Election denialism proves to be a losing strategy for Republicans in midterm elections

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When Democrat Katie Hobbs defeated the Republican election denier Kari Lake earlier this week to become the next governor of Arizona, Lake’s response didn’t surprise anyone.

“Arizonans know BS when they see it,” tweeted the former Phoenix news anchor, who earned her reputation as “Trumpism’s leading lady” by unapologetically promoting nearly every debunked conspiracy theory about 2020.

What is surprising about Lake’s initial refusal to accept her loss is that pretty much no other big Republican election deniers are following her lead.

In fact, many of them are conceding — or at least not blaming their defeats on fraud or misconduct.

Kari Lake at the microphone.
Kari Lake, the GOP gubernatorial nominee in Arizona, at her election night event on Nov. 8 in Scottsdale, Ariz. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

After last Tuesday’s historically weak midterm election results, this sudden shift suggests Republicans are starting to realize that election denialism is a dead end — and that pretending every election you lose was stolen and rigged is not the political winner that former President Donald Trump seems to desperately want it to be.

“Some of the election denialist language turned out to be bluster to please the Trumpian base of the Republican Party,” Rick Hasen, a professor and director of the Safeguarding Democracy Project at the UCLA School of Law, told Politico. “Even if some of these denialists wanted to contest the results of the election, they don’t command the same attention that Trump does.”

This year’s midterm results were unequivocal. According to an ongoing analysis by States United Action, a nonpartisan election-integrity organization, “election denialism failed to gain new ground” in about 95% of the statewide races that have been called so far.

That doesn’t mean “Stop the Steal” adherents lost everywhere they were on the ballot. As the New York Times has documented, at least 220 candidates who “made statements that cast doubt on the 2020 election” won on Nov. 8, including about three dozen who were “more direct and denied the 2020 results outright.” Election denial — at least as a rhetorical strategy meant to appease Trump voters — remains alive and well on the right.

A protester in red holds a red flag reading
Protesters rally outside the New York state Capitol in Albany against mandates for COVID-19 vaccines on Jan. 5. (Mike Segar/Reuters) (REUTERS)

Yet it’s important to recognize that nearly all of those 220 winning candidates were running for safe GOP seats. There’s a difference between Republicans who were going to win no matter what they said about the 2020 election and Republicans whose doubts about 2020 might have materially affected their chances.

As it turns out, the second type of Republican did terribly last Tuesday.

Among this year’s 36 gubernatorial races, not a single non-incumbent election denier has won to date, according to States United. Even worse, Lake was the third election denier — along with Geoff Diehl in Massachusetts and Chris Chaffee in Maryland — to lose a Republican-held governorship to a Democrat.

In contrast, a Republican, Joe Lombardo, managed to unseat incumbent Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak in Nevada in part by winning over independent voters after repeatedly insisting that the 2020 race was not rigged and stolen.

Meanwhile, only two non-incumbent “Stop the Steal” candidates have been as elected attorney general this year (out of 31 races). They won in deep-red Idaho and Kansas.

In 27 races for secretary of state, only three new election deniers won office, in deep-red Alabama, Indiana and Wyoming.

Overall, election deniers — including incumbents — have “won fewer than 1 in 6 (14/94 or 14.89%) races for the statewide positions that oversee our elections,” States United reported Tuesday.

Donald Trump takes the microphone against a backdrop of U.S. flags, as audience members hold their cellphones up to capture the moment. One banner in the crowd says: Trump Make America Great Again! 2024.
Former President Donald Trump arrives to speak at the Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla., on Wednesday. (Alon Skuy/AFP via Getty Images) (AFP via Getty Images)

All those victories have come in states that voted twice for Trump. None have come in blue states or swing states.

“Clearly and unequivocally, Republican, Democratic and independent voters have spoken, and they have shown that they will not tolerate attacks on our democracy,” Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson told reporters on Monday.

Benson, a Democrat, faced death threats and armed protests outside her home after overseeing the 2020 election. She defeated Republican Kristina Karamo, a Trump-backed candidate who promoted a variety of baseless conspiracy theories, including unsubstantiated claims about election fraud in 2020.

Benson discussed the recent election results with a bipartisan panel of current and incoming secretaries of state, including Georgia Republican Brad Raffensperger, who was reelected after rejecting Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election results in his state; Adrian Fontes, Arizona’s incoming Democratic secretary of state, who beat election denier Mark Finchem; and Democrat Cisco Aguilar, who won his first race for secretary of state in Nevada over the weekend.

Jocelyn Benson, in red jacket, speaks in front of a barrage of media microphones.
Jocelyn Benson. Michigan's secretary of state, speaks to the media on Election Day in Detroit. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters) (REUTERS)

Aguilar’s opponent, Republican Jim Marchant, helped organize a nationwide coalition of far-right “America First” candidates for secretary of state who ran on the false claim that the 2020 election had been stolen from Trump.

According to the New York Times, only one of the “America First” candidates for secretary of state, Indiana Republican Diego Morales, has won.

“I think the voters have spoken, and they spoke to something that is much deeper than the passing fad of the 'big lie' or any other election denialism,” Fontes said.

But while election denialism proved to be a losing strategy for many candidates in 2022, the secretaries of state warned Monday that they are still bracing for some to try the same tactics again in 2024 — including the former president, who launched his third bid for the White House on Tuesday.

“2022 was about selecting the team that will be on the field in 2024 to protect and defend democracy,” Benson said.

Nearly two years after Jan. 6, 2021, when Trump’s attempts to overturn his defeat in the 2020 election ended in a deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol by a mob of his supporters, the emphasis on election denialism in many 2022 races had also raised concerns about possible voter intimidation and even violence.

Banks of pro-Trump protesters with flags, many in the foreground wearing orange wool hats, gather in front of the Capitol Building. At the front of the crowd, one man shouts as loud as he can.
Pro-Trump protesters gather in front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Jon Cherry/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

In the lead-up to the midterms, prominent proponents of Trump’s election lies rallied the former president’s supporters to monitor polling places and ballot drop boxes for signs of potential fraud.

Arizona was ground zero for these efforts. Before Election Day, the secretary of state’s office, led by Hobbs, had referred a total of 18 complaints of alleged voter intimidation and harassment during early voting to local and federal law enforcement.

Some voting rights experts warned that the threat of violence could actually be higher in the days following the election, when any efforts to contest the results of key races may be more likely to motivate extremists to act.

One week after midterms, those threats have, for the most part, not materialized.

“We were right to be vigilant, because our country has a violence problem and a political extremism problem, and that can sometimes, but not always, lead to political violence,” Jiore Craig, head of elections and digital integrity at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, told Yahoo News.

Craig said the organization’s research found that “voter intimidation laws were top of mind for many election conspiracy communities online,” while “others were mindful of how unpopular violence is and how bad it made their so-called ‘election integrity’ movement look.”

“Those engaging with political extremism had a lot of reasons to keep violence off the table,” she said.

Katie Hobbs, beaming, and wearing glasses and three strings of pearls, hugs her twin sister, Becky Hobbs, as supporters applaud.
Gov.-elect of Arizona Katie Hobbs, center, is hugged by her twin sister, Becky, at a rally Wednesday in Phoenix to celebrate her victory. (Jon Cherry/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

While Trump has been recycling his 2020 fraud claims for many of the races where his candidates lost in the midterms, the election deniers themselves seem to be backing away from his strategy.

“Idiot, and possibly corrupt, officials have lost control of the tainted Election in Arizona,” Trump wrote in a post on his social media platform, Truth Social, over the weekend, claiming that voting machines had been broken in “Republican areas.”

“Wow! They just took the election away from Kari Lake. It’s really bad out there!” he added after Hobbs was declared the winner.

Lake has remained relatively quiet since the Associated Press called the race for her opponent Monday night, aside from her tweet about "BS." Since then, she has endorsed Trump’s 2024 campaign and retweeted several other people’s tweets alleging “illegal schemes” and “voter suppression” in her own race.

Whether she plans to follow up with a formal election challenge remains to be seen. The New York Times reported Wednesday that she is still weighing her options.

For her part, Arizona’s new governor-elect seems eager to put the issue to rest. “It has been a long year and a half, but in this election, Arizonans chose solving our problems over conspiracy theories,” Hobbs said in her victory speech Tuesday. “We chose democracy.”