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Ahead of a speech in an Italian restaurant last week, Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill McSwain fielded a yes-or-no question. Did he believe the 2020 presidential election was conducted freely and fairly in Pennsylvania?
He did not answer either Yes or No.
“Well, Joe Biden is our president, unfortunately,” McSwain said, according to Jonestown, Pennsylvania’s Tribune-Democrat.
It was not the first time McSwain, a former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, has ducked a question on the validity of the 2020 election. Nor is he alone among his class of aspiring governors. Across the country, Republican gubernatorial campaigns are haunted by the 2020 election, which remains a sore point among the GOP base. According to a recent CNN survey, nearly one in six Republicans believes it important that members of their party support Donald Trump’s (false) claims of having won the 2020 election.
That new party line has aspiring Republican governors in blue states walking a narrow path, casting doubt on President Joe Biden’s victory, even if they won’t outright allege fraud.
McSwain has previously fed conspiracy theories about Biden’s victory, sometimes even conflicting with former Trump associates. In June, McSwain wrote a letter to Trump, claiming to have “received various allegations of voter fraud and election irregularities” in Pennsylvania, where Biden’s victory has been verified. McSwain appeared to accuse former Trump Attorney General Bill Barr of blocking investigations. Barr, in turn, told the Washington Post that McSwain’s allegations were false, and accused McSwain of trying to win a Trump endorsement in his bid for governor.
When the Philadelphia Inquirer asked McSwain three times whether the 2020 presidential election was legitimate, McSwain declined to answer. “I’m not going to discuss those kinds of issues,” he told the Inquirer. “That’s not what I have any comment on at this point.” (McSwain’s campaign did not immediately return a request for comment.)
Non-answers like McSwain’s are becoming boilerplate for some Republican candidates. In Nevada, Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo has peppered his gubernatorial campaign with doubts about the 2020 election.
During an interview with KRNV NBC in June, Lombardo fielded a question on whether Biden won “fair and square.” “You used the term fair and square,” Lombardo answered. “President Biden won, and I’m moving forward.”
At a meet-and-greet with supporters that month, Lombardo asked the crowd’s opinion on the presidential election. “You think there was integrity in the last election?” Lombardo asked. “Consensus, right? Neither do I, OK, but, how do we fix it?”
Speaking to Reno’s Gazette-Journal in July, Lombardo said he didn’t know whether the 2020 presidential results were accurate. “I don’t have the information to make an informed decision,” he told the Gazette-Journal, adding that ‘I don’t know the evidence associated with the investigation. I personally believe there was probably fraud on both sides. We had an environment where it was easy to commit fraud.” (His campaign did not return a request for comment.)
In Michigan, another recent lawman is running for governor with a similarly tentative stance on 2020. Asked in August whether he backed Trump’s election fraud claims, former Detroit Police Chief did not give a definite answer. "If there was evidence, if there was a proper investigation that the election was stolen," he said, trailing off, according to the Detroit Free Press. “I don't have that information.”
He previously passed on the question when asked earlier in August, and told reporters that “I’m not going to talk about that today,” when pressed at his retirement in May on whether he believed allegations of voter fraud.
In New Jersey, meanwhile, the Republican nominee for governor has distanced himself from the “Stop The Steal” movement after speaking in front of a “Stop The Steal” sign at a “Stop The Steal” rally in November.
Jack Ciattarelli, the Republican challenger for Gov. Phil Murphy’s office, told the Star Ledger that he hadn’t known he was speaking at an event that promoted voter fraud conspiracy theories.
“If [the organizer] had told me it was a ‘Stop the Steal’ rally, I would not have attended. I don’t think those were good for the nation,” Ciattarelli told Jersey Matters in March. “Joe Biden’s our legitimate president.”
Murphy’s campaign accuses Ciattarelli of playing to the party’s far right.
“Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli attended a ‘Stop the Steal’ rally to push the same dangerous conspiracies that Trump used to inflame extremists ahead of January 6,” Murphy campaign spokesperson Jerrel Harvey told The Daily Beast. “He then refused to acknowledge that President Biden was legitimately elected until weeks after the election. Republicans like Assemblyman Ciattarelli will do or say anything to pander to the far-right, even if that means undermining democracy."
Ciattarelli’s campaign denied those charges.
“Jack recognized Joe Biden as the President-elect well before he was inaugurated,” a spokesperson told The Daily Beast. “As for the rally, he never saw the sign and his comments were completely focused on defeating Phil Murphy and electing Republicans in 2021. Those are the facts and the Murphy team knows it. They are just lying to distract attention away from Murphy's failed record running our state and arrogantly telling people that if they don't like high taxes, they should leave.”
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