trump declared in March.
Trump has known Walker since he starred on Trump’s ill-fated U.S. Football League team. He emerged as one of Trump’s most vocal Black surrogates, speaking at the 2020 Republican National Convention. And after the election he championed Trump’s voter-fraud claims, sharing a video of alleged evidence of vote-rigging in Georgia and blasting Republican lawmakers for not echoing Trump’s lies.
“If you have stood on the stage with the President, spoken at a rally, or benefitted from @realDonaldTrump.... WHERE ARE YOU NOW?” he tweeted in mid-December, using the hashtag #stopthesteal.
Last week, Trump said he’d convinced the former NFL star to run against Warnock.
“He told me he’s going to, and I think he will,” Trump said on a conservative radio talk show. “They love him in Georgia, I’ll tell you.”
It’s no surprise that so many Republican candidates have embraced Trump’s election lies: They need to win their primaries first, and polls have consistently shown that majorities of Republicans believe Trump and think widespread voter fraud cost him the election. The former president remains immensely popular with the GOP base, conservatives have widely internalized claims of rigged elections, and Republican candidates have followed suit. But solid majorities of Americans don’t believe these claims, making the stance a political risk in swing-state general elections.
Florida Sen. Rick Scott, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (and one of only eight GOP senators who voted to object to certifying Biden’s win in at least one state on Jan. 6), has pledged that the NRSC will stay neutral in open-seat primaries, even as Trump rides roughshod over primary candidates.
He called Laxalt “a very successful attorney general,” described Walker as a “patriot” with “a great background,” and dismissed concerns that the claims could hurt Republicans in the general election. But he made clear he hoped they’d focus on the future.
“The election happened. President Biden won the election. He’s constitutionally elected. What the conversation’s going to be about is the Biden agenda and what we’re going to do going forward,” Scott told VICE News.
GOP strategists see ways to win on voter fraud messaging, but they want candidates to emphasize broadly popular agenda items like voter ID rather than Trump’s lies that the election was stolen from him. The NRSC conducted polling in March that showed voter ID requirements were popular, numbers reflected in nonpartisan polling.
But dwelling on Trump’s lies about 2020 carries a lot of risk.
“If they’re going to talk about President Trump, they should talk about his policies for our economy going full-blast for all people,” said Allen, the former NRSC chairman. “That’s what they ought to be focused on rather than litigating and refighting the machinations and process of the last election.”
Trump on the move
Trump is coming for the handful of Republicans who’ve refused to bend the knee, complicating the GOP’s path to victory in key states.
In North Carolina, Trump recently endorsed Republican Rep. Ted Budd, who endeared himself to the former president by voting against certifying Biden’s election win on Jan. 6 and backing a lawsuit that sought to overturn the election results.
That endorsement was a slight to former North Carolina Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who’s much better-known in the state but dared to acknowledge that Trump lost. McCrory was favored by some establishment Republicans—retiring GOP Sen. Richard Burr told Politico that the former governor is “the only one in the race that can win the general election.” And it was also a diss to GOP Rep. Mark Walker, another candidate who’d backed Trump’s anti-election efforts but has long had a testy relationship with former North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, Trump’s old chief of staff.
Trump’s meddling has dimmed GOP hopes in Arizona, another key Senate battleground and one that’s emerged as an epicenter of election conspiracy theories as a result of a partisan, bumbling “audit” of state ballots by local GOP officials.
Republicans view Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly as a top target, but Republican Gov. Doug Ducey opted not to run for Senate after an onslaught of vitriol from Trump, depriving the GOP of a highly sought recruit. Arizona GOP Attorney General Mark Brnovich has jumped into the race, giving the GOP a solid backup plan, but Trump has attacked him as “lackluster” and blasted his comments that Biden won the race.
Brnovich responded to Trump’s warning to “get on the ball” and support Arizona’s audit by doing just that. When the Justice Department warned it might be violating the law, he responded by accusing them of displaying “an alarming disdain for state sovereignty.”
And while Trump bear-hugging is most prominent among Senate wannabes, Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson has been one of the biggest champions of Trump’s election lies. Johnson has repeatedly downplayed the Jan. 6 attacks and held a December Senate hearing that he used to amplify flimsy claims of election fraud. Johnson has not said yet whether he plans to run for reelection.
So far, New Hampshire Republican Gov. John Sununu is the only top-tier Senate candidate to push back against Trump’s election lies without facing blowback from the president. Sununu has walked a tightrope on the issue, disputing Trump’s claims that there were widespread problems in New Hampshire even as he claimed there’d been “confusion and chaos” in other states’ election processes. Republicans are hoping Sununu will run, giving them a strong recruit against Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan.
Trump has also endorsed a primary challenger against Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the only GOP lawmaker up for reelection who voted to impeach the former president in February, pledging to campaign for GOP opponent Kelly Tshibaka and calling Murkowski “bad for Alaska.” This sets up an unpredictable three-way race between them and a Democrat, and could push the historically independent Murkowski even further from the Republican Party.
Looking for a Trump card
In states where Trump has yet to weigh in, the GOP candidates are acting even more desperate for his and his voters’ affection.
In Ohio, two of the top candidates in a crowded field to replace retiring GOP Sen. Rob Portman are fighting like hell to one-up one another as the biggest Trump sycophant.
Former state Treasurer Josh Mandel launched his campaign by declaring “When we look back on this election, we'll see in large part that it was stolen from President Trump."
Not to be outdone, former Ohio Republican Party chairwoman Jane Timken, Trump’s handpicked chair, declared that there’d been “widespread fraud and irregularities across this country,” and that alleged evidence “was swept under the bus.”
Even onetime Trump critic J.D. Vance is looking to make up for it by deleting old criticisms of the president from Twitter, apologizing for the remarks, and calling for an end to all early voting, including “this mail-in voting bonanza.”
A similar dynamic is playing out in Pennsylvania, where the top three Republican candidates to replace retiring GOP Sen. Pat Toomey are embracing the Big Lie.
Former House candidate Sean Parnell, a Trump ally, signed on to a lawsuit seeking to invalidate Biden’s win in Pennsylvania and in May telling Trump ally Steve Bannon that he wanted a full audit of the state’s results like the partisan, conspiratorial one taking place in Arizona.
He’s facing real estate developer Jeff Bartos, who helped fund GOP poll-watchers to monitor election results in Pennsylvania and has since questioned whether the state’s results were legitimate.
“We need a full forensic audit in all the states where we had issues,” Bartos said on Bannon’s podcast in late May. “And Pennsylvania certainly had issues.”
On Wednesday, they got a new opponent: Former Trump donor and U.S. Ambassador Carla Sands, who falsely claimed on repeated occasions that her vote wasn’t counted in 2020.
In Missouri, disgraced former GOP Gov. Eric Greitens is looking to make a comeback as a pro-Trump stalwart after he was forced to resign from office in 2018 over allegations that he’d taken lewd pictures of a woman who he’d been having an affair with without her consent and then attempted to blackmail her with them to keep her quiet.
Greitens recently skipped the state’s GOP convention to head out on election conspiracy safari in Arizona, where he observed the state’s partisan and unhinged “audit” of the votes. The rest of the GOP field is scrambling to prove they’re just as supportive of Trump—and head off the nomination of Greitens, the one candidate Democrats think they have a chance to beat.
Democrats are hoping all this chaos on the GOP side can help them keep Senate control, and expand past the 50-50 tie that’s currently stymying large parts of Biden’s agenda.
“The facts are very clear: We had a free and fair election. And to have candidates that continue to want to spread the Big Lie is something that I do not think will be rewarded in general elections,” Michigan Democratic Sen. Gary Peters, the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, told VICE News. “I think it will be a real negative for them.”