The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The GOP’s ‘stolen election’ litmus test

President Donald Trump walks on the South Lawn on Oct. 1, 2020. (Oliver Contreras for The Washington Post)

By May, it had become clear which way the wind was blowing in the GOP.

Many Republicans declined to fully embrace Donald Trump’s baseless claims of massive voter fraud between the 2020 election and Jan. 6. They didn’t dispute them either, mind you, but instead watered them down by focusing on supposedly illegal changes to balloting during the coronavirus pandemic. After the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, some Republicans suddenly actually disputed Trump’s fraud claims — at least for a little while.

But then the market spoke; wagering against the GOP base’s appetite for “stolen-election” claims turned out to be a bad bet — a recipe for excommunication from the party leadership, even. As The Washington Post’s Ashley Parker and Marianna Sotomayor wrote in May, embracing such claims “had increasingly become an unofficial litmus test for acceptance in the Republican Party.”

If it was increasingly becoming a litmus test by then, it’s now pretty well established as one. While lawmakers were infrequently asked about whether President Biden actually won in the months since Jan. 6 and often equivocated, the combination of the 2021 elections showing Republicans can win in the shadow of the Capitol riot and the start of the 2022 cycle have demonstrated that one must toe the line, to some extent.

The Post’s David Weigel on Wednesday noted a particularly flagrant example.

Shortly after Biden was declared the winner of the 2020 election on Nov. 7, 2020, a conservative Ohioan named Bernie Moreno congratulated Biden and urged his “conservative friends” to give up on the fraud claims.

“Was there probably *some* fraud, illegal votes, etc, yes,” Moreno tweeted. “Was it anywhere near enough to change the result, no.”

By April, the same conservative Ohioan announced a campaign for Senate in the Republican primary. And Moreno launched a new ad Wednesday declaring, “President Trump says the election is stolen, and he’s right.”

The ad is carefully constructed. It’s not explicitly about voter fraud, but rather supposed Big Tech censorship of key stories like Hunter Biden and the media’s negative coverage of Trump. But those who would believe the election was stolen through voter fraud — which according to some polls is a very significant majority of Republicans — are invited to believe that Moreno is one of them. The important thing, as the thrust of that ad makes clear, is that Moreno believes the election was stolen — somehow. Moreno, after all, is running against two GOP front-runners who have latched on to Trump’s claims of massive voter fraud, and you can’t just cede that ground.

(Moreno’s Nov. 7, 2020, tweets have been deleted.)

Another telling example came the same day Moreno’s ad was released Wednesday. During a Minnesota gubernatorial forum, conservative Post contributing columnist Hugh Hewitt asked each of the five leading candidates whether Biden definitively won. None would say he did.

“I can’t know what I don’t know,” said former state senator Scott Jensen. But then he recited debunked claims from Arizona about hundreds of dead voters and 9,000 more mail ballots allegedly being received than were sent out. (The purported issue of 9,000 supposed additional votes reflects how data is entered when there is a signature discrepancy.)

Neil Shah said: “Do I think that played a role? How could it not have?”

Lexington, Minn., Mayor Mike Murphy leaned into it the most, saying, “I do believe there was voter fraud at a massive scale across this country” — while acknowledging he “absolutely” does not have proof of that. He pointed to supposed evidence of fraud in the 2020 primary of Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) — claims that have been described by researchers as part of a concerted disinformation campaign.

Others offered more qualified comments, not acknowledging that Biden won legitimately while stating the plain fact that Biden was declared the winner by our electoral system.

“I don’t think the election was fair, but I do think we have the results that we have, and the electoral college is the way that we determine the election,” state Sen. Paul Gazelka said.

State Sen. Michelle Benson pointed to supposed overreach in election changes by Gov. Tim Walz (D) and the Democratic secretary of state, while urging people to get more involved in monitoring the process: “The more we watch; they less they cheat.” Pressed by Hewitt on whether Biden actually won, Benson offered only the barest of factual statements: “He was certified by Congress as having won the electoral college.”

Much has been written, including in this space, about how a post-presidential Trump is making a concerted push to drive the GOP toward his stolen-election claims. Virtually all of the non-incumbents he has endorsed have gone significantly further in echoing his fraud claims than the existing party establishment. He also has pushed to install election-truthers in key roles with oversight of elections, such as in swing-state races for secretary of state.

A more subtle reflection of this push is in the 2022 GOP primaries that are just getting off the ground. There were relatively few big ones in 2021, and they happened closer to Jan. 6, when Republicans were still unsure about how to proceed. The early returns on the 2022 races suggest the stolen-election push is, in fact, only picking up steam.

None of this should be viewed outside the context of what we’ve seen in Georgia recently. Given the close election results in the state, Gov. Brian Kemp (R) was forced to decide whether to validate Trump’s claims of massive fraud and opted not to do so. That has now earned him a primary challenge from former senator David Perdue (R), with Trump’s endorsement. Perdue was hardly a voter-fraud crusader; in fact, he declined to say whether he would have voted against certifying the results. But now he is suggestively pointing to supposed wrongdoing in a way that dovetails with Trump. Perdue furthers Trump’s request to get Republicans on board, even if they’re not quite saying the same thing.

Which is what you see with Moreno and the Minnesota candidates.