The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

GOP eyes voter fraud conspiracy theorist to replace Liz Cheney

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) speaks as former ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch appears before the House Intelligence Committee in 2019. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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Republicans have offered a pretty curious rationale for excommunicating Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) from her No. 3 leadership role. Amid her continued criticisms of former president Donald Trump, they’ve argued not that her claims are wrong (because they aren’t), but rather that her commentary is unhelpful to the party’s efforts to win back the majority and that they’d rather focus on the future. To perhaps oversimplify things a bit: They’d just rather not talk about it.

The argument is particularly strange given how much the man they assure remains their party’s leader — Trump — is very much fixated on the past, still spouting election conspiracy theories six months after he lost.

But it’s also strange given that the emerging choice to replace Cheney offered some of the same conspiratorial claims. That will only reinforce how much Trump’s “big lie” has infected his party.

The Washington Post’s Paul Kane on Wednesday profiled Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), who appears to be the prohibitive favorite to succeed Cheney. Stefanik’s story is one of the most significant metamorphoses of the Trump era. At just 36, she was a former GOP aide and entered Congress as an acolyte of former House speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), but has since become a Trumpian firebrand.

That includes spouting his baseless and false fraud claims in the lead-up to the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. She did so significantly more than many in her party and certainly more than the leaders whose ranks she could soon join. (They would often merely cite states allegedly not following their election laws, rather than massive fraud.)

Stefanik’s most extreme claim came in a statement published shortly before the Capitol riot, in which she explained why she would object to counting certain state’s electors.

She cited the same things as other prominent Republicans about state election laws supposedly not being followed. But she also made a particularly remarkable claim about Georgia: that “more than 140,000 votes came from underage, deceased, and otherwise unauthorized voters — in Fulton County alone.”

There is zero evidence for this. As CNN’s Daniel Dale notes, similar claims were fact-checked and debunked in the previous weeks. What’s more, there were only about 524,000 total voters in Atlanta-based Fulton County in the 2020 election. Stefanik was therefore claiming more than 1 in 4 votes in a single county were fraudulent — a ridiculous number given that Fulton County’s relative turnout was in line with history. It’s even more ridiculous given that all the court cases and months of review have produced no evidence of anything like it.

This wasn’t just a flub or a claim that something might have happened; it was stated as fact in a lengthy, prepared statement that the New York Times notes contained a number of other sizable errors.

Asked for proof of the claim, Stefanik spokeswoman Karoline Leavitt didn’t provide any. Instead, she cited litigation — litigation which ultimately failed to substantiate the claim — and other supposed issues with absentee ballot drop boxes in broader Georgia.

“The number came from litigation that was ongoing at the time,” Leavitt said via email. “To this day, there are still serious concerns about the election that have not been addressed.”

(Update: Washington Post Fact Checker Glenn Kessler pressed further on precisely what litigation mentioned such a claim. It turns out there wasn’t any. Leavitt cited a case originally filed in Fulton County for which an appeal was later filed to the Georgia Supreme Court that briefly mentioned the idea of 141,000 suspect votes. But the claim was about statewide votes, and it was quickly rejected.)

Even after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot that was spurred by those who believed Trump’s false claims of a stolen election, Stefanik continued to object and even cited alleged malfeasance. Speaking on the House floor, she cited claims about “the illegal counting of late ballots” in another key swing state, Michigan.

At least in this case, she cited affidavits from those who claimed to have witnessed it, rather than stating it as fact. But it was also a specious claim often pushed by conspiracy theory-oriented websites and social media accounts, and it has no proof behind it. Plenty of people claimed plenty of things in affidavits, which judges later rejected. Michigan’s former top elections official also issued a sworn affidavit assuring no such thing had occurred.

Stefanik’s false claims didn’t escape notice at the time. The Harvard Institute of Politics at Stefanik’s alma mater removed her from an advisory board, citing her “public assertions about voter fraud in November’s presidential election that have no basis in evidence.”

Stefanik was asked about that on Fox News and said, “I stand up by my decision to object to four states — the electors from four states — and I focused on the constitutional issues, not on the voter fraud issues.” Except that wasn’t exactly true. Her larger focus might have been on state election laws, but she also pointed to huge numbers of supposedly illegal votes and tallies of votes — in very extreme ways that her likely new colleagues in leadership didn’t.

In the context of her overall political shift, it made sense. Stefanik has built a national profile by appealing to hardcore Trump supporters. But if Republicans truly want to turn the page and not focus on the past, it probably doesn’t serve them to elevate someone with a demonstrated tendency to say such things — the very things that put the party in its current position of having to account for Trump and leading the likes of Cheney to put her foot down.

Rewarding someone who said what the base wanted to hear, even if it was false: What could go wrong?

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