The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In ramp-up to 2022 midterms, Republican candidates center pitches on Trump’s false election claims

Wren Williams defeated a 14-year incumbent in a Virginia House of Delegates primary after claiming he had seen evidence of fraud while working as a lawyer for the Trump campaign.
Wren Williams defeated a 14-year incumbent in a Virginia House of Delegates primary after claiming he had seen evidence of fraud while working as a lawyer for the Trump campaign. (Allison Lee Isley for The Washington Post)

A candidate to be Arizona’s top elections official said recently he hopes a review of 2020 ballots underway in his state will lead to the reversal of former president Donald Trump’s defeat there.

In Georgia, a member of Congress who used to focus primarily on culturally conservative causes such as opposing same-sex marriage has made Trump’s false claim that the election was stolen a central element of his bid to try to unseat the current secretary of state.

And in Virginia last month, a political novice who joined Trump’s legal team to try to overturn his 2020 loss in court mounted a fierce primary challenge — and won — after attacking a Republican state House member who said he had seen no evidence of widespread fraud in the election.

“He wasn’t doing anything — squat, diddly,” Wren Williams said in an interview about his primary opponent. “He wasn’t taking election integrity seriously. I’m sitting here fighting for election integrity in the courts, and he’s my elected representative who can legislate and he’s not.”

Former president Donald Trump has remained the main driver of the Republican Party priorities, despite losing his reelection bid in 2020. (Video: Blair Guild, JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Across the country, as campaigns gear up for a handful of key races this year and the pivotal 2022 midterms, Republican candidates for state and federal offices are increasingly focused on the last election — running on the falsehood spread by Trump and his allies that the 2020 race was stolen from him.

While most of these campaigns are in their early stages, the embrace of Trump’s claims is already widespread on the trail and in candidates’ messages to voters. The trend provides fresh evidence of Trump’s continued grip on the GOP, reflecting how a movement inspired by his claims and centered on overturning a democratic election has gained currency in the party since the Jan. 6 Capitol attack.

Dozens of candidates promoting the baseless notion that the election was rigged are seeking powerful statewide offices — such as governor, attorney general and secretary of state, which would give them authority over the administration of elections — in several of the decisive states where Trump and his allies sought to overturn the outcome and engineer his return to the White House.

Many are newcomers to politics. They boast campaign websites proclaiming “America First,” call themselves patriots or tout their military service.

Some, including Chuck Gray of Wyoming, declare “election integrity” their top priority. Gray is one of at least six pro-Trump Republicans challenging Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), who has denounced Trump and voted to impeach him on a charge that he incited the Capitol attack.

And many are current Republican officeholders, lining up to seek reelection, who have backed Trump’s efforts over the past eight months by questioning the validity of the 2020 result, taking legislative votes or signing on to official efforts to overturn it.

Of the nearly 700 Republicans who have filed initial paperwork with the Federal Election Commission to run next year for either the U.S. Senate or the House of Representatives, at least a third have embraced Trump’s false claims about his defeat.

Election results under attack: Here are the facts

Many of them — 136 — are sitting members of Congress who voted against Joe Biden’s electoral college victory on Jan. 6.

Similarly, of the nearly 600 state lawmakers who publicly embraced Trump’s false claims, about 500 face reelection this year or next. Most of them signed legal briefs or resolutions challenging Biden’s victory. At least 16 of them attended the Jan. 6 protest in Washington.

“What’s really frightening right now is the extent of the effort to steal power over future elections,” said Jena Griswold, the Democratic secretary of state in Colorado. “That’s what we’re seeing across the nation. Literally in almost every swing state, we have someone running for secretary of state who has been fearmongering about the 2020 election or was at the insurrection. Democracy will be on the ballot in 2022.”

The growing roster of such candidates amounts to merely the latest step in that progression, which includes the ouster of Cheney from a House leadership position after she rejected Trump’s stolen election claims, as well as the censure of state officials, including Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R), after he refused to contest Trump’s defeat there.

Legislatures in Arizona and Georgia have also passed laws shifting power over elections to themselves.

The dynamic threatens to upend Republican primaries — and in some cases, already has. Last month, Williams defeated a 14-year incumbent in a Virginia House of Delegates primary after claiming he had seen evidence of fraud while working as a lawyer for the Trump campaign on a lawsuit seeking to overturn the Wisconsin election result. The incumbent, Charles Poindexter, boasts top ratings from the NRA as well as the socially conservative Family Foundation. Williams is widely expected to win easily in the fall in a safely Republican district in Virginia’s rural Southside.

“He said that he had not seen any evidence of voter fraud,” Williams said of his opponent, who did not return calls seeking comment. “And I said that I had seen evidence, because obviously I had played the role of lawyer for Trump in Wisconsin.”

In fact, no evidence of widespread fraud emerged in Wisconsin, where the lawsuit Williams worked on was dismissed and where a recount in the state’s two largest and most heavily Democratic counties affirmed Biden’s victory.

In this rural Virginia district, a young Republican turns toward Trump in faceoff against BLM supporter

Trump, the most popular figure in the Republican Party, has repeatedly threatened to punish those who do not echo his claims by injecting himself into primaries.

In a recent statement accusing Wisconsin House Speaker Robin Vos of failing to adequately fight to overturn Biden’s win, Trump included a veiled promise to help recruit primary challengers to run against those who have displeased him.

“These REPUBLICAN ‘leaders’ need to step up and support the people who elected them by providing them a full forensic investigation,” he said. “If they don’t, I have little doubt that they will be primaried and quickly run out of office.”

As a result, some candidates and GOP leaders have worked feverishly to ingratiate themselves with the former president. After Trump attacked him, Vos announced that a former state Supreme Court justice would lead a fresh probe of the 2020 election there. In Arizona, energy executive Jim Lamon, who is seeking the GOP nomination to challenge U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly (D), has embraced baseless claims of election fraud — and purchased ad time on Fox News in New Jersey, thousands of miles from Arizona primary voters, to win support from Trump while the former president summers at his golf club in Bedminster.

Pennsylvania state Sen. Doug Mastriano, who is contemplating a run for governor, recently told Trump that he could engineer a post-election audit in his state like the one underway in Arizona. Like more than a dozen others, Mastriano also traveled to Arizona to witness the recount firsthand, after which Trump issued a statement praising him and calling on the Pennsylvania Senate to heed his call. “The people of Pennsylvania and America deserve to know the truth,” Trump said.

Mark Finchem, a state House member running for Arizona secretary of state, attended the Jan. 6 protest in Washington, and though he said he never came within 500 yards of the Capitol and did not condone the ensuing violence, video footage later emerged showing him in front of the building’s steps after it had been breached.

He also tweeted a picture of people swarming the Capitol steps with the statement, “What happens when the People have been ignored, and Congress refuses to acknowledge rampant fraud.”

Finchem, who did not respond to a request for comment, suggested in a podcast interview in May that he was hopeful that the review of Maricopa County ballots launched by the state Senate could lead to a reversal of Biden’s victory in the state. “We could reclaim our electoral college electors,” he told Zak Payne, a pro-Trump activist whose podcast has provided a platform for QAnon-linked conspiracy theories.

Shawnna Bolick, another Arizona House member running for secretary of state, proposed legislation this year that would give the legislature the power to set aside the popular vote and choose its own presidential electors. Bolick, who also did not respond to a Washington Post inquiry, announced her candidacy last month with a statement that called for securing elections and noted that many Americans “believe cheating likely affected the outcome of the 2020 election.”

A top target for Trump allies is Raffensperger, the Republican secretary of state in Georgia, who refused Trump’s entreaties to “find” the votes that would have allowed him to reverse Biden’s 11,779-vote victory in the state.

He is being challenged by Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.), who has already gained Trump’s endorsement.

A pastor and former talk-radio host, Hice was elected to Congress in 2014 largely by touting his opposition to homosexuality but has since embraced Trump’s false claims of election fraud and was among the GOP members of Congress who voted to block certification of Biden’s electoral college victory.

Hice was an early proponent of false claims of fraud. He told the pro-Trump news outlet Newsmax last November that he was not “convinced at all, not for one second, that Joe Biden won the state of Georgia.”

In Washington state, Joe Kent, an Army veteran, is among a handful of Republicans who have announced plans to challenge Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump in January.

Kent has repeatedly questioned the outcome of the 2020 presidential race, appearing at “America First” rallies alongside purveyors of baseless conspiracy theories and tweeting in April: “We need to fight for election integrity. Do not reward incumbents that refused to contest the 2020 election.” Kent did not respond to a request for an interview.

In Michigan, Mellissa Carone, a former contractor for the election vendor Dominion Voting Systems who drew ridicule after making outlandish claims of fraud at a legislative hearing in that state last fall, has filed paperwork to run for a state House seat.

Some Republicans are worried that some of these candidates could thwart GOP efforts to pick up seats next year. In Michigan, a state Senate committee issued a report last week denying continuing claims that rigged equipment and other fraud tainted the 2020 result there. Although the report attracted Trump’s ire, it reflected concerns among Republicans that growing calls for post-election audits in numerous counties in the state had the potential to harm the party’s electoral chances next year.

Tension grips Michigan as Trump’s election attacks continue to reverberate

In addition, Michigan state Republicans have been encouraging state Rep. Ann Bollin, the chairwoman of the House Elections Committee, to run for secretary of state. Bollin has said Biden won the state, while another Republican who is seeking the office, Kristina Karamo, has espoused Trump’s unfounded claims.

Democrats and other Trump critics, meanwhile, are expressing alarm that the sheer number of GOP candidates promoting his election falsehoods will put anti-democratic forces in place at multiple levels of government with the power to thwart the will of the voters in future elections.

State legislatures have considered hundreds of bills this year that would impose new restrictions on elections and give lawmakers new powers to determine electoral outcomes. With more believers in legislatures, the chances of such bills becoming law could grow.

State attorneys general also play a role in elections, often with the power to file lawsuits. Last year, 18 Republican attorneys general signed on to a lawsuit seeking to overturn the result in Pennsylvania. Five of them are up for reelection in 2022.

Governors in some states, including Georgia, certify election results — and carry veto power over legislation as well as the power to call special sessions, as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has done to force lawmakers to consider new voting restrictions this month.

And Congress has the power to approve — or block — the electoral college outcome, as it did after the insurrection at the Capitol had finally been contained on Jan. 6. If Republicans take back control of either the House or Senate, Democrats and voting rights advocates worry that Congress might play a very different role in future elections than it did this year.

“I have real pause about the role the ‘big lie’ will play not only in campaigns next year but in challenges to a fair and accessible election,” said Allison Riggs, an election lawyer with the liberal Southern Coalition for Social Justice, referring to false claims about the 2020 election. “We expect it.”

Alice Crites contributed to this report.