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How (and why) a leading Republican is pre-explaining his defeat

The more Republicans tell voters Democratic election victories are illegitimate, the more it invites anti-election madness.

No one can say with certainty what the results will be in today's gubernatorial recall election in California, in part because people are still voting. The polls suggest incumbent Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom is likely to keep his job, but until election officials start tallying the votes, the outcome is in doubt.

Republicans in the Golden State, however, are expecting defeat — and they're not handling it well.

As Election Day drew closer, as Newsom's odds of success improved, assorted figures on the right started telling California Republicans the race was "rigged." There was no evidence to substantiate the conspiracy theories, but the anti-election beast created in earnest last year needs to be fed, so the usual suspects started throwing red meat.

This week, the dynamic grew quite a bit worse. Donald Trump, for example, issued a written statement yesterday calling the recall election a "scam" that's been "rigged." The former president was obviously lying, but he's increasingly of the belief that elections must be delegitimized if Republicans are expected to lose.

Conservative media personality Larry Elder, widely seen as the top GOP contender in today's race, went quite a bit further. Yesterday, Elder refused to say he'll accept the results of the election, while promoting a petition "demanding a special session of the California legislature to investigate and ameliorate the twisted results of this 2021 Recall Election of Governor Gavin Newsom."

Elder and his team haven't seen the results — they don't yet exist — but they're nevertheless sure that the voting tallies are "twisted" and in need of an investigation.

But that's not all the Elder campaign said. Rachel highlighted an especially strange message posted last night to the Republican's website, claiming it had "detected fraud" in the "results" that don't yet exist in reality. The site told visitors:

Statistical analyses used to detect fraud in elections held in 3rd-world nations (such as Russia, Venezuela, and Iran) have detected fraud in California resulting in Governor Gavin Newsom being reinstated as governor.

Again, just so we're all clear, the Elder campaign put all of this in writing and published it online, denouncing results that haven't been tabulated, and pointing to evidence of fraud that could not exist without the benefit of a time machine.

At this point, all of this may seem vaguely amusing. After all, a Republican candidate seems largely convinced he's going to lose, so he's peddling nonsense that defies space and time in order to justify his expected defeat.

But some of this isn't at all funny.

"They say that in America, there are four boxes of liberty," the Elder campaign's website added. "The soapbox, the ballot box, the jury box, and the ammo box. Will we now have to fight the California jury box, in the hope that the final box — the one most akin to Pandora's — remains closed?"

In other words, according to the top GOP candidate, hoping to become governor of the nation's largest state, if Republican voters can't trust the ballot box, they may consider turning to ammunition.

At face value, such rhetoric — based on literally nothing, in response to election results that don't exist — is inherently dangerous. But making matters worse is the larger national context.

NBC News' First Read team explained this morning that such posturing is "unsustainable" in a democracy: "If you're telling your voters not to trust the election results, the logical conclusion is that elections aren't worth having."

I'm cognizant of the argument that the Republican officials pushing these anti-election ideas are less than sincere. Elder and his cohorts, the argument goes, are well aware of the fact that our elections are not rigged and there are no legitimate reasons to question the integrity of our electoral system. They push this garbage anyway to keep the GOP base agitated, motivated and scared enough to reach for their wallets.

The trouble, of course, is simple: Rank-and-file Republican voters don't see the wink and the nod. They believe the anti-election nonsense because they trust the GOP voices who peddle the anti-election nonsense.

And right now, those voices are telling Republican voters that the only election results they should perceive as legitimate are those that show Democrats losing.

This way madness lies.