Their responses, which ranged from explicit inaccuracies to feeble dodges, made national news. But they weren’t unusual. The Minnesota candidates sounded like Republican candidates generally tend to sound on the subject of the 2020 election.
A refusal to endorse the legitimacy of Biden’s victory has become a key requirement in Republican primaries across the country. From conservative Alabama to the swing states of the Midwest, numerous Republicans trying to win party nominations in 2022 have joined former President Donald Trump in refusing to publicly admit that Trump just plain lost.
Some candidates are aggressive, turning the lie that Trump was the rightful winner into a central part of their campaign pitches. Other candidates are evasive, straining to sidestep a direct answer on the question of Biden’s legitimacy.
Both approaches are dishonest. And both are evidence of a disturbing fact about the state of the Republican Party: you’ll find it very hard to win a 2022 primary if you decide to openly acknowledge the truth about Biden’s fair-and-square victory.
“You can do that, but understand the consequences. The consequences are probably that you’re going to lose,” Steve Mitchell, a Republican pollster in Michigan, said in an interview. “So if you’re willing to lose based on doing that, go ahead.”
Even the candidates who know the truth can read the polls. Surveys have consistently shown that a large majority of Republicans will not concede that American voters actually chose Biden over Trump.
In a Monmouth University poll conducted in early November, 73% of Republican respondents said Biden won only due to voter fraud. Just 22% said Biden won fair and square.
“This is a deeply held value by Republicans. And if you’re a candidate, you’re almost forced to have to say you don’t believe he was legally elected,” Mitchell said. He said “logic just doesn’t work” with Republican voters on this subject: “They continue to be so angry that reason does not prevail. You can’t persuade them.”
Little space for dissent
Trump continues to be the dominant player in Republican politics: his endorsement has usually been a critical factor in who wins party primaries. And the candidates Trump endorses in primaries tend to be the ones who have either rejected or at least aggressively questioned the 2020 result.
So Trump’s continued obsession with the 2020 election gives ambitious candidates less wiggle room to tell the truth about the election themselves.
In the Ohio Senate race in which Trump has not yet endorsed a candidate, Republican candidates have competed to sound the most forceful in portraying Biden’s win as illegitimate. Former state treasurer Josh Mandel and businessman Bernie Moreno have falsely described the election as “stolen”; author and venture capitalist J.D. Vance has used the baseless word “rigged” and spoken of “large-scale” illegal voting that didn’t happen; former state party chair Jane Timken has wrongly claimed the election involved “widespread fraud”; and a spokesperson for candidate Mike Gibbons told CNN in an email last week that Gibbons “has been consistent since day one in stating that we still do not know the true outcome of the 2020 election.”
Moreno’s current stance is particularly revealing. As Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel noted on Twitter last week, Moreno tweeted in November 2020 that there had been nowhere near enough fraud to change the outcome and that conservatives should accept Biden’s win — then deleted those tweets to mount his campaign. (Moreno, whose campaign didn’t respond to a CNN request for comment, told Spectrum News that he doesn’t remember all his tweets and that more “evidence” about the election has come out.)
In Nevada, a leading Republican candidate for governor, former senator Dean Heller, launched his campaign by repeatedly refusing to acknowledge Biden’s legitimacy and calling the 2020 election “a mess.” Heller is not known for particularly incendiary rhetoric, and has had a fraught relationship with Trump, but he has a right flank to worry about. Among his rivals are firebrand Las Vegas councilwoman Michele Fiore, who began her campaign by proposing a so-called audit of the 2020 election, and pugnacious attorney and former boxer Joey Gilbert, who has falsely claimed Trump was the real 2020 winner and who was seen on the steps of the US Capitol when it was stormed on January 6. (Gilbert, whose campaign didn’t respond to a CNN request for comment, has said he didn’t go inside the building.)
Alabama congressman and Senate candidate Mo Brooks has been a prominent promoter of election lies, even speaking at the January 6 rally that preceded the attack on the Capitol. But when Brooks said at a Trump rally in August that supporters should put 2020 behind them and focus on winning future elections, he was booed — prompting him to quickly post a tweet falsely claiming that Trump won in 2020 if only “legal votes” were counted and saying he supports “audits” of state results in 2020. Top Brooks rival Katie Boyd Britt, former chief executive of Alabama’s chamber of commerce and former chief of staff to retiring Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, has called for a “forensic audit” of the 2020 results; the term “audit” has often been used by Republicans this year to describe a partisan review. (Britt’s campaign didn’t respond to a CNN request to say whether she accepts the legitimacy of Biden’s win.)
This is just a sampling. Republican congressional and gubernatorial candidates in numerous other states are also refusing to say if they think Biden was the legitimate victor, or are outright declaring that the election was stolen.
There are exceptions in various states. For example, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who is running for reelection, congratulated Biden on his victory on the day the race was called by media outlets in November 2020 and later said there is no reason to overturn the result.
Murkowski opponent Kelly Tshibaka, who has questioned whether Biden won legitimately, has earned the endorsement of both Trump and the state Republican Party. But Murkowski may benefit from Alaska’s open primary, in which the top four vote-getters from any party qualify for the general election, and ranked-choice general election system.
The ‘finesse’ route
Mitchell, the Republican pollster in Michigan, said Republican primary candidates can try to “finesse” the issue of the 2020 election in a way that positions them close to the center for a general election — avoiding lies but still speaking the language of the party base.
He said Republican candidates can say that voting “irregularities” existed in 2020 — fact check note: there is no evidence of irregularities substantial enough to come close to affecting the outcome in any state — and pivot to the future by talking up the importance of “election integrity” measures.
Even some of the 2022 candidates who have been relatively honest about the 2020 election have still felt the need to attempt this tightrope-walking “election integrity” strategy, which worked for Virginia gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin in his upset victory in November.
In Ohio, Senate candidate Matt Dolan has been far more truthful about the 2020 election than rivals Mandel, Vance, Moreno, Timken and Gibbons. Dolan, a state senator, said in an email to CNN that Biden legitimately won in 2020 though has been a failure in office. Dolan blasted other Ohio candidates for embracing “fringe conspiracy theories and lies” that hurt both the country and Republicans’ chances of winning the Senate seat.
Still, Dolan’s own campaign website contains a “protecting election integrity” section that includes phrasing that suggests voter fraud isn’t rare in states other than Ohio. In fact, voter fraud is rare in every state.
A Republican candidate for governor of Michigan, businessman Kevin Rinke, has flatly rejected the suggestion that the election was rigged. That makes him more truthful than the multiple Michigan candidates who have falsely claimed that fraud reversed the outcome. But Rinke also launched his campaign in November with an ad that cited “voter fraud” as a problem facing Michigan under Democratic leadership, though voter fraud is extremely uncommon, and a website that says “Kevin knows the 2020 election was rife with administrative problems, leading to a tainted election in the eyes of millions.”
CNN conducted an informal survey for this article, reaching out to an unscientific sample of 34 Republican congressional and gubernatorial campaigns around the country — in Ohio, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Texas and Georgia — to ask them if they thought Biden was the legitimate winner. Only seven responded, none of them among the frontrunners in their respective races. Of those seven, only two said Biden was the legitimate winner.
Other than Dolan, the only respondent who acknowledged Biden’s legitimate victory was Everett Stern, a Pennsylvania businessman and longshot Senate candidate who said Biden “100%” won legitimately.
Stern, who told CNN he knows he won’t win the nomination, blamed Trump and allies like Rudy Giuliani and Michael Flynn for perpetrating a “disinformation campaign” that has led party voters badly astray.
“These people are master spinners, and they duped the American Republican Party, and they sunk it and they killed it,” he said.