GOP gubernatorial candidates are running on Trump's big lie

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Only one leading Republican candidate for governor in the most competitive states this cycle has said that the 2020 election was legitimate.

In the year and a half since former President Donald Trump lost his reelection bid to President Joe Biden, he and his allies have spread pernicious conspiracy theories about the 2020 election and the legitimacy of Biden's victory. A large majority of Republicans, 71% according to a UMass Amherst poll from December, now think that Biden's victory was "definitely" or "probably" not legitimate.

Now, in six swing states with close governor's races — Michigan, Georgia, Wisconsin, Arizona, Nevada, and Pennsylvania — all but one of the leading candidates have refused to acknowledge Biden's victory as legitimate, and all have, to varying degrees, asserted that the 2020 election was marred by voter fraud. Candidates have said they would alter election laws to make it easier for Republicans to win; supported the right of state legislatures to overrule the popular vote; and have even proposed the creation of a special police force targeting "election crimes and fraud."

David Perdue, the former Georgia senator who lost a close reelection fight to Democrat Raphael Warnock in January 2021, has aggressively pushed lies about the legitimacy of the 2020 election since announcing his campaign on Dec. 6, 2021. Two days after declaring his run for governor, Perdue, who received Trump's endorsement the same day he declared, said that if he had been governor in 2020, he would not have certified Biden's victory in Georgia. Later that week, Perdue alleged in a lawsuit that Democratic election officials "circumvented the majority vote of the people of the State of Georgia and thereby affected the outcome of the statewide General Election on Nov. 3, 2020 in several races."

In January of this year, Perdue called for the creation of "an Election Law Enforcement Division in the State of Georgia," appearing to echo Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis who, a week earlier, had proposed the creation of a $5.7 million dollar "Office of Election Crimes and Security." Perdue's force would "be charged with enforcing election laws, investigating election crimes and fraud, and arresting those who commit these offenses." Fulton County Commission Chair Robb Pitts called Perdue's proposed force a "clear and present danger to elections" that the former senator would use "to launch baseless witch hunts into Democratic counties like Fulton County."

In Arizona, former Fox 10 TV anchor Kari Lake, the Trump-endorsed front-runner for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, has made authoritarian rhetoric a cornerstone of her campaign. Lake has on multiple occasions baselessly called for her likely general election opponent, Democratic Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, to be arrested and imprisoned for election crimes of which there is no evidence. She's also advocated for the arrest of journalists for "burying the truth about everything: COVID, the election, the audit — you name it."

Since November 2020, Lake has consistently called the election "stolen," said that Trump won Arizona, and argued that her state's vote total should be retroactively decertified. In Arizona, as in every other state, there has been no evidence found to prove that voter fraud affected the results of the 2020 election. 

In neighboring Nevada, two of the three leading candidates, Las Vegas Council Member Michele Fiore and former Nevada U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, have questioned the results of the 2020 election. Fiore called it "perhaps the most poorly administered election in American history," and, in a now-infamous campaign advertisement, used a sidearm to shoot a beer bottle labeled "voter fraud." She has also called for an audit of her state's election results, despite the fact that the Nevada secretary of state reviewed nearly 4,000 reports of fraud submitted by the state Republican Party in March 2021 and found no evidence of widespread voter fraud.

Heller, who launched his campaign for governor in September of last year, said Tuesday that he does not believe Biden is the legitimate president of the United States. The former senator had previously not said whether he thought the 2020 election was stolen or legitimate.

Heller's comments come after he said at a Jan. 6, 2021, Republican gubernatorial debate that he told Trump, "The only way we can guarantee that, in 2024, we have a Republican president, is we need a leader here in the state of Nevada that understands our election laws and [is] willing to change them."

"I want a Republican president in 2024. It is going to take a Republican governor to make the necessary changes in order to make that happen," he added. Heller repeated his comments on Jan. 10 during a radio interview on Nevada radio station KFOY-AM.

Nevada is also home to the only leading Republican candidate in the six states examined by the American Independent Foundation who has rejected Trump's conspiracy theories about the 2020 election. Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, whose campaign has raised more than $3.1 million and whom polls have identified as one of the strongest Republican challengers to incumbent Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak, has unequivocally said that the election was not stolen and recognized Joe Biden as the legitimate president.

At the same time, Lombardo has said that he believes there was "probably fraud on both sides" in the 2020 election and that he doesn't know if the election results were accurate, and that he still supports Republican calls for "election reform moving forward."

Wisconsin gubernatorial hopeful and former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch has refused to rule out signing a bill, currently only hypothetical, that would give the Legislature the power to overrule the state's popular vote in 2024. Kleefisch, along with other state Republicans, called for a "full forensic audit" of the 2020 election results in Wisconsin — an effort that is still ongoing and has cost state taxpayers more than $700,000. She has also supported Trump's calls for a recount and said that her party should start "hiring mercenaries" and engaging in "ballot harvesting" to win in 2024.

William McSwain, a former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and a candidate for governor of Pennsylvania, has refused to say whether he accepts the 2020 election results. In June 2021, McSwain wrote a letter to Trump in which he requested the former president's endorsement and alleged that Pennsylvania's 2020 election was a fraudulent "partisan disgrace." Trump has since used McSwain's letter multiple times as proof of widespread election fraud in 2020.

In Michigan, frontrunner James Craig, a former Detroit police chief, has called for a "thorough audit" of Michigan's 2020 election; when asked if he thought the 2020 election was fraudulent, he dodged the question, saying, "I don't have that information." The Michigan Bureau of Elections audited the 2020 vote count and, in April, announced that its audits were "concrete evidence that November's election was fair, secure and accurate, and that the results reflect the will of Michigan voters."

The two candidates Trump has endorsed in these six races, David Perdue in Georgia and Kari Lake in Arizona, are the only two who have categorically denied that Biden won the 2020 election. Craig, McSwain, Fiore, Heller, and Kleefisch have sought Trump's endorsement but have yet to receive it. 

The elevation of one or more of these Republican candidates to their state's governorship could help Trump or any other Republican candidate circumvent the electoral process. The Electoral Count Act of 1887 requires each governor to verify their state's slate of presidential electors by signing a certificate of ascertainment. Theoretically, according to election law specialist Matthew Seligman, a Republican governor could refuse to certify the legitimate electors by asserting "voter fraud." The governor could then submit their own illegitimate electors to Congress. 

All that would need to happen then is for the House of Representatives, which Republicans could control after 2022, to vote to accept that state's illegitimate electors.

"In 2020 there were 150 members of the House of Representatives willing to throw out the legitimate electoral votes from Arizona and Pennsylvania," Seligman told the American Independent Foundation. "If you have governors like David Perdue or Lake, who have said they're willing to reverse the results in their states, and you have an election close enough, the only thing that the law has to help us there is the wisdom and good faith of the House of Representatives." 

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.