For a country whose previous national political contest ended in bear spray and bloodshed, the aftermath of the latest election has been tranquil.
Granted, 2020 is a low bar for a peaceful transition to clear, and a midterm deciding control of Congress and state capitals lacks the power of a presidential decision to inspire fans of a post-democratic order. But what followed this month’s election was not just free of historic attacks on the constitutional order. It was also marked by relatively few bogus challenges to the results, especially in light of election denialists’ veritable infestation of the nation’s ballots.
Particularly in politically pivotal states and offices, those deniers were largely denied victory, which may explain their attraction to the philosophy in the first place. And yet most of these losers haven’t made much of a stink about it, let alone violently assaulted government buildings and personnel. Their failure to practice the antidemocratic gospel they preached for two years is a study in the peril of leadership.
The first national election since the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection brought hundreds of Republican candidates for Congress and state offices who publicly doubted or denied Joe Biden’s legitimate election. More than two-thirds of the GOP’s nominees for Congress had sown doubt about the 2020 result, according to a New York Times investigation, and 58% of the country could have elected a denialist governor, state attorney general or secretary of state, according to an analysis by the States United Democracy Center. The GOP, in short, was not sending their best.
The Republicans’ underperformance in a midterm that favored them by every historical measure was a repudiation not just of the party in general but of its denialism in particular.
Denialists were certainly elected, including most of the caucus that could make California’s own Kevin McCarthy, an apologist for the movement himself, the next House speaker — among them Placer County Rep.-elect Kevin Kiley and a few other California congressmen. But most are in noncompetitive states and offices with limited involvement in running elections.
Of the deniers running for offices with direct authority over elections in battleground states — governor, attorney general and secretary of state — all lost. National Public Radio found that those candidates also tended to fare worse than fellow Republicans on the same ballot, suggesting public aversion to their particular brand of nonsense.
But given those poor results and their rich history of rejecting popular verdicts they don’t like, it’s remarkable how gently most of these candidates are going into a well-deserved and, with any luck, long-term retirement. Doug Mastriano, a far-right Pennsylvania legislator who was in Washington on the day of the insurrection, acknowledged that there was “no right choice but to concede” his drubbing in the state’s gubernatorial race. Michigan attorney general candidate Matthew DePerno, who is being investigated for an alleged plot to tamper with voting machines two years ago, quickly admitted his loss this month. Nevada secretary of state candidate Jim Marchant, who led a cabal of deniers promising to restore Trump to the presidency by hook or (more likely) crook, went quiet after his electoral defeat.
Like legions of American racists, extremists and criminals emboldened by Trump’s rise, even hard-core denialists don’t deny so hard without the ex-president behind them. And while Trump has issued a few halfhearted statements suggesting the latest election can’t be trusted, he has never been as animated about others’ defeats as he is by his own. That underscores the stakes inherent in the GOP’s response to his stated determination to reappear on ballots and reinvigorate the fringe.
Those who are easily led still require a leader, after all. Even the chief exception to this year’s general collapse of denialism illustrates that.
Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, a washed-up media personality with more Trumpian flair than the rest of this year’s crop of kooks, has refused to concede her loss, and the state’s Republican candidates for attorney general and secretary of state have followed suit. Trump himself shouted out this emerging mini-insurrection by suggesting Lake won on social media.
The candidate signaled that she would be this year’s lonely torchbearer for denialism on the day her loss became official by writing on Twitter that “Arizonans know BS when they see it.” There and across the country, the real results suggest most Americans do.