From the Classroom

Republican candidates feel the pressure of ‘the Big Lie’ in the 2022 midterm elections

Claims the 2020 presidential election was stolen by Democrats has become a “tribal pose” for GOP candidates, one necessary to secure Trump’s endorsement.

A photo of a hand wearing light blue latex gloves inserting a ballot into a drop box.

Nearly 18 months after President Biden’s 2020 victory, Republicans aren’t letting go of baseless claims of election fraud.

In some cases it’s overt, with candidates saying they don’t believe Joe Biden is the duly elected president. In others it’s less direct, pronouncing “election integrity” as a top issue or backing efforts to audit the votes cast a year and a half ago.

Doug Heye, a GOP strategist and former Republican National Committee communications director, said candidates are feeling the pressure to expound claims of fraud from voters and former president Donald Trump — or risk “Big Lie” backlash.

“Candidates want the Trump endorsement,” he said in an interview. “But if they can’t get that, they just want to have Trump not set their sights on them. The best way to do that is to be beholden to Trump. And the best way to do that is to say that he never lost.”

The Republican Accountability Project (RAP), a project of Defending Democracy Together, launched in response to the Jan. 6 insurrection and the lie that motivated the attack on the Capitol.

RAP’s political director, Gunner Ramer, said the group is “a bunch of Republicans and former Republican conservatives who can’t stand that Donald Trump has taken over the GOP.”

The anti-Trump conservative group created a “GOP Democracy Report,” a grading system that evaluates congressional Republicans’ political actions, offering marks based on their defense, in the RAP’s view, of democracy and the Constitution.

Passing or failing grades are given to lawmakers based on six criteria, including objecting to the certification of 2020′s Electoral College votes, voting to question or convict Trump for inciting the Jan. 6 attack, public statements that cast doubt on the legitimacy of the 2020 election, and signing the Texas amicus brief.

Of the 435 voting members of the House of Representatives, only 7 received As while more than 140, including House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, were given a failing grade.

The majority of elected Republican officials, Ramer said, care more about parroting Trump than they do about democracy, and the GOP congressional candidates this year are no better.

When asked about the 73 candidates for House endorsed by Trump so far, Ramer said his group’s Democracy Report card would “by and large be Fs.”

Expounding “the Big Lie” plays a role in winning the Republican primary because candidates need to appeal to the Republican voters who turn out for the midterm elections.

Among GOP activists, the terms “conservative” and “Trump” have become aligned, meaning they are now more ideologically conservative, not based on policy issues, but based on how “Trumpy” they are. As long as Trump is saying the election was stolen, Ramer said, there’s no reason for candidates not to repeat those talking points.

Ramer noted RAP is finding something interesting in focus groups with Trump’s voters from 2016 and 2020: while they believe the election was stolen, that doesn’t necessarily deter them from participating in elections.

“We’re actually finding that these voters are super enthusiastic about voting, and they’re like ‘We need to vote even more and turn out, even more, so they can’t rig the election, so they can’t steal it like they did in 2020,’” he said. “It’s not an actual position they are taking, but it’s a tribal pose, it’s an attitude toward a position that Trump has taken that they enjoy.”

Congressional candidates Jen Kiggans in Virginia, Juan Ciscomani in Arizona, Monica De La Cruz in Texas, Katie Arrington in South Carolina, and Harriet Hageman in Wyoming are some of the many Republican voices hinting at a rigged election.

These candidates have all cast doubt on the legitimacy of 2020 elections at some stage in their campaigns, either overtly or indirectly. But when an Annenberg Media reporter attempted to learn more and ask specific questions about their positions, none agreed to explain why.

An earlier version of this story named Amanda Adkins, running in Kansas’ Third Congressional District. After it was published, the campaign requested a correction.

Asked specifically if Adkins recognizes Biden as the duly elected president, the campaign would not offer any information and refused to comment on that for this story.

Other campaigns have been more overt.

“Yeah, I do believe it was stolen,” Arrington told the Associated Press when asked about the election. She added that she felt Biden had been “duly elected” president, but only because members of Congress had been too hasty to certify the election results, rather than send them to states for audit.

Keith Self in February was asked about the 2020 election by Annenberg Media reporters who contributed to a Dallas Morning News article on his race for Congress.

“There were enough irregularities” to question whether Biden is duly elected, Self said then. In April after he had secured the GOP nomination in Texas’ 3rd Congressional District, he declined to repeat the claim. Self said he was only willing to answer questions via email, but when the time came, he didn’t respond to those questions or follow-up emails.

All of the Trump-endorsed candidates for the House have made public statements supporting Trump’s claims of voter fraud, made “election integrity” a key focus of their campaigns, or are the direct challenger to an incumbent who voted to impeach Trump following the Jan. 6 attack.

J. Tucker Martin, a former Republican communications director in Virginia and current senior vice president at McGuireWoods Consulting, said when it comes to the Republican nomination process, allegiance and fidelity to Trump have become the most important thing in just about all contested primaries.

“I think that’s a great way to run a cult of personality. I think it’s a terrible way to run a political party,” he said, adding it is “depressing” to see endorsements no longer be about philosophy or principles. “It’s just ‘Will you go down to Mar-a-Lago and would you kiss the ring?’”

Purporting the lie has become a litmus test for many candidates, and going against “the Big Lie” makes you a target of the former president. Trump has set his sites on candidates who voted for impeachment and/or to certify the election, offering an endorsement of revenge to their direct primary rivals.

Rep. Tom Rice of South Carolina, for example, was one of 10 House Republicans to vote for Trump’s impeachment. Trump is backing his primary challenger, state Rep. Russell Fry.

“The coward who abandoned his constituents by caving to Nancy Pelosi and the Radical Left, and who actually voted against me on Impeachment Hoax #2, must be thrown out of office ASAP,” Trump said in a statement. “And we have just the man to do it!”

The central theme of Fry’s campaign is that Rice betrayed South Caroline values by voting for Trump’s impeachment, a vote that could cost him his seat in the House.

While “the Big Lie” is an animating issue for many Republican voters in the midterms, it could potentially divide the GOP base come the general election.

Trump is not the first politician to play the victim card or the first to do so on the national stage. But the refusal to concede to elections on the false claims of election fraud, Heye said, has now become a sort of Republican lore that is splitting the GOP.

“Certainly, that’s rhetoric that part of the Republican base wants to hear,” he said. “But that scares another part of that [base] away, that’s a real challenge for Republicans moving forward.”

Ramer said that Republican swing voters — specifically those who backed Trump in 2016 but voted for Biden in 2020 — are turned off by stop-the-steal candidates.

Fraudulent claims of an unduly elected president metastasize to a distrust in the democratic process and reduced voter participation. Trump Republicans are playing a dangerous game by attempting to fire up the GOP base with “the Big Lie,” Martin said, a game that could scare some voters away from the polls on Election Day.

“If you remove trust in the American electoral process, you sort of kick out the most important leg of the stool in the entire Republic,” Martin said. “If people don’t trust elections, if they don’t trust the outcome, then how the heck are they supposed to govern together after elections? And how are we supposed to even determine who has power in this country?”

Rick Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine School of Law and expert on election law, said Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen has markedly raised the potential for an actual stolen election.

“If you believe that the last election was stolen, you’re more likely to be willing to take steps to steal it back the next time,” he said. “If the people who are running elections are those who have embraced the false claim that the last election was stolen, then that means that they are going to be a number of more people who are going to lose confidence in the election processes’ integrity, they’re not going to believe that these people are going to run elections fairly.”

Hasen said he feels like a climate scientist from five years ago, waving a red flag signaling an impending major problem, with no one heeding the warning.

“When a crisis or a potential crisis is far away, there’s a tendency to not focus on it and just assume that things will work out in the end,” he said. “If there’s only a 5% risk of a nuclear meltdown at a reactor, they might call that a small risk. But because the potential damage is catastrophic... [and] I think the same thing about the election system. If we’ve gone from a negligible risk to a 1- or 5% risk of an election meltdown or a stolen election, that’s something we should take very seriously because the consequences for American democracy would be catastrophic.”

Correction: This article has been updated to correct the list of candidates contesting the results of the 2020 election.