Election Deniers Moving Closer To Gop Mainstream, Report Shows, As Trump Allies Fill Congress

FILE - Rioters loyal to President Donald Trump rally at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. As Trump makes a comeback bid to return to power, Republicans in Congress have become even more likely to cast doubts on President Joe Biden's 2020 victory. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)
FILE - Rioters loyal to President Donald Trump rally at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. As Trump makes a comeback bid to return to power, Republicans in Congress have become even more likely to cast doubts on President Joe Biden's 2020 victory. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)
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WASHINGTON (AP) — In the hours after the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, Ohio’s then-Republican senator, Rob Portman, voted to accept President Joe Biden’s win over the defeated former president, Donald Trump, despite Trump’s false allegations that Biden only won because of fraud.

But as Trump charges toward his rematch with Biden in 2024, Portman has been replaced by Sen. JD Vance, a potential vice presidential pick who has echoed Trump’s false claims of fraud and said he’ll accept the results this fall only “if it’s a free and fair election.”

South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, other possible VP picks, also declined to object to Biden’s victory over Trump, but have been less committal this year. Rubio said recently if “things are wrong” with November’s election, Republicans won’t stand by and accept the outcome.

And the new speaker of the House, Mike Johnson, helped organize Trump’s failed legal challenge to Biden’s win. He demurred when asked if he believed the 2020 election was legitimate during an event with other Trump allies about the upcoming election.

As Trump makes a comeback bid to return to power, Republicans in Congress have become even more likely to cast doubts on Biden's victory or deny it was legitimate, a political turnaround that allows his false claims of fraud to linger and lays the groundwork to potentially challenge the results in 2024.

A new report released Tuesday by States United Action, a group that tracks election deniers, said nearly one-third of the lawmakers in Congress supported in some way Trump’s bid to overturn the 2020 results or otherwise cast doubt on the reliability of elections. Several more are hoping to join them, running for election this year to the House and Senate.

“The public should have a real healthy dose of concern about the real risk of having people in power who’ve shown they’re not willing to respect the will of the people,” said Lizzie Ulmer of States United Action.

The issue is particularly stark for Congress given its constitutional role as the final arbiter of the validity of a presidential election. It counts the results from the Electoral College, as it set out to do on Jan. 6, 2021, a date now etched in history because of the violent assault on the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob.

In its report, States United found that in Congress, 170 representatives and senators out of 535 lawmakers overall can be categorized as election deniers. Heading into the fall elections, two new Senate candidates and 17 new House candidates already are on the ballot this fall seeking to join them.

It's not just Congress that has been seeded with people who supported trying to overturn Trump's 2020 loss, but the highest ranks of the Republican Party.

“This is deeply alarming,” said Wendy Weiser, the vice president for democracy programs at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. “A democracy can only function if the participants commit to accepting the results of popular elections. That is it. That’s the entire political system.”

The former president picked Michael Whatley, who has echoed Trump's election lies, to become co-chairman of the Republican National Committee, with his daughter-in-law, Lara Trump. Christina Bobb, who was recently indicted for her alleged involvement in a scheme to recruit fake electors in Arizona, has been named the RNC's head of “election integrity.”

Under Trump’s direction, the RNC is making the elections process its top priority, bringing in the new personnel and adding resources, said Danielle Alvarez, an adviser to both the Trump campaign and the party committee.

“Biden is in the White House, that’s true," Alvarez said, “but there were issues in the election.”

To be clear, there was no widespread fraud in the 2020 election that cost Trump reelection. Recounts, audits and reviews in the battleground states where he contested his loss all affirmed Biden’s victory, and courts rejected dozens of lawsuits filed by Trump and his allies.

States United's report details how successful election deniers have been in bolstering their congressional ranks. It examines the results of congressional party primaries in the 13 states that have held them this year and found that in each state, at least one election denier has made it to the general election for a House or Senate seat.

The report defines election deniers as people who falsely claimed Trump won in 2020, spread misinformation about that election or took steps to overturn it, or refused to concede a separate race. It finds that at least 67 will be on the ballot in the House in November, including 50 incumbents. Three will be running for the Senate — one of whom, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, is an incumbent.

There have been high-profile losses among election deniers, as well. Last week in West Virginia, Republican Rep. Carol Miller, who also voted against accepting Biden's victory, successfully fended off a primary challenge from Derrick Evans, who was convicted of a felony civil disorder charge after storming the Capitol on Jan. 6. Numerous election deniers in 2022 lost bids for swing state offices such as governor or secretary of state that would have given them direct power over voting in 2024.

Still, the movement has grown by dominating Republican primaries. In the race for the nomination to challenge Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown in Ohio, businessman Bernie Moreno, who has previously said Trump was “right” to call 2020 “stolen,” won his primary. In Indiana, Republican Sen. Mike Braun voted to certify Biden's win, but he will step down this year to run for governor and is poised to be replaced by Rep. Jim Banks, a prominent election denier who easily won the GOP primary in that state.

The report classifies neither Rubio or Scott as election deniers, but skepticism about the trustworthiness of voting has become an organizing GOP principle, particularly for the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

Before becoming the House speaker, Johnson recruited colleagues to support a lawsuit, which ultimately failed, filed by Trump's allies to overturn his 2020 loss.

More recently Johnson met with Trump at the former president’s Mar-a-Lago resort to shore up his own political support amid a far-right rebellion seeking to oust him as speaker. He emerged promising House legislation that would be designed to stop immigrants in the country illegally from voting.

During a press conference on the Capitol steps to announce the bill, the speaker acknowledged it’s hard to prove that certain immigrants are wrongfully casting ballots. Election experts say it is extremely rare for immigrants who are ineligible to vote to break federal law to do so.

While Congress passed legislation putting in safeguards to better protect against interference after the Capitol attack, it’s lawmakers who will ultimately be asked to accept the 2024 results from their states.

Vance stood by his recent remarks. And Rubio said he expects there will be lawsuits in jurisdictions where the final tallies are close, as sometimes happens.

“When people ask me, ‘Are you going to accept the outcome?’ I think what some people are arguing is if there’s things wrong with this election, we’re going to point it out,” Rubio said in a short interview.


Riccardi reported from Denver.


This story has been corrected to fix the spelling of the last name of the States United spokeswoman, Lizzie Ulmer.