Months after the electoral college vote was certified and Joe Biden inaugurated, Republicans are still being forced to look backward to 2020. Attempts by Donald Trump’s acolytes to audit or overturn results in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Texas and Wisconsin continue, and the former president urges these on — calling last year’s free and fair elections an insurrection and the storming of the Capitol by his supporters a peaceful protest. Meanwhile, a similar thing has happened in at least one 2021 election: While former New Jersey governor Chris Christie has urged Republicans to accept reality and move forward, unsuccessful New Jersey GOP gubernatorial candidate Jack Ciattarelli spent more than a week refusing to concede a race that every news organization had called for his opponent before finally backing down on Friday.
What the GOP may not realize, though, is how this new trend could easily backfire on the party — if candidates start falsely insisting that caucuses and primaries, as well as general elections, have been stolen from them.
Already, the audits of last year’s election have been embarrassing to Republicans who see their folly. The Trump-inspired efforts have just as often added to Biden’s total as to Trump’s. Last month in Texas, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick paid his first $25,000 reward for a tip on illegal voting — to a Democrat whose information led to the conviction of a Republican for voting twice for Trump.
And they’ve been unanimous: There was no widespread fraud in the 2020 election, and no audit has found enough votes for either candidate to overturn a state, county or precinct. The projects have become taxpayer-funded laughingstocks.
That should, in a normal world, cause the allegations and audits to end. But 2021 remains no normal political world. So about two weeks ago, Trump wrote to the Wall Street Journal, taking issue with the editorial page’s statement that Biden’s margin in Pennsylvania was too large for Trump to credibly contest. Just before this month’s elections in Virginia and New Jersey, Trump offered a prebuttal of the Virginia results and a nonexistent “margin of fraud.” (Republicans swept the state, so the imaginary fraud must somehow not have materialized.) The former president continues to sow doubts in the minds of Republican voters nationwide about any election that the GOP loses.
It’s easy enough to predict that if Trump runs again in 2024, he might reject a defeat. Even if he doesn’t run, there’s a real danger that any Republican candidate who loses a future election — even a GOP primary — will insist that the contest was rigged. And the Trumpier the candidate, the likelier it is that they’ll cry fraud.
Consider that favorite event of political operatives, the Iowa caucuses.
In 2012, Mitt Romney was declared the winner by a super-slim eight votes over Rick Santorum. (I was in charge of communications for the 2012 GOP caucuses. This isn’t widely known, but until shortly before the decision was made to announce that Romney won by a “comfortable” margin of eight, he led by one solitary vote.) After statewide canvassing, Santorum turned out to have won by 34 votes — a full 16 days later, too late for his campaign to build momentum from the result. Santorum was rightly angry, but he did not throw the entire process into chaos.
That was a decade ago, though. In 2024, any candidate losing by a close margin could call the whole caucus vote rigged — as Trump did after losing the 2016 caucuses to Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) — and declare themselves the legitimate winner. In a county where a candidate performed below expectations, local party officials could be overwhelmed with campaign lawyers demanding to “stop the steal.” Having faced vote counting and reporting challenges in three consecutive caucuses, Iowa is ripe for this kind of attack.
A candidate who, in reality, finished narrowly in third place in any contest could deny that reality by calling themselves the victor or runner-up. Their opponents could do the same — leading to a state-by-state campaign that essentially tears down what’s left of GOP confidence in our electoral system. Indeed, in some cases, this may be what a candidate’s base expects and demands from them: This past summer, when Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin still trailed Democratic former governor Terry McAuliffe in most polls in the Virginia gubernatorial race, a supporter pressed him to promise not to concede if he lost. (Youngkin refused to promise that, saying he expected to win.)
Something like that would cause chaos far outstripping the momentary uncertainty of the 2016 GOP convention, where Republican National Committee leadership struggled to maintain a working process in the face of potential challenges to Trump’s nomination. It could lead to ugly scenes and potential violence surrounding state election boards, state capitols or local voting sites. And would the party, be it national, state or county, side with a candidate who legitimately won in one state but declared fraud in another? How would it be handled if multiple candidates cried fraud in multiple states?
Is there even a plan of action should this occur?
As Dr. Frankenstein learned, creating the monster and controlling it are decidedly different things. By giving up on the central premise that everyone plays by the rules, and playing along every time Trump claimed a vote was rigged — whether before a possible loss or after — the GOP kept its monster very much alive. In this case, Trump’s impulses threaten to make the party implode.
So much of the audits’ “stop the steal” rhetoric has been fun and games so far for a disorganized, amateur-hour band of loyalists. But that doesn’t change the real and negative repercussions it has caused. And if a political version of the Three Stooges can yield this much chaos, imagine the impact should seasoned, credible political professionals get in the act. It could get worse before it gets better. Is the GOP prepared? Is the country?