Kentucky's GOP Governor Embraces Outlandish Conspiracies As He Refuses To Concede

Only hours after he appeared to lose his re-election bid last week, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R) started making baseless claims about supposed irregularities and voter fraud.

Since then, the firebrand conservative has only waded deeper into the most hysterical online fever swamps, embracing new and even more outlandish claims of fraud circulated by small groups of his supporters and amplified by right-wing conspiracy theorists like Laura Loomer and Alex Jones.

On Wednesday, eight days after Bevin refused to concede defeat to Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear — and the day before the state will begin the official recanvass of election results to recheck vote totals, something Bevin formally requested — the governor tweeted his support for an event held by Citizens for Election Integrity, a supposedly “grassroots” group started just this week. 

Bevin’s tweet suggested he might attend the event if his schedule allowed.

Erika Calihan, the Lexington-area woman behind the event, has spent the last three days making unverifiable and unsubstantiated claims of fraud and calling on the attorney general’s office to open some sort of investigation into her allegations ― most of which seem derived primarily from posts she has read on Facebook, screenshots of unofficial election results and rumors she’s heard. 

Bevin, who lost the election by roughly 5,000 votes, has described Calihan as “my friend” and appointed her to a state government position earlier this year. 

Calihan’s claims have gone viral-ish, at least in the corners of the internet allergic to basic facts and prone to thinking that prominent Democrats operate a child sex dungeon in the basement of a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant that has no basement, or that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a hoax meant to help the feds confiscate guns they still haven’t gotten around to confiscating.

That Bevin chose to dignify the conspiracy theorists’ fever dreams has only helped bring more chaos into an election that was already “shaping up to be a case study in the real-world impact of disinformation — and a preview of what election-security officials and experts fear could unfold a year from now if the 2020 presidential election comes down to the wire,” as The New York Times suggested last week  when conservatives took a parody tweet about destroying ballots as hard evidence of fraud. 

Bevin spent the weekend raising the possibility that he lost a “dirty election.” 

“I would rather lose a clean election than win a dirty election. And I’ll be darned if I want to lose a dirty election,” he said at an event for young conservatives, the Louisville Courier-Journal reported

The reason he hasn’t conceded, Bevin said, was because “if you do not think that there are people that would try to hijack our political process, and while they are yelling about Russian collusion at the front door and telling us to man the front gates against the Russians, they are all at the back gate robbing us blind. I’m telling you. I’m telling you.”

Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin announces his intent to call for a recanvass of the results from Tuesday's gubernatorial elections on Nov. 6, 2019.  (Photo: AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

The governor is no stranger to conspiracies ― he is opposed to vaccines  ― and so perhaps it was inevitable he, too, would begin circulating claims of fraud despite no evidence that any took place. 

Bevin filed for a formal recanvass last week, as he was entitled to do under Kentucky election law. That will lead to each of the state’s 120 counties re-checking their vote totals. Recanvasses are not uncommon in Kentucky: When Bevin won the GOP primary by 83 votes in 2015, his closest challenger requested a recanvass and accepted the results immediately after it finished. 

A recanvass has never changed the result of an election in Kentucky.

After the recanvass, Bevin could still request a recount or formally challenge the election, which could put it in front of select committees in the Kentucky state legislature, where the GOP holds supermajorities in both houses. 

Kentucky state Senate Minority Leader Morgan McGarvey, a Louisville Democrat, told HuffPost last week that he supported a recanvass but that it was unlikely the election results would come before the legislature, and there was “no way” lawmakers there would overturn the outcome. Republican state Rep. Jason Nemes, meanwhile, wrote on Facebook that Bevin should not engage in a “fishing expedition” meant “to overturn the election result.”

But that hasn’t stopped Bevin and his allies from trying to discredit the result. Last week, a prominent Bevin supporter funded robocalls asking people to report voter fraud or other irregularities. And this week, Calihan launched her group to draw attention to her claims of fraud, which include allegations that voting machines were hacked and that hordes of out-of-state residents may have voted.  

“We’re newly formed because we heard all the charges just like everybody else. We’ve heard the allegations just like everybody else,” Calihan said at a press conference on Tuesday, according to a livestream from right-wing advocates eager to boost any conspiracy they can. “We’ve heard complaints. We’ve heard there was record turnout, yet I haven’t talked to a single person in Fayette County that waited in line anywhere to vote, despite record turnout. Things just don’t add up!” 

(Fayette County, the state’s second-most-populous, is a deep-blue area that voted heavily for Beshear.)

“Nobody would commit felony voting fraud for a single vote,” Calihan said as she reiterated a supposed claim from parents of a college student that his signature had been forged in voter logs even though he was away at school. “How many more are there?”

Calihan demurred when a reporter from WLEX 18, a local television station, asked for specific evidence. A man standing near Calihan at the event challenged a local television news reporter to conduct an investigation into claims he’d read on Facebook.

“I’ve seen on Facebook a complaint by a couple in Florida about their name appearing in Kentucky and on Election Day on the same day,” the man, who did not identify himself, said. “I’m surprised [WLEX18] doesn’t know any of this.”

“What investigation have you done?” he asked.

Then on Wednesday, Calihan’s group circulated a press release touting an event in Frankfort, the state capital, where it would present its purported evidence ― which included footage from CNN the group claims is “video evidence” of “manipulation” at electronic voting booths and of supposed irregularities in vote totals reported on county websites. When HuffPost reached Kris Stuebs, who formed the group alongside Calihan, she said the event wouldn’t be livestreamed because of technical issues. But she did provide a video that outlined the organization’s supposed evidence.

And Calihan, after promising skeptical reporters Tuesday that she’d deliver hard evidence on Wednesday, failed to provide any proof that election machines had been compromised. “We’re just two moms,” she said of herself and Stuebs, according to Courier-Journal reporter Joe Sonka

Instead, the bulk of her “proof” appeared to come from screenshots of unofficial election results and CNN’s reporting of vote totals, as if the cable channel itself was in charge of the race. She presented just one affidavit alleging actual fraud ― and it took less than an hour for that to fall apart.

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As Calihan and company challenged the media to investigate their claims, they also pushed the attorney general’s office to launch its own probe. 

But the Kentucky Office of the Attorney General ― which received a total of 137 reports of potential voting irregularities during and immediately after the election, according to its website ― is already doing that. 

After it receives a complaint, officials and lawyers from the Office of the Attorney General, the state Board of Elections, and law enforcement bodies conduct follow-up investigations into the claims. A spokesperson from the Kentucky Office of the Attorney General said that he could not comment on the office’s investigations because they hadn’t concluded yet.

The potential irregularities are not all claims of voter fraud ― they also include concerns about electioneering and basic legal and procedural questions. The number of complaints the office received this year is down from more than 500 during elections a year ago, WLEX 18 reported.

But no investigation and no set of facts is likely to satisfy the conspiracy theorists who believe Beshear and Democrats stole the governor’s election on a night when Democrats lost every other race on the ballot.

And while that may only be a small group of Kentuckians, it appears the state’s governor is comfortable among them.

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This article originally appeared on HuffPost.