(The Hill) — Republicans touting former President Donald Trump’s unfounded claims that the 2020 election was stolen saw victories across the map in Tuesday’s primaries, raising questions — and, for many, concerns — about what will happen in November’s general elections.
Despite top GOP figures such as former Vice President Mike Pence urging Republicans to look forward rather than focus on what happened two years ago, GOP primary voters overwhelmingly chose candidates who made the 2020 election a central part of their campaign message.
Democrats, and some Republicans, argue these candidates won’t stand a chance when they face independent voters in November. But others warn not to count them out given President Joe Biden’s low approval ratings and the dismal national mood.
“You look on paper and you immediately want to say none of them are electable,” said GOP strategist Doug Heye. “But if we have a wave, some of these candidates will be successful.”
In Michigan, Tudor Dixon, who was considered the establishment candidate in the race, won the Republican gubernatorial primary days after she declined to say in a “Fox News Sunday” interview whether the 2020 election was stolen. In May, she — along with almost every other candidate at a debate — raised her hand when asked who among them believed Trump was the rightful 2020 winner in Michigan.
At the same time, Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Mich.), who voted to impeach Trump last year over the Jan. 6, 2021, attack at the U.S. Capitol, was ousted by Trump-backed candidate John Gibbs, who has questioned the 2020 election results.
In Arizona, former television news anchor Kari Lake, who has been one of the most vocal critics of the 2020 election results, appears to be on track to win the gubernatorial primary, while Abe Hamadeh, who has also questioned the election results, is projected to win the state’s GOP primary for attorney general.
The potential elevation of election deniers into roles such as governor and attorney general, which could directly impact an election, has alarmed some observers.
But perhaps no state-level position has more say over elections than secretary of state, and in Arizona, Mark Finchem, a prominent election denier who attended Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally that preceded the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol last year, won the Republican nomination for the role.
The Republicans who won Tuesday night weren’t the first election deniers to make it to the November general elections.
Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano centered much of his primary campaign around claims of election fraud, and he and North Carolina congressional nominee Sandy Smith were in Washington on Jan. 6.
But they expanded the ranks of candidates pushing Trump’s claims in a general election and drove home that there is still a swath of the Republican base with an apparent appetite for falsehoods about the 2020 election. According to an analysis from FiveThirtyEight released last month, there are at least 120 Republican nominees who deny the results of the 2020 presidential election.
Strategists from both sides of the aisle argue that Democrats will easily be able to swipe at such candidates, particularly Finchem, over their views on the 2020 outcome.
“That is the issue of that office. The issue is, do you support the voters of Arizona, or do you want to overturn them?” said one GOP strategist in Arizona. “Clearly Mr. Finchem has sponsored bills to eliminate early voting, to overturn the election by the legislature. He was supportive of fake electors. You can hang the whole election conspiracy theory around Finchem’s neck, and as the state’s election officer can say, ‘Do you want this guy in charge of our elections?’ That’s a very narrow cast issue in that election because of the duties of that office.”
And Democrats have already begun throwing punches.
“Yesterday confirmed what we already know: ‘The big lie’ is alive and well in the Republican Party,” Patrick Gaspard, the CEO of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, told reporters on a press call.
“Candidates up and down the ballot all around the country have peddled an extreme and dangerous agenda,” he continued. “They’re running on the snake oil lie of ‘the big lie’ and the pledge to strip away our rights, our benefits and our democracy.”
Gaspard went on to say that Republicans have “the goal of just holding power,” arguing that the election was no longer a referendum on Biden and Democrats.
Arizona Democratic gubernatorial nominee and Secretary of State Katie Hobbs has already attacked Lake for election fraud claims, calling them “disqualifying” during an MSNBC interview on Tuesday.
Republicans argue that soaring inflation and the poor national mood will still play a major role in voters’ decisions, ultimately making the race a referendum on Democratic control, not 2020 election rhetoric.
“The disdain for Joe Biden’s presidency is very palpable, especially here in Arizona, where we’ve had record high inflation and problems at the border,” said Brian Seitchik, a Republican consultant in Arizona. ”The statewide Arizona ticket is certainly going to make that a focus.”
Seitchik went on to say that it would be difficult for Hobbs to distance herself from Biden and national Democrats.
“As much she’s going to want to change the conversation to what she wants to talk about, Kari Lake is going to talk about the problems at the border, inflation, the failed Democratic approach to governing,” he said.
But others aren’t so sure it will be that easy for candidates such as Finchem.
“Will there potentially be a pivot to normalcy?” said Olivia Troye, a former Pence adviser. “I don’t expect Mark Finchem to pivot anytime soon. He’s running in a specific role that has a specific effort in terms of our democracy, in terms of undermining our democracy.”
There hasn’t been much polling to indicate how the latest crop of nominees will fare in the general. In Pennsylvania, polls have consistently shown Attorney General Josh Shapiro (D) leading Mastriano in the gubernatorial race.
At the same time that some Republicans are speaking out against candidates who espouse unfounded election fraud claims, Democrats, believing they would be easier general election targets, are seeking to elevate a number of them.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent close to half a million dollars on ads boosting Gibbs in Meijer’s district, a move that drew widespread condemnation from within both parties.
“They’re playing with matches,” Heye said. “If one of these candidates wins, let’s say Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania, well, then Democrats are going to have a lot to answer for that.”
“Democratic rhetoric on these candidates is that they spread hate, they’re election deniers, conspiracy theorists, anti-gay, anti-woman on down the line,” he continued. “And by elevating these candidates to help them get the nomination, you make those views more acceptable.”
Democrats have hit back, arguing Republicans have no one to blame but themselves for the candidates.
“If they want to blame anyone, they need to take a deep look in the mirror,” said Democratic National Committee adviser and former Biden administration official Cedric Richmond. “They still have President Trump out here relitigating 2020.”
Other Democrats have pointed to the substance of the ads that have run highlighting the election denying candidates.
“Those ads didn’t lift them up in a positive light. It revealed them for who they are,” Gaspard said. “The substance of those ads did nothing more than clarify exactly what those candidates and the vast majority of Republican leaders stand for.”
For now the question is whether candidates who questioned the 2020 election can win in November. But some are already looking ahead to a different question: If they do, will they use their offices to contest future elections?
“That’s certainly not just a possibility but more and more a probability,” Heye said. “The reality is for those Republican election deniers, they only deny the elections they want to deny.”
Brett Samuels contributed.