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When President Trump arrives in Georgia on Saturday, he won’t be there just to rally for candidates who’ve embraced his election lies. He’ll be fighting for allies who could help him try to rig the election in 2024.
Trump is heading to the state to promote a slate of candidates who have echoed his false election claims. That includes congressman Jody Hice, who, with Trump’s endorsement, is favored to defeat Georgia Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, and Herschel Walker, who has echoed Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rhetoric and is the GOP front-runner to face Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock.
That rally comes shortly after his latest slew of endorsements of “big lie” acolytes—including a trio running for powerful offices in key swing states Trump narrowly lost last fall.
Trump seems to be looking to help cronies win from the top of the ballot on down, putting them in positions of power they could leverage to pay him back if he’s the nominee in 2024.
“Trump appears to be trying to stack various places in the election process with people who have expressed support for his false statements about the election being stolen,” said Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine. “The more people in power counting the votes who cannot be trusted to fairly count the votes, the greater the danger we’re in.”
A key reason that Trump’s attempts to overturn his 2020 election loss failed was enough Republicans stood up to him at enough critical moments.
Raffensperger consistently pushed back against Trump’s election lies with facts and rejected his demand to “find” enough votes to tip Georgia to Trump. Republican-controlled state legislatures in key swing states decided not to try to reject their states’ results and send competing elector slates to the Electoral College. Republican governors in states like Arizona and Georgia officially certified Biden’s wins. Vice President Mike Pence rejected demands from Trump and his lawyer to try to block Congress from certifying President-elect Biden’s election on January 6, and most Senate Republicans voted to certify Biden’s Electoral College victory.
That’s less likely to happen again in 2024. Trump is doing his damnedest to purge those democracy-defending Republicans from the GOP and anoint candidates who parrot his claims. He has already moved to remake the Senate GOP conference in his image by backing candidates like Walker, who blasted Republican lawmakers for not echoing Trump’s lies after the election, and former Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who as Trump’s 2020 Nevada campaign co-chair called the 2020 elections “rigged” and filed numerous unsuccessful lawsuits to try to prove it. Laxalt is already fanning the flames of voter-fraud fears ahead of his own 2022 election, pledging in a recent interview to “file lawsuits early” to “try to tighten up the election.”
Now, Trump is turning down-ballot to equally important state positions.
The electoral system relies on good-faith actors counting and certifying the votes, and if Trump’s minions are empowered in enough places, it’s not clear if the system can hold if there’s another close election.
“The broader issue is how shallow the vetting process is for his endorsements. There’s really only one question on the application form: Did you believe in the conspiracy theories or not?” Georgia Republican Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan told VICE News.
Duncan, who stood up against Trump’s election lies in 2020 and then opted not to run for reelection against a Trump-backed challenger, told VICE News that he hoped Republicans could see through the “hypocrisy” of candidates like Hice.
“Anybody that’s going to be in charge of our elections and still believes in conspiracy theories bothers me immensely. It’s troublesome,” he said. “And some of these shenanigans are starting to track in a very serious direction.”
All these endorsements aren’t just a score-settling exercise for Trump—as his own team acknowledges.
“He recognizes the importance of states in the election process,” a source close to Trump told VICE News. “Part of the process of ensuring free and fair elections is at the state level. Secretaries of state, attorneys general, state legislatures, all of those races have important roles. And having people that understand the law and the Constitution are important.”
Trump endorsed Arizona state Rep. Mark Finchem in his bid to be Arizona’s secretary of state last week, praising his “incredibly powerful stance on the massive voter fraud that took place in the 2020 presidential election scam.” Finchem was a key early organizer of the Stop the Steal push, has echoed QAnon-based conspiracies, and has since played a role in conducting his state’s chaotic mess of a vote “audit,” which he’s said he hopes will reassign Arizona’s 2020 electors to Trump.
A week earlier, Trump backed GOP activist Kristina Karamo to be Michigan’s secretary of state. Karamo, who says she’s running “to remove corruption from our elections,” spent weeks after the election claiming she’d witnessed irregularities in how poll workers handled ballots, and joined two lawsuits that sought to overturn Biden’s win in Michigan, both of which were tossed out.
“She is strong on crime, including the massive crime of election fraud,” Trump declared in his endorsement.
Trump endorsed Hice in March, immediately after the congressman launched his campaign to unseat Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. Hice announced his campaign by falsely claiming that Raffensperger had ignored “cracks in the integrity of our election, which I wholeheartedly believe individuals took advantage of in 2020.” During the post-election fight, Hice falsely claimed that Georgia had seen an “unprecedented amount of fraud and irregularities” in its election and voted against certifying Biden’s election victory, joined an unsuccessful lawsuit that tried to get the Supreme Court to overturn Biden’s election win, and in an Instagram post just hours before the January 6 Capitol riot declared “This is our 1776 moment.”
Immediately after the riot, Hice led the efforts to block Congress from certifying Biden’s victory in Georgia.
Trump also recently backed Matt DePerno’s bid for Michigan attorney general. DePerno played a key role in creating the conspiracy theory that Dominion Voting Systems rigged the election against Trump by suing Antrim County, a small county which initially misreported its votes because of clerical error but quickly fixed the results before they were certified. Deperno sued the county, making wild allegations and attempting to force it to conduct an audit. That suit was thrown out in May, but inspired other election deniers to push so-called election “audits” in other states.
These candidates all have two things in common: Their fealty to Trump has led them to trumpet his falsehoods that the 2020 election was rigged against them, and if they win their races, they’ll be in positions of power to muck with the next presidential election and potentially try to throw it to Trump.
“The Big Lie is bad enough, but when you convert it into an organized movement, that’s especially worrisome,” said Ned Foley, an election law expert and professor at the Ohio State University.
Most of the other swing-state Republicans running for secretaries of state are also embracing Trump’s election lies. A Reuters investigation found that 10 of the 15 candidates campaigning for that office in the five main swing states have parroted Trump’s false claims, while just two of them have said that Biden won the election.
The danger lies in the amount of damage these candidates could do to the electoral system should they win.
Thursday showed what can happen with Trump lackeys in higher office: Just hours after Trump demanded a vote “audit” in Texas, GOP Gov. Greg Abbott ordered audits in four large Democratic-leaning counties, even though there’s been no sign of widespread voting fraud in any of those places.
Trump himself is still fighting last year’s battle too. Last Friday, he sent a letter to Raffensperger demanding that he investigate claims of voting fraud pushed by a pro-Trump website, then “start the process of decertifying the election, or whatever the correct legal remedy is, and announce the true winner.”
Trump has promised to defeat all 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach him, and on Thursday called for House Republican leaders to refuse to help those candidates who are in swing seats.
Last week, Trump’s attempt to purge the GOP of any resistance to his authoritarianism claimed another victim. Ohio Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, one of the ten House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump after January 6, announced last Friday that he’d retire rather than face an uphill primary battle against a former Trump official.
Trump’s official response: “1 down, 9 to go!”
Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 results failed partly because they were so last-minute and haphazard. His team lost dozens of court cases. His efforts to get Republican state legislators to try to send pro-Trump electors to the Electoral College, which could have triggered an actual constitutional crisis, were scattershot and poorly coordinated. That left Trump with a last-minute hail Mary attempt cooked up by his lawyer to get Pence to try to block Congress from certifying Biden’s win—a move Pence refused to go along with.
And as VICE News has reported before, the election system isn’t as stable as most Americans assume. The Electoral Count Act of 1887, which governs how states appoint electors and how Congress has to consider them, has some potential holes in it—weaknesses that Trump’s team sought to exploit last January. There are plenty of other pressure points where bad-faith actors could step in and sow chaos into the process as well.
One risk that’s gone now: Kamala Harris is vice president, not Mike Pence, making the exact game plan that Trump’s attorney pushed on Pence unworkable for 2024. But Democrats also had control of both the House and Senate in 2020 as they moved to certify Biden’s election. If they lose the House, which is more likely than not, and lose Senate control, a distinct possibility, they would need to rely on Republicans acting in good faith to certify a Democratic win against Trump. While some pro-democracy Republicans still remain in the Senate, that’s a risky bet.
Republican voters are still with Trump. A September CNN poll found that 78% percent of Republicans and GOP-leaning voters still believe that Biden did not win the 2020 election, and 59% of them said that believing Trump won the 2020 election was “very” or “somewhat” important to what it means to be a Republican. An August Yahoo/YouGov poll found that two-thirds of Republicans still believe “the election was rigged and stolen from Trump.” Those numbers make it clear which side of this fight will likely carry the day in GOP primaries next year.
This effort extends much deeper than Trump’s endorsements. Republicans have already made moves in states around the country to try to make it easier to interfere in the next elections. In Arizona, Georgia, and other states like Iowa and Texas, Republicans have passed voting laws that give the GOP-controlled states significant power to interfere with local counties’ election procedures while making it harder to vote.
Part of the restrictive voting law Georgia Republicans passed earlier this year was squarely aimed at Raffensperger, removing the secretary of state from the state election board, replacing the position with someone picked by the Legislature. They also gave that board the power to take over counties’ elections, giving them the power to potentially push out locally elected officials and replace them with Republicans to administer elections in places like Fulton County, home to Atlanta.
Arizona Republicans acted similarly, stripping their Democratic secretary of state of some election powers and handing them to their Republican attorney general.
And as ProPublica reported, there’s been a surge in pro-Trump activists becoming poll watchers, partly driven by former Trump adviser Steve Bannon’s urging for them to commit to fight to take over election systems. And pro-Trump conspiracy theorists who back his election claims are already running most of the state Republican parties.
The 2020 election was a dangerous test for American democracy, and the country barely passed. But while the January 6 riots showed what an aggrieved mob of people can do, the 2024 elections could test what happens if people who agree with them are in positions of power throughout the government.
“There is a serious risk that if Big Lie candidates like Jody Hice and others who embrace the Big Lie can gain power at the state level and in Congress, they will use that power to perpetuate Big Lie 2.0 on January 6, 2025,” said Foley. “I’m extremely concerned. It’s my top-of-mind concern.”