Election deniers lose races for key state offices in every 2020 battleground

Photo for The Washington Post by David Becker
Right: Nevada secretary of state candidate Cisco Aguilar, a Democrat, was projected to have defeated Republican nominee Jim Marchant.
Left: Jim Marchant, the Republican nominee for Nevada secretary of state, in Henderson, Nev., on Nov. 6.

Voters in the six major battlegrounds where Donald Trump tried to reverse his defeat in 2020 rejected election-denying candidates seeking to control their states’ election systems this year, a resounding signal that Americans have grown weary of the former president’s unfounded claims of widespread fraud.

Candidates for secretary of state in Michigan, Arizona and Nevada who had echoed Trump’s false accusations lost their contests on Tuesday, with the latter race called Saturday night. A fourth candidate never made it out of his May primary in Georgia. In Pennsylvania, one of the nation’s most prominent election deniers lost his bid for governor, a job that would have given him the power to appoint the secretary of state. And in Wisconsin, an election-denying contender’s loss in the governor’s race effectively blocked a move to put election administration under partisan control.

Trump-allied Republicans mounted a concerted push this year to win a range of state and federal offices, including the once obscure office of secretary of state, which in many instances is a state’s top election official.

Some pledged to “decertify” the 2020 results, although election law experts said that is not possible. Others promised to decommission electronic voting machines, require hand-counting of ballots or block all mail voting. Their platforms were rooted in Trump’s disproved claims that the 2020 race was rigged, and their bids for public office raised grave concerns about whether the popular will could be subverted, and free and fair elections undermined, in 2024 and beyond.

Election administrators and voting rights advocates said the rebuke of election deniers seeking state-level office was a refreshing course correction by U.S. voters, whose choice of more seasoned and less extreme candidates reflected a desire for stability and a belief that the nation’s elections are in fact largely secure.

“This was a vote for normalcy,” said Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R), who prevailed against a Democratic opponent Tuesday after defeating U.S. Rep. Jody Hice in the spring primary. Hice, who was endorsed by Trump, spent the campaign attacking Raffensperger for refusing to block Joe Biden’s 2020 win in Georgia.

Voters “were looking for and rewarded character,” Raffensperger said. “They were looking for people who could get the job done. They rewarded competence.”

Elsewhere, the losers included Doug Mastriano for governor in Pennsylvania, as well as three candidates for secretary of state – Mark Finchem of Arizona, Jim Marchant in Nevada and Kristina Karamo of Michigan – all of whom sought to overturn the 2020 result. Losing gubernatorial contender Tim Michels in Wisconsin would have had the power to push a Republican plan to eliminate the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission and transfer election administration to the secretary of state or another partisan office.

Of the five who were defeated in the general election, only Michels and Mastriano had conceded as of Sunday.

“Difficult to accept as the results are, there is no right course but to concede, which I do,” Mastriano said in a statement issued Sunday afternoon. He called on supporters to give his opponent, Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro, “the opportunity to lead.”

Even though the others have not conceded, most have stopped short of claiming that fraud had tainted their races. Their muted reaction to Tuesday’s outcomes suggested that attacking the integrity of American elections is not a winning formula, at least for state office, voting rights advocates said.

“Republicans are tired,” said Democrat Cisco Aguilar, who was projected late Saturday to have defeated Marchant in Nevada. “They’re seeing that it’s not a winning path. I think they’re hearing the voters.”

As workers in Clark County, Nev., scrambled to count a batch of remaining mail ballots, elections chief Joe Gloria told reporters Saturday that no election-denying candidates had lodged any complaints. Hours later, after officials released new vote totals, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D) was projected to win reelection, edging past Adam Laxalt (R), a former state attorney general, and delivering Democrats an expected majority in the next Senate.

Laxalt tweeted earlier on Saturday that it appeared the new batches of votes could block his path to victory.

“If they are GOP precincts or slightly DEM leaning then we can still win,” Laxalt tweeted, in language that signaled a willingness to accept the results even if his opponent won. “If they continue to trend heavy DEM then she will overtake us.”

It was a dramatic contrast to Laxalt’s rhetoric in 2020, when he helped Trump try to overturn Biden’s victory in Nevada, in part by falsely claiming that heavily Democratic batches of mail ballots were illegally dumped into the count after Election Day.

“It’s positive for our country when losers of elections accept their defeat,” said Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold. “American democracy is predicated on that. It’s also good at this point that they’re not flagrantly denying the result.”

Although many candidates denying the outcome of the 2020 vote came up short in their bids for state office, the U.S. House was a different matter. At least 150 election deniers were projected to win their House races as of Saturday – an increase over the 139 Republicans who voted against the electoral college count following the assault on the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob on Jan. 6, 2021.

Overall, more than 170 election deniers on the ballot for the U.S. House, Senate and key statewide offices were projected to win their elections as of Sunday, according to a Washington Post analysis. The Post identified candidates as election deniers if they questioned Biden’s victory, opposed the counting of Biden’s electoral college votes, expressed support for a partisan post-election ballot review, signed onto a lawsuit seeking to overturn the 2020 result or attended or expressed support for the rally on the day of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

“Election denialism is not going away overnight,” Griswold said. “The attacks on voting rights and the attacks on American democracy will not stop.”

Still, many voters said in interviews that defeating such candidates was a driving force in their votes on Tuesday. Andrew Haber, a 53-year-old child psychologist in Arizona, didn’t vote in the primary election, but he cast his ballot for Democrats after being alarmed by conspiracy theories advanced by the Republican candidate for governor, Kari Lake, and her fellow conservatives.

“When you abandon the process, then how do you steer the ship back in a democratic way?” Haber, a Democrat, said at a polling place in Paradise Valley, outside of Phoenix. “I’m still hopeful we can right the ship, but it would be really hard to do once we have more people holding the levers of power that don’t believe in democracy.”

Matt Kroski, a 43-year-old who has voted for both parties, said he was disturbed by “voter intimidation” efforts he saw Republicans embrace, including armed observers at ballot drop boxes in nearby Mesa. He saw his votes for Democrats in his neighborhood north of Phoenix as an insurance policy for democratic norms.

“I just feel that after the whole ‘Stop the steal,’ it’s very much ‘I didn’t lose, you stole,'” Kroski said. “At the end of a sporting game, we know who the winners and losers are, who scored more points, who got more votes. I’m hoping that things stay in place so that at least our votes will count.”

Finchem’s Democratic opponent, Adrian Fontes, had won more votes as of Saturday evening than any other candidate on the Arizona ballot – even the ones in hotly contested races for U.S. Senate and governor.

In an interview, Fontes said he had built a broad coalition that included moderate Republicans and independents. But he also conceded that his success had as much to do with what he wasn’t. “I’m not an insurrectionist,” he said, contrasting his public image with that of Finchem, who is a member of the extremist Oath Keepers group and was photographed outside of the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 attack.

“I think a lot of civic-minded Republicans really didn’t like what Mark Finchem stands for and who he is,” Fontes said.

Finchem has not conceded and has criticized the “fake news” for calling his election for Fontes while officials are still counting ballots. “You don’t quit a marathon on mile 15,” he tweeted Saturday. “Same with elections – they are not over until the last legal vote is counted.”

Griswold and others said several factors fueled what she described as a victory for democracy. First was the quality of the election-denying candidates, who embraced extremist views that most voters recognized and were motivated to reject.

Washington Post photo by Joshua Lott
Left: Adrian Fontes, the Democratic nominee for Arizona secretary of state, speaks to Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego (D), center, and attorney general nominee Kristin Mayes (D) during a Teamsters picnic on Nov. 5.
Right: Republican nominee for Arizona secretary of state Mark Finchem speaks during an October campaign event in Phoenix.

An additional factor was the fact that many Republicans – including Trump – discouraged voters from casting their ballots by mail, a dubious strategy that may have suppressed GOP turnout. Finchem went so far as to urge voters to turn out only at the end of the day Tuesday and to vote provisionally – a convoluted instruction that left some GOP strategists bewildered and alarmed.

Democrats were also aggressive in defining their opponents as election deniers and spending money to emphasize the point. Aguilar spent $1 million airing an ad called “Dangerous,” featuring various election-denying statements from Marchant – and suggesting that the Republican would be willing to rig an election in the future.

“If we get elected, their power is over,” Marchant can be seen saying in the ad. Marchant is a founder of the America First Secretary of State Coalition, a group of pro-Trump, election-denying candidates that included Finchem, Karamo and Mastriano.

The Democratic Association of Secretaries of State and affiliated groups spent historic sums – more than $24 million – on races in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota and Nevada, said Griswold, who leads the political committee. Four years ago, the group spent less than $3 million.

Even as many election-denying candidates have accepted their defeats quietly, Trump has continued to try to stir up his supporters with unsubstantiated claims that fraud is occurring in Nevada and Arizona as ballot counting continues in both states.

“Clark County, Nevada, has a corrupt voting system (be careful Adam!), as do many places in our soon to be Third World Country,” Trump wrote Thursday on his social media site, Truth Social, referring to the Senate candidate, Laxalt. “Arizona even said ‘by the end of the week!’ – They want more time to cheat!”

The government in Clark County, home to Las Vegas, published a response on its Twitter account calling Trump’s claims “outrageous” and saying “he is obviously still misinformed about the law and our election processes.”

But with Trump expected to announce plans to run for president again in 2024 as soon as Tuesday, his attacks on voting systems are not likely to abate.

Aguilar said secretaries of state have more work ahead of them to tamp down false election claims as 2024 approaches. One of his goals when he takes office in January is to persuade the state legislature to make it a felony to harass or intimidate Nevada election workers, he said. He also hopes to build relationships with election officials in all 17 Nevada counties, including the heavily Republican counties outside of Reno and Las Vegas that are home to many voters who are skeptical of the system.

“My opponent spent a lot of time telling lies, giving misinformation,” Aguilar said. “It’s going to be my responsibility to go out there and break it down and get people to understand that we do have safe and secure elections.”

Jesse Haw, a developer, former state senator and moderate Republican who lost to Marchant in the GOP primary this year, criticized Democrats who spent money elevating Marchant during the nominating battle – a strategy based on the idea that Marchant would be easier to defeat in a general election.

“It was a calculated risk,” Haw said. “The Democrats that I talked to didn’t like it. If this guy had won, it would have really hurt our state.”

But Haw acknowledged: “In this case it worked, so good for them, I guess.”

Haw was happy to share his choice for secretary of state on Tuesday.

“In this day and age, where we’re supposed to be one side or the other, I voted for whoever I think is best for the people of Nevada,” Haw said. “And that wasn’t Mr. Marchant.”