Trump’s election fraud claims pose risks for GOP in midterms
Former President Trump’s insistence on spreading unfounded claims of election fraud is threatening to hurt the Republican Party in the upcoming 2021 and 2022 elections.
The growing concerns among some Republicans come after Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) handily beat back an effort to recall him in California, where registered Democrats made up a disproportionately high number of mail-in votes.
The GOP hand-wringing also follows a disappointing showing in Georgia’s Senate runoffs earlier this year, where many Republicans point to Trump for depressing turnout and costing the party control of the upper chamber.
“What we see is ultimately Republicans led by Trump, very willing to suppress their own vote by telling people the election could be stolen and therefore they may not even have to take part in it,” said GOP strategist and former Republican National Committee spokesman Doug Heye. “That cost us the United States Senate and that’s something folks in the Senate are very mindful of.”
Trump’s claims of election malfeasance were most recently echoed by conservative radio host Larry Elder, a California gubernatorial candidate challenging Newsom, who shared a form on his campaign website suggesting that if Newsom survived the recall, it would be because of voter fraud.
Republicans have brushed off the implication that Elder’s loss in the deep blue state was a result of him invoking voter fraud in the final days of the race, but they acknowledged it could turn off more moderate GOP and independent voters.
“If the only race that counts is the primary, then amping up the election-was-stolen rhetoric may help,” said Republican donor Dan Eberhart. “But if we’re talking about a candidate who has to go on and win a competitive general election, they are going to have a hard time attracting more centrist voters.”
Elder, for his part, struck a noticeably more conciliatory tone after Newsom survived the recall, which as of publication had 59 percent of California voters opposing the measure. The Republican told his supporters to be “gracious in defeat” after he referred to Newsom as governor.
In Virginia, GOP gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin has talked about what Republicans have dubbed “election integrity,” launching his own “Election Integrity Task Force” in February prior to winning the Republican nomination for governor. Youngkin said the effort is designed to establish legal voting standards in election processes.
Youngkin has repeatedly said since winning Virginia’s Republican convention in May that President Biden is the legitimately elected president, but he sidestepped the question along with a number of his former GOP opponents in the runup to the convention.
Trump, who has endorsed Youngkin but has not yet campaigned with him, brought up the possibility of election malpractice in the race earlier this month.
“You know how they cheat in elections. The Virginia governor’s election — you better watch it,” Trump told Virginia-based conservative talk show host John Fredericks earlier this month.
Youngkin’s Democratic opponent, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), has used the issue of election integrity to repeatedly hit the Republican nominee.
“He has said that so much of the reason why he’s running for governor is because of Donald Trump? Really? He said the No. 1 issue is election integrity. Really?” McAuliffe told reporters in a press conference on Tuesday.
National Democrats are also working to hit their Republican counterparts over the issue.
“That’s their M.O.,” Democratic National Committee Chairman Jaime Harrison told reporters in a press call on Wednesday. “It’s about what they can do in order to get power instead of what they can do in order to improve the lives of the American people.”
But Republicans argue that Democrats have also raised claims of election malpractice in the aftermath of elections they have lost.
Youngkin’s campaign and allies have repeatedly pointed to video of 2004 comments from McAuliffe about the highly contested 2000 presidential election in which he said Democrats won the election. Then-Vice President Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College, and thus the presidency, to then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush. The 2000 contest is considered to be one of the closest in U.S. history and culminated in the Bush v. Gore Supreme Court decision.
“I always point this out — that’s also the Stacey Abrams playbook,” Heye said, referring to Abrams’s claims that she lost her 2018 gubernatorial bid in Georgia as a result of voter suppression. “She gets hailed as Saint Stacey of Abrams, but she did that too.”
When asked about the issue of election integrity, some GOP operatives pointed to other base issues, like the situation at the southern border and the rising cost of living. But strategists admit that it’s difficult for candidates to distance themselves from the election integrity issue if Trump is making it a central focus as the de facto leader of the party.
“The party platform can’t be built on claims of illegitimate elections,” Eberhart said. “That’s not a foundation that will stand.”
Republicans have also brushed off concerns that their future turnout could be depressed as a result of Trump’s unfounded claims making voters doubt the election system.
“That is the concern with that message,” said a national GOP strategist. “Telling people their vote doesn’t count and doesn’t matter is not helpful for getting people to go to the polls, but I see no evidence that that trend has continued beyond the Georgia special elections.”
While the attention of national political watchers was on California on Tuesday, Republicans won state House victories in Iowa and Tennessee. In Iowa, Republican Mike Bousselot defeated his Democratic opponent 51 percent to 48 percent in the 37th state House District. In Tennessee, GOP candidate Greg Vital also coasted to victory in his race in the 29th state House District, where his Democratic opponent was accused of rape days before Election Day.
According to FiveThirtyEight, Republicans have overperformed by an average of 8 points in special elections since June 15. Republican operatives attribute the victories to high turnout.
“I see no evidence that it’s depressing turnout in Virginia. I’ve seen no evidence that it’s depressing anything anywhere, but that is the fear,” the national GOP strategist said.