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Election Denying Primary Candidates Are Crying Fraud, Win Or Lose

In the days leading up to the Arizona Republican primary for governor, candidate Kari Lake warned that something was going very wrong. “We’re already detecting some stealing going on,” Lake said at a campaign stop the week before the election. Hours before the polls closed, she hadn’t changed her tune. “If we don’t win, there’s some cheating going on. And we already know that.” But when the race was over, Lake was the new Republican nominee for governor in Arizona. This created a bit of a logical pickle for Lake: How did she win an election that was rigged?

“We out-voted the fraud,” Lake said at a press conference the next day, adding that her campaign had evidence of fraud that she would not detail with the media, but would give to “the authorities.” 

Lake is not the only candidate this primary season who has had to figure out how to — or whether to — unring fraud’s bell. Some candidates have stayed in the safe space of just saying 2020 was rigged. Others have claimed their own race as suspect. Either way, the risks are clear: Every time a candidate says the system is rigged, their supporters are more likely to become convinced the system is rigged. And victory doesn’t always end the candidate’s claims: Many keep at it, win or lose.

“It’s not only smaller races where it’s happening. It’s happening in races of all sizes,” said Wendy Weiser, the vice president for democracy at the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and public policy institute. “Part of what’s concerning about it is how widespread this tactic has become.”

By my count, at least a dozen primary candidates have lost their election and then immediately cried fraud. Tina Peters, who ran in the GOP primary for secretary of state in Colorado (and has a long history with election denialism), blamed fraud after her third-place finish, saying, “We didn’t lose. We just found out more fraud.” Two candidates for the Republican primaries for Senate and governor in Michigan made similar claims after losing by wide margins. Joey Gilbert, a candidate for the Republican governor’s race in Nevada, called for a recount after losing the race to Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo by about 26,000 votes, citing “disingenuous activity” and claiming that he, in fact, won.

In Georgia, Republican candidate for governor Kandiss Taylor ended up losing the primary by 70 points, coming in third with less than 4 percent of the vote behind incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp and Trump-endorsed former Sen. David Perdue. Yet Taylor has refused to concede. She is suspicious of the election machines used in Georgia (both ballot marking devices and tabulators), says the election was “rigged” against her and has demanded a hand recount of all of the ballots. But she also told FiveThirtyEight that she doesn’t know if a recount would change the results.

“I have no idea. We don’t know,” she said. “It’s not really, for me, about turning over the election. It’s more about the machines going away and us having checks and balances.” 

A similar sentiment has been shared by a slate of GOP primary election losers in Kentucky, six of whom have pursued recounts even when losing by large margins. The candidates have not made explicit claims of fraud and instead say their goal is simply to “check the tech” and verify the results. But Michael Adams, Kentucky’s secretary of state and a Republican, said that explanation is just a cover.

“They’re not telling the truth. They love moving the goalposts,” Adams said, pointing to one candidate who successfully petitioned for a recount (and raised the money to pay for it), only to file a new complaint after the recount confirmed the original results. “They love making these reasonable-sounding arguments and then they get called on it and they show their true colors.”

In an interview with FiveThirtyEight, Rhonda Palazzo, one of the Kentucky candidates who sought a recount (though in a legitimately narrow race, with a difference of just 58 votes), said she wasn’t making any accusations of fraud, but also referenced the widely debunked conspiracy theory documentary “2000 Mules,” which claims that a network of “mules” stuffed ballot boxes around the country in 2020, using specious evidence. 

But many election deniers, like Lake, are winning their elections, which presents them with more of a conundrum. When you’ve spent months complaining that the election system is rigged, what do you say when you win? For some candidates, the solution is to go mum. Doug Mastriano, the Republican nominee for governor in Pennsylvania, had a long history of parroting Trump’s claims of a stolen election, right up until he won his primary. When he declared victory on election night, he had nothing to say about the rigged election system. And he’s not alone — many Republican nominees were all too happy to accept the results of their own races after spending months casting doubts on the 2020 election.

Some raised complaints of fraud even after they had won. After Jim Marchant, the Republican nominee for secretary of state in Nevada, won his race, he said he was “not really confident in the result.”

“Fraud is a harsh word, but there could have been anomalies — malicious or accidental — based on what I’ve heard,” Marchant told the Las Vegas Review-Journal, but added that he still accepted his victory. “What am I supposed to do, not win?” 

These candidates are all singing different verses of the same song, a way to continue to sow doubt in the election system while benefiting from the support of voters who believe in such claims. And given the number of election deniers who have won their primaries so far, it’s likely we’ll hear an encore come November.

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Kaleigh Rogers is FiveThirtyEight’s technology and politics reporter.


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