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'Big lie' advocates are dominating GOP primaries in battleground states

2020 conspiracy theorists are systematically seeking influential positions from which they can disrupt the democratic process.
Image: A person in the crowd holding a sign that reads,\"Trump Won\".
A supporter holds a "Trump Won" sign at a rally by former President Donald Trump at the Canyon Moon Ranch festival grounds on Jan. 15 in Florence, Arizona.Mario Tama / Getty Images file

A new Washington Post analysis of the Republican primaries so far has revealed a shocking statistic: In the battleground states that determined the 2020 election win for Joe Biden, Republican candidates who contested the legitimacy of that election have won “nearly two-thirds of GOP nominations for state and federal offices with authority over elections” this year.

Allow that to sink in. A huge majority of the candidates for positions including governor, secretary of state and U.S. Senate, with immense power to interfere with the certification of an election, are now headed to the general election in critical battleground states. According to these candidates’ own platforms, if they had been in power in states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan during the 2020 election, they likely would've aided former President Donald Trump in his efforts to overturn the election and helped take them much further. And if any of them are in power in 2024 during a potential Trump bid, they’d be well-positioned to disrupt a fair election process.

Any wins in these areas would provide Republicans with a disproportionately powerful foothold for contesting future elections.

Keep in mind these are battleground states. This is not Trump country, where Republicans face no competition from Democrats and have incentives to take extremist positions to seduce the base. They’re states where the opinions of swing voters and Democrats matter. On one hand, the extremism of the emerging GOP slate might weaken their chances of getting elected in battleground states, but, on the other hand, any wins in these areas would provide Republicans with a disproportionately powerful foothold for contesting future elections.

A secretary of state from Michigan who supports election disinformation, as does the GOP secretary of state nominee Kristina Karamo, could use the imprimatur of that office to say that the vote count is fraudulent and shouldn’t be certified. An election-denying U.S. senator, as Arizona’s Blake Masters hopes to be, could help form a larger bloc in Congress that objects to certifying a win for a Democratic president-elect.

In and of themselves, these kinds of efforts won’t necessarily succeed — they’d likely face legal challenges in courts and political challenges from officials in other parts of the election confirmation pipeline. But they could still cause nationwide panic, inspire vigilante right-wing violence and spark a new legitimacy crisis for the government. And all it takes is one major challenge in a critical state — say, a hypothetical Gov. Doug Mastriano of Pennsylvania who refuses to certify presidential electors for a Democrat who wins that state — to develop a premise for the next "big lie." The antidemocratic myth of an untrustworthy election system would continue to live and potentially grow, not because of new evidence, but because of new radicals in government.

The problem isn’t limited to battleground states, though. According to the Post, in the 41 states that have held primaries so far, more than half of the Republican winners of the 469 contests in races for federal and statewide office with power over elections have been "big lie" advocates.

The fact that this is so systematic speaks to the toll exacted by a cowardly Republican Party that chose not to convict Trump and bar him from running for office again after he was impeached on a charge of inciting the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection. It speaks to the cost of the GOP establishment downplaying Jan. 6 even after every investigation reveals with greater detail that the insurrection was a coordinated, deliberate effort to disrupt a peaceful transfer of power. If top Republicans such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., convinced themselves they could avoid sanctioning Trump and still control him and his movement after he was voted out of office, they should be fully aware by now of the gravity of their mistake.

Where do we go from here? A functional democracy requires political parties signaling reasonable trust in the election system in order to transfer power back and forth peacefully. Right now the GOP is doing nothing to slow its evolution into a party that sees this foundational aspect of the democratic process as an intolerable concession.