As Missouri Senate contenders peddle conspiracies, what’s the damage to democracy?

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One Republican candidate in Missouri’s Senate race skipped the state party’s annual convention last week and traveled instead to Arizona, where he toured the site of a discredited 2020 election audit and falsely claimed it could lead to decertification of the results.

Another contender recently announced a campaign event in the St. Louis suburbs with a former Trump administration official beloved by supporters of QAnon.

Former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens and St. Louis lawyer Mark McCloskey are making once fringe positions key pieces of their message to voters as they vie for the GOP nomination to replace retiring Republican Sen. Roy Blunt.

It’s a strategy being pursued by Republican candidates in races across the country ahead of 2022, as rhetoric from those seeking to undermine the legitimacy of President Joe Biden’s decisive victory over former President Donald Trump continues to escalate.

“There’s this weaponization and mainstreaming of disinformation,” said Daniel Weiner, deputy director of election reform at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice.

“There’s a troubling number of folks who are willing to traffic in this misinformation. It doesn’t mean it’s overtaken either party, but it’s become far too mainstream for comfort.”

Election experts warn that as the ongoing misinformation campaign about the 2020 election continues to find a firm foothold within a faction of the Republican Party, it poses a long-term threat to the institution of democracy.

At the same time, some Republican leaders have also sought to minimize the seriousness of the Jan. 6 insurrection by a mob of Trump supporters seeking to block certification of the Electoral College results.

“This is going to take years— if not decades—to fix, the damage being done to our democracy,” said David Becker, the founder and executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research.

Becker served as a senior trial attorney in the voting section of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

He said autocratic regimes have long sought to cast American democracy as a fraud. Now, elected officials in the U.S. are doing that work for them.

Arizona certified Biden’s victory in late November after local boards — including the Republican-led panel in Maricopa County, the state’s most populous county which includes Phoenix — conducted their own reviews and affirmed the results.

But months later, majority Republicans in the Arizona State Senate ordered a partisan review of Maricopa County’s results over the objections of the local board.

The review is being carried out by private contractors, some with questionable credentials for such work, including Cyber Ninjas, a Florida-based cybersecurity firm owned by a Trump supporter who has repeatedly promoted conspiracy theories about the election.

“Right now in Arizona, the legislature cannot pass a budget because they’re focused on this dumpster fire,” Becker said.

Bob Beatty, the department chair of political science at Washburn University in Topeka, said that denial of the 2020 election results will be a popular position in GOP primaries in Missouri, Kansas and other states this cycle.

That will increase the possibility of violence, he said.

“It goes beyond just short-term politics of politicians trying to gain votes. It really is a form of an attack on the country,” said Beatty, who served as an election observer for the U.S. embassy in Mongolia in 2012.

“If leaders change the political culture to not accepting election results, that will lead inevitably to political violence. We saw it on Jan. 6 and it will continue. So that’s a direct consequence of this behavior.”

Missouri candidates embrace conspiracy theories

The spectacle of the review underway at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix has led to what Becker calls “anti-democratic adventure tourism,” drawing elected officials and candidates from around the country eager for photo opportunities and interviews with right-wing outlets to boost their fundraising with small-dollar donors.

“I think it’s a collection of cowards, con artists and fools… Some of them are candidates,” Becker said about the voices promoting baseless claims of voter fraud.

One of those candidates was Greitens, the former governor who skipped the Missouri Republican Party’s Lincoln Days Convention in Kansas City for a trip to Arizona.

Greitens posted multiple videos of his trip to social media and gave numerous interviews to right-leaning media, falsely asserting that the review could lead to decertification of the election.

“I think we’re gonna find out what all of those results are and it’s very clear. If they don’t have the ballots, they don’t have the victory, and then you’re gonna see leaders in Arizona step up to decertify the election. It’s really simple,” Greitens told The Gateway Pundit.

“If you want and then you need to have the ballots to prove that you won. And if they don’t have the ballots, they don’t have the victory.”

The notion that partisan audits will lead to a reversal of the 2020 results — and Trump’s reinstallation as president— has spread on social media in recent weeks.

It is a fantasy that has taken root with alarming numbers of Republicans. A poll of 1,994 voters conducted nationally this month by Politico and the Morning Consult found 51 % of Republicans believe the Arizona review will uncover information that could change the election results.

While the idea has been laughed off by incumbent Senate Republicans, Greitens’ promotion shows the direction a wing of the party is headed in 2022.

Greitens’ campaign, when asked about the potential damage to democracy from the partisan review, said the candidate would be returning to Arizona.

“Eric Greitens believes in preserving the integrity of our elections, which is a bedrock of our democracy. We would like to invite the Kansas City Star to join Governor Greitens on the ground the next time he observes the process,” Greitens’ campaign manager Dylan Johnson said in an email.

McCloskey, who pleaded guilty Thursday to a misdemeanor charge for brandishing a firearm at Black Lives Matter protesters in front of his St. Louis mansion last summer, will hold a “Pink Shirt Guy & RINO (Republicans In Name Only) Roast” on June 27.

The event, titled in reference McCloskey’s shirt color during the gun incident, was scheduled to feature an appearance from Michael Flynn, the retired Army general who briefly served as Trump’s national security advisor.

Flynn will no longer be appearing because of a scheduling conflict, McCloskey’s campaign said Friday.

The retired general pleaded guilty in 2017 to making false statements to the FBI as part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Trump’s inner circles contacts with Russia. He was pardoned three years later, shortly after Trump’s election defeat.

Flynn, who has repeatedly claimed the election was stolen, has emerged as a favorite of supporters of the QAnon conspiracy theory, whose adherents believe Trump is at war with a secret cabal of cannibalistic pedophiles. It was embraced by some members of the mob that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6.

He spoke at a QAnon-themed convention in Dallas last month where, in response to an attendee’s question, he made comments many interpreted as endorsing a Myanmar-style coup in the U.S. Flynn has since said that his words were misconstrued by the media and that he does not support a military coup.

McCloskey’s campaign declined to answer a question about Flynn’s ties to the QAnon movement and past comments about the election.

“Your question was in the context of Flynn joining him at an event, since he’s not anymore I don’t think it’s relevant,” said Billy Grant, McCloskey’s spokesman, in an email.

McCloskey has also engaged in election denialism, claiming on Twitter three days after the Capitol riot that “there is no question that Donald Trump won the legitimate vote” and contending at a Jackson County GOP event in April that “people in the mainstream Marxist media pretend that Joe Biden and his cohorts are running the country.”

Two other GOP contenders, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt and Rep. Vicky Hartzler, backed the efforts to overturn the election. Since Biden took office, however, they have shifted their rhetoric to focusing on opposing Biden’s agenda rather than denying his legitimacy.

Blunt, a former Missouri secretary of state and one of only two Missouri Republicans to vote to uphold the Electoral College results, was reluctant to comment on the messaging of his would-be successors.

“I’m not going to get involved in analyzing what candidates are saying or how they’re campaigning. I think Missouri voters are going to have to decide,” Blunt said.

Blunt, the top Republican on the committee which handles election legislation, said Democrats have also undermined trust in elections with their push for broad changes intended to expand ballot access and prohibit state-level restrictions.

The Democrats’ push for national voting rights legislation in form of H.R. 1 comes as state-level Republicans are moving forward with a series of bills that will set up new restrictions in the 2022 election.

“Democrats after 2016 talked about how we needed to change all the election laws for more voter security,” Blunt said. “After 2020 they’ve decided that voter security’s not a question and we need to change all the election laws that relate to security, so I think there are plenty of people putting into question the confidence we should be able to have in the election system.”

Threats against election officials

Misinformation is taking a toll on election officials. A June report from Brennan Center and the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center documents the uptick in threats against those who administer elections for states and localities.

Interviews with 233 local election officials from across the country found that 1 in 3 reported feeling unsafe in their job.

Incidents described in the report include the posting of the home address and photo of Washington State’s election director, superimposed with crosshairs and the message, “Your days are numbered.” In Fulton County, Georgia, the 14-year-old son of an election official faced threats and racial slurs.

“We can draw that very direct line between the misinformation about the voting process and the counting to the threats against election officials,” said Matthew Weil, the director of the elections project at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

The report makes a number of policy recommendations, including creation of a Justice Department task force to investigate election related threats and more state funding to ensure the security of election officials.

The report also calls on social media platforms to more rigorously and transparently combat the spread of election disinformation, an idea that would likely prove unpopular with GOP lawmakers who have bristled at efforts by Big Tech to regulate user content.

“This will require a whole-of-society approach that includes federal and state legislatures, prosecutors, law enforcement, and social media companies,” the report’s conclusion states. “Most importantly, those with the power to do something should consult closely with election officials and workers themselves. It is no exaggeration to say that the survival of our democracy depends on it.”

Shorman reported from Topeka.

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