ATLANTA - Republican David Perdue has made election fraud the centerpiece of his run for Georgia governor. But if he hopes to win in this year’s midterm elections, his supporters will have to use the same democratic system he says they shouldn’t trust.
The only way to win a rigged election, he says, is to turn out in such high numbers that the Democrats can’t get away with cheating.
"If we get out the vote, if everybody votes, we will win," Perdue told his audience at a campaign speech last month.
Across the nation, Republicans who have embraced discredited conspiracy theories about the 2020 election are attempting a similar high-wire act: campaigning for votes by preaching skepticism about elections.
For GOP contenders, it’s a tricky calculus. If they continue spreading former President Donald Trump’s lies that the election was stolen, they risk undermining faith in democracy and having their supporters stay at home. But those who reject Trump’s false claims face the wrath of the former president and his supporters, who wield sizable influence in many GOP primaries.
The tactic of campaigning on a distrust of democracy can confuse voters on whether their vote matters or not. Joe Kent, a Republican running for Congress in Washington, said voters sometimes ask him why they should bother voting at all, if elections are rigged. Kent said he believes Trump won and has said he would work to overturn President Joe Biden’s win if elected, even though there is no legal mechanism for doing so.
"I don’t have a perfect answer for you," is what Kent said he tells voters who say they no longer trust voting. "I wish there was a remedy. If you buy into ‘It’s all rigged’ and ‘I’m not going to vote,’ we are 100% going to lose."
In the 18 months since Biden defeated Trump, other issues have bubbled up to compete for the attention of candidates and voters: inflation, the bloody exit from Afghanistan, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and debates over vaccines and masks in schools.
Trump’s false statements about the election, meanwhile, have been roundly disproved — by courts, law enforcement, elected election officials from both parties, and independent investigations.
"We need to move on to solving problems for citizens," said Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, the Republican from southwest Washington state facing a primary challenge this year from Kent. Beutler has said she supported Trump’s right to bring legal challenges, but there’s no evidence of widespread voter fraud.
Beutler is one of 10 House Republicans who supported Trump’s second impeachment. She also voted to certify Biden’s election victory, making her a major target for Trump and his supporters.
The former president began spreading doubts about the 2020 election years before the first votes were even cast, saying he would only accept the results if he was the victor. He’s spent the last year and a half repeating those same claims, despite an absence of evidence. Now, he’s using his power within the GOP to punish candidates for being insufficiently loyal.
When Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama, a stalwart Trump backer, told a crowd of Trump supporters that it was time to move on from 2020, he was jeered. Trump ended up pulling his endorsement of Brooks in Alabama’s Senate race.
"He wanted the election rescinded and a do-over," Brooks later said. "But there’s no legal way to do it."
Many Republicans have leaned into Trump’s conspiracy theories. In Missouri, Rep. Billy Long, who is running for the U.S. Senate, released a 30-second ad claiming the "Democrats rigged the election." YouTube later removed the ad from its platform for violating its rules on misinformation.
In Texas, one survey of 143 Republican candidates for Congress this year found that only 13 stated that Biden was the election’s rightful winner.
Georgia is perhaps the best example of how Trump’s self-serving conspiracy theories continue to resonate with Republican voters, and the candidates hoping for their support.
Republican turnout in Georgia dropped in the January 2021 runoffs amid Trump’s barrage of voter fraud claims in his own election defeat, leading many Republicans to conclude that Trump’s messaging cost their party control of the Senate when Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock beat Perdue and fellow Republican Kelly Loeffler.
Perdue, now running for governor at Trump’s behest, has made election fraud the centerpiece of his challenge to incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp. Perdue and Trump blame Kemp’s refusal to attempt to overturn Trump’s defeat in Georgia during the 2020 campaign for their losses.
In his campaign speech, Perdue pledged to eliminate Georgia’s Dominion voting machines, which Trump has falsely accused of flipping votes against him. But Perdue also said concerns about the machines shouldn’t discourage Republicans from voting, noting that Democratic-leaning Virginia elected Republican Glenn Youngkin with votes recorded on Dominion machines.
"Let’s give you some hope. In Virginia, we just elected a Republican governor using these same machines," Perdue said. "How did we do it? Well, Trump told people, he said: ‘Look, they fixed some rules. We still use the machines. It’s not perfect yet, but we can overwhelm it if we all get out and vote.’"
Perdue has also touted Republican efforts to recruit more poll watchers, saying they will help prevent fraud, although Perdue’s accusations have focused on the disproven claim that fraud in Georgia centered on absentee ballots that were returned in drop boxes.
Running for the U.S. Senate in Georgia, Herschel Walker has taken a different tack, saying he doesn’t want to look backward at the 2020 election. During an April 20 interview with radio station WDUN-AM in Gainesville, Georgia, Walker acknowledged concerns about election fraud among Republican voters. He sought to reassure voters that Georgia’s restrictive 2021 election law will put to rest worries about absentee ballots by requiring driver license numbers on ballot applications and by limiting ballot drop boxes.
"I don’t know if there are problems with the 2020 elections," Walker said. "One thing I have to worry about right now is that I’m going to have a fair election, and that people can believe in our election when I run."
Surveys indicate that many Republicans have harbored doubts about Biden’s win, skepticism that has been encouraged by Trump and his allies on cable TV and talk radio, along with conspiracy theories and misinformation spreading online.
Distrust of American institutions was already increasing when Trump began telling his supporters that the election was rigged if he lost. The COVID-19 pandemic then prompted many states to rush out new vote-by-mail rules that alarmed some conservatives and prompted even more falsehoods from Trump.
When the votes were counted, large numbers of those mail-in ballots helped tilt the outcome in states like Pennsylvania and Georgia toward Biden.
"They view what happened in Pennsylvania and Georgia with suspicion," said Daron Shaw, a former campaign strategist and polling expert who now teaches at the University of Texas. "But it was their guy who said don’t vote by mail. Voters take their cues from partisan elites, but instead of pushing back on this (voter fraud claim), the party elites have acted as an accelerant."
Klepper reported from Providence, R.I.