September 28, 2023

Hundreds of Republicans running for national and statewide offices have questioned or spread misinformation about the 2020 election, in some cases outright denying President Biden’s victory. To understand how thoroughly these views have seeped into American politics, my colleagues Karen Yourish and Danielle Ivory combed through statements from more than 550 Republican candidates. I spoke with them about what they found.

Ashley: Why do many Republicans continue to question the 2020 election?

Danielle: There are candidates who seem to genuinely believe what they’re saying, and some who probably feel like they have to talk about it. Donald Trump and many of the party’s core supporters have made questioning 2020 a litmus test for Republican candidates.

Some Republicans have learned that they can’t drop this issue because there’s pressure from Trump or the people around him. One example is Tim Michels, a candidate for governor in Wisconsin. He said he would not prioritize decertification of the 2020 election, which is not legally possible. Then there was an uproar from Trump’s camp. So Michels started promoting “2000 Mules,” a documentary that purports to show election fraud but is based on an erroneous premise.

You put the candidates into different categories: those who openly said the election was stolen and those who questioned the election in other ways. Why distinguish between them?

Karen: We wanted to help readers understand the range of ways that candidates are promoting misinformation about 2020. We felt it was incorrect to label all candidates who questioned specific aspects of the election — including many who voted to object to the Electoral College count on Jan. 6 — as “election deniers.” There has been a lot of coverage on the most extreme examples, the people who explicitly say that the election was stolen. But many others cast doubt, often frequently, in ways that might seem more reasonable but are possibly more insidious.

What are some of those ways?

Karen: A great example is Robert Burns, a New Hampshire House candidate. In a local TV news interview in February, he said he didn’t believe that the “stolen election is a winning issue.” He then went on to say that Trump did not get more votes than Biden, but votes were “absolutely” stolen, without actually saying that the whole election was fraudulent.

Another is Senator Mike Lee of Utah, who said on C-SPAN that “President Biden is the president of the United States” but then added that the conspiracy film “2000 Mules” raised “significant questions as to what might have happened” in the election and that those allegations should be investigated.

Many candidates have recently taken to promoting an unfounded theory that the media, Facebook and the F.B.I. conspired to interfere in the 2020 election by censoring coverage of a negative news story about Hunter Biden, the president’s son.

What surprised you about your findings?

Danielle: Falsehoods about the election seem to have staying power that I didn’t expect, and that resilience seems increasingly relevant as we head into the midterm elections. So we thought it was important to separate out more recent statements about the election, almost two years after Donald Trump lost, versus those that were made in 2020 or 2021.

What do your findings mean for next month’s midterm elections?

Danielle: Hundreds of the candidates we identified as questioning the past presidential election are favored to win their races and take office. They represent a growing consensus in the Republican Party and a potential threat to one of the bedrock principles of democracy — that voters decide elections and candidates accept the results. And we will be interested to see how these candidates react if they do not win.

Read the investigation here.

Karen Yourish joined The Times in 2013 from The Washington Post. She has read all of Donald Trump’s tweets (twice) and watched more than 1,000 episodes of “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” Danielle Ivory joined The Times in 2013 from Bloomberg News. She has led efforts to collect and analyze data on Covid deaths in nursing homes and Russia’s war strategy in Ukraine.

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Read the full issue.

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