democracy is a work in progress
  • Image of a ballot offering a choice between "election denier" and "pro-democracy candidate"

No Central Command in Battle Against Anti-Democracy Candidates

2022-07-26T08:54:52-05:00

Hundreds of election deniers are running for office. With the integrity of our elections once again at stake in November, efforts to thwart the forces that would destroy what’s left of our democratic foundation are hampered by the lack of a clear, coordinated battle plan.

Remember when Andrew Cuomo stepped into the limelight as the sober, steady governor of New York who provided so much clarity and apparent candor in the early battle against COVID? He was a model of what Americans look for during a crisis (and his presence at the time remains so despite his faults). Sadly, with our democracy under siege on so many fronts – legislative, judicial, and electoral – no one has yet stepped forward to fill a similar role in the battle against anti-democracy candidates who embrace the lie of a stolen 2020 election.

In The American Leader’s Guiding Principles, we note with a degree of pride the messiness of problem-solving in a democracy. From the tensions that arise when different interests clash, the historical record suggests, we Americans often create new models that address the problem at hand and more or less balance competing priorities. In most instances, there is usually one prominent person or group who champions their acceptance.

Currently, though, we find ourselves in a leaderless struggle to sustain the sanctity of our elections  against those who simply can’t or willfully choose not to accept election losses. Fair elections and the peaceful transfer of power are the foundation of our democracy. Decades of false claims of election fraud, gerrymandering, and voter suppression made cracks in that foundation. The lie of a stolen election in 2020 and the January 6 insurrection have widened those cracks and left our democracy at risk as an army of election deniers have racked up wins in this year’s GOP primaries.

The success of pro-democracy forces against those who demand party and personal loyalty above all else is not assured, as it is complicated by a questionable strategic gamble, a diverse Democratic party with no unifying agenda, and an opportunity to seize the narrative that might ultimately slip away. Stopping the anti-democracy forces in November should be the number one priority of all who share our pride in this country in spite of its faults. The question is how do we make it so.

The Deniers March On

The army of election-results-denying candidates continues its march through the GOP primaries. Candidates have won their Republican primaries far more often than not despite embracing former President Donald Trump’s claims of a stolen 2020 election, questioning the legitimacy of votes in that election, or taking a hand in writing new restrictive laws aimed at “protecting” elections against disproven claims of rampant election fraud.

As of July 20, according to Ballotpedia, 141 anti-democracy candidates have won primaries. Only 10 have lost. Ballotpedia is currently tracking the electoral fortunes of 225 candidates endorsed by Trump this year for congressional, state-wide, and local office. That Tina Peters, the Mesa County, Colorado county clerk indicted for allegedly tampering with election equipment and other felony and misdemeanor charges, lost her bid to be secretary of state is both encouraging – Republicans opted to nominate an experienced election administrator who rebuts claims that the 2020 election was stolen – and disheartening. Peters was not endorsed by Trump and so was not included on Ballotpedia’s list, a reminder that there are many others up and down ballot who espouse anti-democracy views but haven’t secured the former president’s backing. How many will compete in November is unknown.

In Pennsylvania, meanwhile, two races are in the national spotlight. Celebrity physician Mehmet Oz won the primary for an open Senate seat, while state Senator Doug Mastriano is the nominee for governor. Both are backed by Trump. Mastriano was among the leaders of the effort to overturn Joe Biden’s win in the state.

As for what is happening in races for county positions with power over elections, Ballotpedia is tracking just three races in the 3,143 counties in the country. That means there are likely hundreds of local elections in which anti-democracy, results-denying candidates could win and do enough to undermine future votes so as to throw the 2024 presidential race into turmoil. This is the real threat of a second insurrection.

A Strategic Gamble

Confronted by the recruitment of so many anti-democracy candidates by the GOP,  some Democrats have increasingly chosen to support the primary campaigns of some of them. Their justification for this unusual action is based on the expectation that those candidates are too extreme to win in November.

In one notable example, Pennsylvania’s Josh Shapiro, who was unopposed for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, spent $840,000 during the GOP primary campaign to air an ad that offered back-handed support for Mastriano. In the Democrats’ view, Mastriano was the most extreme of the GOP primary candidates and therefore, they believed, the easiest to defeat in the general election. While questioning whether Mastriano is the right person to lead the state, the ad mentioned several aspects of his candidacy that were certain to appeal to partisan Trump supporters – the very voters who are most likely to be energized to vote in a primary.

It was a risky strategy that could still backfire. Polling in Pennsylvania indicated in March that 61% of Pennsylvania Republicans are more likely to vote for the candidate endorsed by Trump, and polling suggests Democrats may not pick up many votes from Independents.

To be sure, the tactic has worked in the past. Most notably, Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill employed the same strategy during her 2012 re-election campaign, but under somewhat different circumstances. Her ad boosted the candidacy of Republican Todd Akin, who was trailing in the primary at the time, whereas Mastriano led the primary field by 14% when Shapiro’s ad aired. Akin surged and won the primary, then lost by a wide margin to McCaskill.

Although her strategy worked to get Akin nominated, McCaskill was helped in the general election by an offensive comment Akin made early in the general election campaign that forced his party backers to retreat.

Trump’s ascendance changed the political landscape, bringing to the surface a tolerance for extreme language and violent behavior that had long festered beneath a veneer of GOP civility and that now favors candidates like Mastriano. Underestimated during the GOP primary season and in the general election campaign of 2016, Trump is now a model for anti-democracy candidates who are emulating his brand of politics. Their chances of winning in the general election should not be similarly underestimated. The potential for that miscalculation is what makes it far from clear that the same strategy used by McCaskill is worth the risk today.

Fundraising Division

A range of opposition groups are raising money to support Democratic candidates and organize the usual get-out-the-vote efforts. Groups like the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State, the Democracy Alliance, and iVote feel a particular urgency to halt the insurgency embodied by election deniers running for office. They fear that such candidates, if elected, will subvert the 2024 presidential vote.

Two fundraising efforts stand out as reflections of what has for decades made the Democratic Party strong and what has made it vulnerable. With values and policies that support greater inclusion for all Americans, it has a broad population base from which to draw votes. That same diverse population, however, has also yielded significant differences on how to move forward. The current election cycle is no different.

LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, a long-time donor to Democratic candidates and causes, is leading one new fundraising effort. The Washington Post reported in June that he had gathered more than a dozen billionaires together to encourage them to contribute tens of millions to groups seeking to persuade voters to vote Democratic, increase voter turnout among Democrats, and encourage Republicans to sit out this election. CNBC reported that Hoffman’s efforts are focused on promoting moderates and supporting political action committees that oppose candidates linked to the Justice Democrats, a PAC that favors some of the most progressive candidates for Congress. It came to prominence in 2018 by promoting the congressional candidacy of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

The other effort, as we noted last month, is called “Clerk Work” and is sponsored by the progressive Democratic group Run for Something. Launched in April, Clerk Work is a three-year initiative to raise $80 million to support as many as 5,000 campaigns for local election administrator positions. Run for Something made its name by recruiting and promoting young, diverse, and progressive candidates in all 50 states. As of July 2, the organization reported that it is currently supporting more than 300 candidates running for state and local offices in at least 33 states.

The differences between these two initiatives illustrate a fracture that has inhibited the Democrats’ ability to make use of its majority in Congress and put previous elections at risk. Given the high stakes in this election to preserve our democracy, Democrats would do well to recall comments by Abigail Spanberger, a moderate House Democrat from Virginia. Following her own closer-than-expected re-election victory in 2020 and the loss of 14 Democratic seats in the House that November, she famously warned her party to never use the words “socialist or socialism ever again”.

Her meaning should remain clear to those progressives whose use of such tone-deaf language cost the Democrats substantial support and too many wins in an election year in which they expected instead to gain seats. While progressives may push for solutions to many of the nation’s systemic problems, they cannot succeed unless their party first retains and increases its majority in Congress and strengthens its position at the state and local levels.

Will the Narrative Around the Jan. 6 Hearings Unify the Democrats?

Playing like a true crime story – one centered on the role of the former president of the United States in the violent attack on the Capitol – the slow but incessant drumbeat sounded by the House committee investigating the January 6 insurrection may ultimately make a difference in the elections. While the war in Ukraine and news about high gasoline prices and inflation have been front and center for much of the last several months, this story has over the six weeks of hearings grabbed Americans’ attention and pushed those other headlines aside.

The first hearing held on June 9 in primetime attracted about 20 million Americans, who watched on 11 different networks. The second primetime hearing held July 22 attracted more than 17.7 million on 10 networks. In between, the committee has held six afternoon hearings that have averaged roughly 11 million viewers, with a peak at 13.2 million; ratings for the afternoon hearings have grown steadily at CNN and MSNBC as well as broadcast channels CBS and ABC. To put these numbers in perspective: 14 million people watched Game 6 of last year’s World Series; about 19 million watched the finale of Game of Thrones; and 38 million tuned in for President Biden’s State of the Union address.

The hearings’ television ratings, however, don’t tell the whole tale as the hearings and what they reveal ripple through the mediasphere. Not only are highlights of the different hearings posted to YouTube by the major cable and broadcast news networks getting tens of thousands and as many as 150,000 views, news segments related to the hearings are attracting even more attention. A CNN story, “This is how Trump supporters reacted to seeing parts of Jan. 6 hearing”, has so far been viewed over 2 million times. Another CNN story, “Ivanka’s ex-chief of staff contradicts part of Ivanka’s January 6 testimony”, has drawn over 1 million viewers. Yet another story from CNN, “Trump lashes out after Ivanka’s testimony about Jan. 6”, has 1.1 million views to date.

The nightly news on the three broadcast networks (ABC, NBC, CBS), which are watched by an average of 17 millions viewers, has often led with highlights from the hearings. And newspapers and news websites – including the conservative Wall Street Journal, FoxNews.com, and National Review – have also featured headlines related to what’s been revealed in each of the hearings. The Journal’s print edition and email newsletter the morning after the July 21 hearings led with a story on the hearing.

Wall Street Journal front page headline July 22, 2022

All of this coverage has further extended the reach of the committee, making it difficult for the vast majority of Americans, including Trump supporters, to avoid any contact with information that the committee is uncovering.

According to polling, however, the committee’s well-orchestrated investigation has yet to change many minds about Trump, his guilt, or the outcome of the 2020 elections. A Morning Consult poll conducted July 8-10 found that 66% of registered Republican voters think that Trump should run for president in 2024. This result shows no change from Trump’s standing last fall.

The same poll also showed little change from a year ago in the public’s approval of the January 6 committee. The status quo held regardless of party affiliation – Republican, Democrat, or Independent.

Another poll from the New York Times and Siena College, conducted from July 3-5, indicates that 61% of Republicans still believe Trump won the 2020 election, and 72% think that the violence at the Capitol on January 6 was merely “a protest that got out of hand”.

Yet, polls are not the only marker of the committee’s impact. Following the July 21 hearing, editors at two newspapers that previously supported Trump – the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post – came out in opposition to Trump seeking the nomination in 2024. The publications are owned by Rupert Murdoch, who also owns Fox News. After the same hearing, which Fox did not air, the network indicated a shift in its views by choosing to broadcast an interview with Florida governor Ron DeSantis the next day rather than a Trump rally in Arizona.

“No matter your views of the Jan. 6 special committee, the facts it is laying out in hearings are sobering. The most horrifying to date came Thursday in a hearing on President Trump’s conduct as the riot raged and he sat watching TV, posting inflammatory tweets and refusing to send help.”

The Editorial Board, The Wall Street Journal, July 22, 2022

Most polling questions have been centered around public approval of Trump and the committee, not the credibility of Trump’s claims of a stolen election or the election deniers currently running for office. As the hearings continue to demonstrate that in fact Trump’s team understood that he had legitimately lost the election, and as more awareness grows of the involvement of high profile election-denying candidates like Doug Mastriano, pollsters may want to ask two more specific questions:

  • Do you believe the testimony of many members of Trump’s inner circle and support staff, all Republicans, some of whom have called Trump’s claim that the election was stolen a lie?
  • Have the hearings affected your willingness to vote for candidates who continue to deny the results of the 2020 election?

Controlling the narrative may be the most important weapon in the arsenal of pro-democracy Americans in the upcoming electoral battle over who controls future election outcomes. The committee’s clarity, candor, and singular focus have long been absent from Democratic messaging and could provide the steady drumbeat that’s been missing from the Democratic presence in the media.

If the party can leverage the high drama of the public hearings, they just might persuade enough Independents and remaining patriots in the Republican Party to reject the anti-democracy election deniers and hold off the next insurrection.

What can you do?

Decide where you stand

As the January 6 committee is showing, much to their credit, the attack on the Capitol was not a protest that got out of hand but a premeditated plot orchestrated by the Trump White House around the lie of a stolen election. Now hundreds of believers in that lie are running for elected positions that, if they win, will put many of them in a place where they can oversee and disrupt the next presidential election. That the Trump White House, the insurrectionists, and the election-denying candidates running this year are all Republicans is a fact, but they are not patriots. They are anti-democracy subversives claiming to be American conservatives (and some may actually believe they are), but they lack the democratic principles of true conservatives.

Spread the word

Share this article or others like it that you think can help people to understand the threat to our democracy and perhaps inspire them to act.

Volunteer

Election attorneys willing to take on pro bono work to help protect election staff should check in with the Election Official Legal Defense Network.

Anyone can volunteer to be a poll worker. In that role, you can help make sure that our elections are safe from intimidation and help those voters who need assistance. The US Election Assistance Commission has a tool to help you sign up to be a poll worker in your community.

Other pro-democracy groups like MoveOn, Rock the Vote, and the League of Women Voters are looking for people to register voters and get out the vote.

Donate

Pick the voting rights organization that you support and make a contribution. A contribution to The American Leader will also help us to continue to plunge beneath the surface of the daily infostream to connect the dots and report on the deeper currents that are shaping our world.

Author: George Linzer
Contributing Editor: David Hawkings
Published on July 26, 2022

Feature image: George Linzer

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