Last month Kari Lake, a former local TV anchor on the Fox network, joined a rightwing podcast The Conservative Circus to discuss her bid to become Arizona’s next governor.
Lake, who has been endorsed by Donald Trump, began by complaining that Joe Biden had just made a speech about the threat to democracy posed by election deniers like herself who claim, without evidence, that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. The US president called them “extremists” and warned that they were preparing to repeat their subversion efforts in November’s midterm elections.
Moments later, when Lake was asked by the podcast host a direct question about whether she would concede were she to lose her own governor’s race against the Democrat Katie Hobbs, she was evasive.
“I’m not losing to Katie Hobbs. We have a movement. We are not losing to Katie Hobbs, so don’t worry about it,” she said.
Earlier this month CNN put the same straightforward question to Lake: would she accept the results of her own election on 8 November? “I’m going to win the election and I’m going to accept that result,” she said.
“If you lose, will you accept that?” CNN’s Dana Bash pressed.
“I’m going to win the election and I will accept that result,” she robotically repeated.
That an arch-election denier who has been at the forefront of attempts to overturn Biden’s victory should refuse to state openly whether she will abide by the outcome of her own election has set alarm bells ringing. Lake is one of several prominent election deniers who have dropped hints – some subtle, others blatant – that they might mimic Trump’s anti-democratic tactics in their own elections just days away.
“There’s great danger that the Trump ‘big lie’ is going to spread to states all over the country. If election deniers lose their elections by narrow margins we can expect that they will reject the results and refuse to accept them,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of the non-partisan group Democracy 21.
Almost two years after Trump launched his unprecedented election subversion push, culminating in the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol, the doubts he sowed around election integrity are now blossoming. A new poll from NBC News found that 65% of Republican voters still view Biden’s presidency as illegitimate.
“The cancer that former president Trump injected into our electoral system has spread in 2022 to any number of candidates for important positions. They’re following the Trump playbook,” Wertheimer said.
Arizona is the ground zero of the 2022 threat of election subversion. All four of its Republican candidates in statewide races – Lake, together with the nominees for US Senate, attorney general and secretary of state – are out-and-out election deniers.
Blake Masters, another Trump-backed Republican, has been pre-emptively sowing doubt about the outcome of his challenge to the incumbent Democratic US senator for Arizona Mark Kelly. Masters has been telling supporters on the campaign trail to look out for thousands of fraudulent votes that will snatch victory from him – a pre-election ploy deployed by Trump in both 2016 and 2020.
Mark Finchem, the Republican running for secretary of state, led the push to decertify Biden’s victory in Arizona and was present at the US Capitol on January 6. During the primary elections, he said he would refuse to concede.
“Ain’t going to be no concession speech coming from this guy,” he said, suggesting the election could have “impropriety”.
Abe Hamadeh, the Republican running for Arizona attorney general, has claimed without evidence that mail-in voting is riddled with fraud – another pre-emptive move used by Trump in 2020.
Similar signs of Republican candidates manoeuvring for possible mischief can be seen in other swing states that were at the epicentre of Trump’s efforts to destroy democracy. In Michigan, the Trump-backed gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon, who is challenging the incumbent governor Gretchen Whitmer, has cast aspersions on the way the state’s midterm elections are being conducted under a top election official who is Democratic.
“We have to wonder what the secretary of state will do when it comes to the ’22 election,” she has said.
In Wisconsin, another state that has become a hotbed of election denial conspiracy theories, both the Republican US senator Ron Johnson who is up for re-election and gubernatorial nominee Tim Michels gave opaque responses to the Wisconsin State Journal.
Asked by the paper whether they would unconditionally accept the certified results of their races, Johnson’s spokesperson said: “It is certainly his hope that he can.” Michels said he would live with the results “provided the election is conducted fairly and securely”.
Doug Mastriano, a virulent election denier who was at the Capitol on January 6 and helped to bus Trump supporters there, is running to be governor of Pennsylvania. He has declined to answer questions about whether he would concede peacefully should his Democratic rival Josh Shapiro win.
It is impossible to predict what will come of the proliferation of election denial ideology in the aftermath of the 8 November elections. But the fact that so many candidates are already laying down objections in a repetition of Trump’s 2020 tactics suggests there may be trouble ahead.
“We’re not going to know what we’re dealing with until it happens, but we can expect chaos in a form that we have never seen in any midterm,” Wertheimer said.
Concern about possible attempts to disrupt election counts has led the Carter Center, the human rights group founded by former president Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn, to focus on this election. The center is regarded as an authority on global election integrity, having monitored 113 elections in Africa, Latin America and Asia since the 1980s.
The center’s democracy experts decided months before the 2020 election that the chaos surrounding then President Trump’s campaign merited their attention. Since then they have been attempting to bring back home to the US the lessons they have learned about conflict resolution and how to strengthen democracy from around the world.
“One of the things that was clearly of concern by the summer of 2020 were efforts to pre-emptively undermine the credibility of the result,” said Nathan Stock, associate director of the Carter Center’s conflict resolution program.
As part of its 2022 work, the Carter Center is asking midterm candidates to sign up for five core principles to uphold trusted elections. One of those commitments is to accept the outcome of the vote once the results have been certified.
“We are saying, ‘Yes you get to have your day in court, but once the legal challenges are settled and the result is certified, you have got to accept the result,’” Stock said.
Some 124 candidates in the November elections have so far pledged to adopt the principles. They include Brian Kemp, the Republican governor of Georgia, and his Democratic opponent Stacey Abrams; and Georgia’s current secretary of state Brad Raffensperger who helped rebuff Trump’s efforts to overturn the state’s presidential outcome in 2020, and his Democratic challenger Bee Nguyen.
Key election deniers, however, have yet to come on board.