Election deniers seize on Lake loss as GOP tries to move past claims
Kari Lake and her supporters are seizing on claims of a rigged election after her loss to Democrat Katie Hobbs in the Arizona governor’s race, complicating GOP efforts to move past such allegations after a disappointing midterm election for the party.
Republicans saw the years-long cries of a rigged election in 2020 as having hurt their party after the GOP failed to win back the Senate and appears likely to just barely win back the House despite political and economic winds at its back.
But false claims about fraud also appear to have taken over the party, with former President Trump backing Lake’s latest claims while repeating his own about 2020.
“Kari Lake’s loss is the most significant for Donald Trump in the country,” said Brian Seitchik, an Arizona-based GOP strategist who is a Trump campaign alum.
“Kari Lake was a fantastic communicator, a great candidate, was really able to connect with voters, but the fact that she was unable to flip the vote in the closest swing state from 2020 is a real disappointment for President Trump,” he continued.
And Lake is by no means the only pro-Trump candidate to lose their election. Arizona Republican Senate candidate Blake Masters lost his race against incumbent Sen. Mark Kelly (D) over the weekend, while Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano (R) and Maryland gubernatorial candidate Dan Cox (R) lost their bids by wide margins. Further down the ballot, a number of election-denying candidates for secretary of state in battlegrounds like Arizona, Nevada and Michigan lost their races.
“I think, like many of the other candidates, there was too much focus on the past and not on the future,” Seitchik said. “Those soft Republicans and independents broke against us, and I believe that they broke against Lake and not for Hobbs.”
Seitchik isn’t alone in his assessment. Since results began trickling in last week, Republicans from both the party’s moderate and more conservative wings have said publicly it’s time to move past 2020.
But Lake seemed to only be doubling down, tweeting “Arizonans know BS when they see it” as her race was called on Monday. She had spent the prior week leveling accusations of malfeasance against elections offices in Maricopa and other Arizona counties.
Republican strategist Doug Heye, who said much of what has gone on in the GOP has “been more of a MyPillow Party than anything else,” said it was too early to tell whether the party would actually change course amid the internal criticisms of Trump.
“What we don’t know yet is if there is a shift that comes with that,” Heye said. “Because we’ve certainly seen Republicans be critical of Trump and talk about moving away from him in the past and then not doing so.”
And Republican primary voters, most of whom are staunchly conservative and pro-Trump, in swing states like Arizona were the voters who nominated Lake — and other candidates like her — in the first place.
“Is the Republican Party going to be a dogmatic think tank or do we want to win elections?” said David Urban, a Republican strategist and former Trump adviser.
Urban added that Republican candidates going forward cannot be “one size fits all,” noting the diversity in states and districts across the country.
“Marjorie Taylor Greene could win her district, but she couldn’t win Brian Fitzpatrick’s district in Pennsylvania,” Urban said.
“If, however, we start saying we have to believe these things to be sufficiently MAGA or you’re a RINO, then I think we’re going to lose,” he continued.
In the wake of Lake’s loss, as well as other GOP midterm losses, many Republicans are pointing the finger directly at Trump and his supporters and appear eager to pivot away from talk of 2020. In Arizona, Lake’s GOP primary opponent Karrin Taylor Robson, who had been backed by former Vice President Mike Pence, called on state GOP chief Kelli Ward to step down.
Outgoing Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) told CNN in an interview on Monday that voters, particularly in battleground states, “aren’t interested in extremism,” while outgoing Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) also placed the blame on Trump during an interview with the network on Sunday.
Retiring Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), whose seat Democrats flipped, said the former president was responsible for midterm losses and predicted his grip on the party was weakening.
“A debacle like we had Tuesday night, from a Republican point of view, accelerates the pace at which that influence wanes,” Toomey told CNN.
But some Republicans say Arizona’s issues with Trump-backed candidates performing poorly in general elections go much deeper than election denialism.
“If you look at Arizona, this shift has been happening since 2018, since the first Martha McSally loss,” said Lorna Romero, an Arizona-based GOP strategist who worked on the late Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) reelection campaign. “Even though that wasn’t directly connected to election denialism because, you know, the 2020 election hadn’t happened yet, it was connected to this Trump rhetoric.”
Still, this year Democrats were quick to take advantage of the growing number of MAGA candidates and made protecting democracy the closing message of their campaigns.
“The core tenets of having a functioning democracy is not a partisan issue, or it certainly shouldn’t be,” said Kim Rogers, executive director of the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State. “You saw a lot of pro-democracy Republicans and independents crossing over to say ‘no’ to these election deniers. And I think that’s also why you saw our secretaries of state overperform in all of these states when you’re comparing it to the top of the ticket.”
Republicans say that, unlike past recent elections, they are sensing a change in the party’s attitude toward Trumpism as a whole in the wake of Tuesday’s losses.
“There’s a different type of energy after what just unfolded this week than I’ve seen in previous election cycles from the more moderate, middle-leaning elements of the party to say ‘OK, you tried it, it didn’t work and now we’re losing key statewide seats in Arizona,’ ” Romero said.
Strategists say ultimately the direction of the GOP will depend on what issues the party decides to elevate.
“A lot of the people you’re talking about, it’s all based on the 2020 election,” Urban said. “It has to do with whether or not you believe the 2020 election was rigged or stolen, and if you do then you’re conservative and if you don’t you’re a RINO. And as long as that’s the yardstick, I think we’re going to have a problem.”