It was a preemptive attack on the truth by some of the biggest names on the American right.
Former President Donald Trump warned that the ballot would be “rigged”. Republican candidate Larry Elder predicted “shenanigans”. Conservative media star Tomi Lahren suggested “voter fraud” was inevitable.
The attempt to sow distrust of California’s recall efforts began long before Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom scored a landslide victory on Tuesday, thwarting Elder and other Republicans who hoped to replace him.
The barrage of false claims echoed Trump’s “big lie” of a stolen presidential election and was equally baseless. But, crucially, they also demonstrated that undermining faith in the integrity of elections has become a standard strategy for many Republicans facing defeat at the polls.
“We saw it in the November elections; we saw it during the insurrection of January 6 ”, Sean Clegg, a Newsom aide told reporters this week. “We don’t have a Democratic and Republican Party in this country. We have a democratic party and an anti-democratic party.
He added, “They’re trying to throw battery acid on our constitution, on our electoral standards, and that’s a preview of the attractions to come. We’re going to see the same thing in 2022 and the same thing in 2024. And unfortunately it’s become Trump’s playbook and they’re going for it. And they are going back.
Although Democrats outnumber Republicans in California almost twice, party leaders feared Newsom was vulnerable to a recall regarding its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, including mask and vaccine warrants.
Radio host Talk Elder was the leading contender among the 46 replacement ballot contenders – which also included reality TV star and former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner – and would almost certainly have become governor if the recall had been successful.
But as opinion polls showed Newsom in a dominant position, Republicans pushed the circular argument that they could only lose if the vote was rigged. Much of the Republican fear-mongering has focused on the widespread use of mail-in ballots – even though an overwhelming majority of Californians voted by mail before the pandemic without irregularities.
Elder said he thought “there could very well be some shenanigans, like there was in the 2020 election.” A website affiliated with his campaign contained a link to a “Stop CA Fraud” site where people could report suspicious voting activity or sign a petition requiring a special legislative session to investigate. Some of the language was identical to a petition circulated to aid Trump in his efforts to overthrow last year’s presidential election.
Trump himself weighed in during the final days of the campaign, including a statement that rhetorically asked, “Does anyone really believe that the California recall election is not rigged?” “
The unfounded allegations have infiltrated the right-wing media ecosystem. Fox Nation host Lahren said, “The only thing that will save Gavin Newsom is voter fraud, so as they say stay awake. Beware of the ongoing electoral fraud in California as it is going to have great consequences not only for this state but for the upcoming elections. “
But conspiracy theories have been blunted by the scale of Newsom’s victory thanks to healthy participation, support for his Covid-19 measures, and a radical rejection of Trump-style populism. In the end, even Elder didn’t mention the fraud when he addressed his supporters after losing, begging, “Let’s be graceful in defeat. “
Trump, however, called it “totally rigged” and the right-wing media were particularly reluctant to acknowledge the result. In a Twitter thread Brian Stelter, CNN’s chief media correspondent, noted that the pro-Trump One America News Network (OANN) spent hours talking about the recall while dancing around that Newsom won.
“It’s just weird,” Stelter tweeted. “OAN does not allege fraud but completely ignores the news. Finally, 12 hours after Newsom’s victory was widely projected, OANN briefly mentioned that the recall “took over Gavin Newsom’s role as governor of California.”
A tighter race could have gotten uglier. Joe Walsh, a former Republican congressman from Illinois said, “It’s a damn good thing that the election in California isn’t closed at all because Larry Elder and Donald Trump and all the other Republicans have signaled that if the elections had to be closed, everything was going to be because of electoral fraud.
“This is the Republican Party’s playbook. It will be difficult to find, in the future, a Republican candidate who loses and accepts the results of his election. They’re all going to be a big loser like Trump. “
Walsh, who challenged Trump for the Republican presidential nomination last year, added, “To be a viable Republican today you have to lie or you have to deny the truth. You can’t say Joe Biden won fair and square. We cannot say that January 6 was an insurrection. You have to be careful saying that the vaccines are working.
“To be a Republican today you have to pretty much question every election you lose. This is Trump’s legacy and you will see it again in 2024. “
But relentlessly destroying the electoral process could prove to be counterproductive. Last year, Republicans feared that Trump’s claims of widespread fraud due to an expansion of postal voting during the pandemic would persuade many Republicans to stay at home. His incessant screams in Georgia may have cost Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue their seats in the second round of the Senate last January.
Drexel Heard, a Los Angeles-based Democratic strategist, said of the California recall: Republican involvement in some areas. Orange County, which was red in the last election, voted no on the recall. “
He added: “It’s almost like self-sabotage. The more they keep talking about electoral rigging, it won’t affect Democrats, it will affect their voters because why would their voters want to come out if they think their vote won’t count? What the Democrats have said is that we want everyone to vote, whether they are Democrats or Republican.
Trump’s allies have more insidious lines of attack, however. Although state officials, judges and then Attorney General William Barr found no significant flaws in the 2020 election, some of the Republicans who sought to overthrow them are now vying for positions. of power over how future elections are conducted in swing states.
With Trump’s backing, they are running to become Secretaries of State – a position that can be critical in deciding issues such as who to remove from voters lists, who receives a mail-in ballot, and what technology is used to certify. the results.
Among them is Mark Finchem, who this week got Trump’s approval for Arizona secretary of state. He pushed the QAnon conspiracy theories and attended the January 6 rally that culminated in a deadly insurgency on the United States Capitol. Trump praised Finchem for his “incredibly powerful stand on the massive electoral fraud that took place during the 2020 presidential scam.”
And on Thursday, the 45th President backed Matthew DePerno for Michigan Attorney General, saying he “has been on the front lines for a fair and accurate election, as he fights tirelessly to reveal the truth about the scam. presidential elections on November 3. ”.
The “big lie” also manifests itself in a ridiculous “audit” of the 2020 Arizona election that is expected to deliver so-called conclusions this month. Pennsylvania Republicans plan to hold hearings as part of an inquiry into the ballot, while the Texas state senate has passed a bill allowing party officials to seek a review of election results.
Observers fear that this new republican orthodoxy could only erode the foundations of democracy. Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota, said, “It’s going to be here for a long time now. It’s a shame because we risk losing a good number of Americans to civic belief in the constitution and the electoral process, no matter who wins.
“I think it’s happening: it’s 20 to 30% of the electorate, almost all Republicans. It’s not good and when Democrats lose close races you’ll find a number of Democrats now who think it’s okay, so it’s a very damaging and corrosive pattern that is accelerating now. “
Jacobs added: “Remember Democrats were saying similar things in 2016: a smaller number and the losing candidate quickly came forward and recognized the loss, so it didn’t go as far as Trump and the Republicans did. Nonetheless, there is this corrosive and disturbing tendency in all parties to challenge the very foundation of American democracy – that elections decide. “