The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A dangerous trend among GOP candidates shows the Trump threat is here to stay

(Andy Jacobsohn/AFP via Getty Images)

So is this really how it’s going to be? Are more and more Republican candidates across our great land going to treat it as a requirement that they cast any and all election losses as dubious or illegitimate by definition?

We’re now seeing numerous examples of GOP candidates running for office who are doing something very close to this. Which suggests the legacy of Donald Trump could prove worse for the health of democracy than it first appeared.

It isn’t just that Republicans will be expected to pledge fealty to the lost cause of the stolen 2020 election. It’s also that untold numbers of GOP candidates will see it as essential to the practice of Trumpist politics that they vow to actively subvert legitimate election losses by any means necessary.

One high-profile GOP candidate now playing this ugly Trumpist game is Larry Elder, who is running in a recall election against California’s Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom. This week, Elder told reporters that “there might very well be shenanigans” in the vote counting, just like “in the 2020 election,” and vowed that his “voter integrity board” of lawyers will “file lawsuits.”

“The 2020 election, in my opinion, was full of shenanigans,” Elder also told Fox News. “My fear is they’re going to try that in this election right here and recall.”

It’s common for campaigns to prepare for post-election litigation. But Elder is going much further. He’s hinting at a concerted effort to steal the recall and linking that to the “big lie” that there were widespread problems in 2020. The goal is plainly to tap into the deep well of paranoia and conspiracy-mongering that Trump fed for years — and to undermine in advance faith in any outcome but a win.

A worse example comes from the leading GOP candidate for Senate in Nevada, Adam Laxalt. The former state attorney general’s effort to unseat Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto has Trump’s endorsement in what will be a hard-fought contest.

This week, Laxalt flatly declared his campaign will “file lawsuits early” to “secure this election,” as if it’s a foregone conclusion that a loss would be dubious by definition. Worse, Laxalt vowed to avoid the supposed mistakes of 2020, in which the election was “rigged” and the only failure was that Trump campaign lawsuits “came too late.”

Laxalt, then, will begin contesting any eventual loss right now, because otherwise Democrats will succeed in stealing another election. This, too, is a declaration in advance not to accept a loss as a legitimate outcome.

And then, when the press covered his despicable threat, Laxalt rejoiced that he was “triggering the media,” smarmily insisting the press is attacking anyone who wants “secure” and “fair” elections.

In fact, Laxalt is the one threatening to undermine secure and fair elections. Indeed, as this demonstrates, for Trumpist politicians, the refusal to commit to respecting legitimate election losses is now a badge of honor.

Two other high-profile GOP candidates are brandishing this badge of honor, as one Democrat pointed out to me. They are running while citing their support for sham post-election audits — ones designed to undermine faith in elections — as a virtue.

In Pennsylvania, for instance, Trump just endorsed Army veteran Sean Parnell as the GOP candidate for an open Senate seat. Parnell has declared his support for a “forensic audit” of the 2020 results.

Parnell has piously claimed he wants to reinforce confidence in those results. But this is a smokescreen: This audit has been pushed by Trump allies who hope to duplicate the Arizona sham audit, which is a dry run at manufacturing fake ways to cast doubt on election outcomes.

And indeed, in Arizona, GOP senate candidate Jim Lamon has openly claimed credit for helping make that sham audit happen. Here again the willingness to undermine confidence in election results is held up as a point of honor.

Now over to Georgia. The Republican candidate running a primary challenge against Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger — who rebuffed Trump’s pressure to help steal the election — is basing his candidacy on a vow to use his powers to overturn elections in a way Raffensperger wouldn’t.

What this all adds up to is this. As it is, Trump’s “big lie” about 2020 has been widely echoed among GOP senate candidates, as Cameron Joseph documented in July.

But it’s gotten worse. In the nationally watched recall election in the most populous state — and in high-profile statewide campaigns in many key swing states — we’re all but certain to see future legitimate election losses treated as illegitimate by definition.

An important feature of all this is that the lies about the majorities who win fair elections, and even the undermining of faith that our electoral system is fundamentally capable of rendering legitimate outcomes, are essential first steps toward overturning such outcomes later. The lies are the foundation, the starting point for potential future efforts to subvert our democratic order.

It’s unclear what this will mean for the GOP as a whole over time. But it’s ominous that you rarely hear condemnation of any of this from the most senior figures in the party.

The willingness to abide by election losses as legitimate, on the understanding that our system is worth preserving and you can live to fight another day, is a hallmark of democratic stability. But it’s becoming a hallmark of GOP primary politics to publicly renounce that ethic, and to do so defiantly and proudly.