David Perdue cut straight to the chase.
"First off, let me be very clear tonight: The election in 2020 was rigged and stolen," Perdue said at the beginning of his opening statement during a Republican gubernatorial debate on Sunday night.
It wasn't just a cheap applause line for the MAGA crowd. It was something more like a thesis statement for Perdue's campaign. Perdue, a former Republican senator who lost his bid for reelection in 2020, is now running against incumbent Republican Gov. Brian Kemp in the GOP gubernatorial primary in Georgia. And in Perdue's telling, everything from rising gas prices to illegal immigration and even the U.S. coming "to the brink of war" over Russia's invasion of Ukraine were the result of Kemp allowing "radical Democrats to steal our election." Something that he says Kemp was responsible for aiding and abetting.
Kemp, of course, was one of the Republican officials who blocked then-President Donald Trump's attempt to get state legislatures and governors to overturn the results of the 2020 election. Two weeks after the election, as state officials finalized the results showing that Joe Biden won by about 12,000 votes, Kemp called for tightening voter ID laws in Georgia and making other technical changes in how the state conducts future elections. But he also certified the result of the 2020 election, against Trump's wishes.
Since then, he's been a target for Trump, who vowed not long after the 2020 election to boot Kemp from office. Trump has helped Perdue fundraise and has even chipped in $500,000 of his own campaign cash to Perdue's campaign.
Perdue has put Trump's election grievances front and center in his campaign. His campaign website splashes a big picture of a smiling Perdue and grinning Trump, reminding voters that Perdue is "the only Trump-endorsed candidate for governor." The video that plays on the front page isn't a message from Perdue about his campaign or the issues vital to Georgians—it's a 73-second tirade by Trump in which he condemns Kemp for "letting us down."
Two years after Trump became the first Republican to lose Georgia since 1992, Perdue is staking his claim to the governorship on the hope that Republican voters are motivated primarily by the former president's delusions and rage.
But Georgia is hardly the only swing state where this year's Republican gubernatorial elections are focused on Trump. In Pennsylvania and Arizona, too, Trump-backed candidates who say they believe the 2020 election was stolen are running at or near the top of the polls. If they're successful, those governors might create major complications for the next presidential election—as they would be in a position to do some of what Kemp, and others, refused to do in 2020: decertify results that go against the Republican nominee.
For now, though, the best way to view these GOP primaries is as a test case for the staying power of Trump's election grievances. Is this really how Republican voters want to define their party going forward: as little more than a tool for for Trump's self-serving lies about the 2020 election? These three races will provide an answer—and it might not be one Trump likes, as his preferred candidates are facing difficult paths to winning in November. Perhaps it's too simple of an explanation, but the average Republican voter is likely not as motivated by Trump's grievances as Trump himself.
Still, it's worth asking how worried the country should be about this wave of Republican candidates centering their candidacy for high office on a message of denying the legitimacy of the 2020 election. There's no evidence yet that it is a successful strategy in the primaries and it seems likely to be a political liability in the general election. Yet it remains unnerving that so many high-profile Republicans—in Perdue's case, even a former U.S. senator—have decided that the path to political success on the political right requires rallying around a blatant falsehood constructed to serve the political ambitions of a single man.
And it is a falsehood. Audits and recounts in swing state after swing state failed to turn up evidence of a stolen election—one much-ballyhooed audit conducted by Arizona Republicans actually found that Biden won by a slightly larger margin than originally thought. Dozens of lawsuits filed by the Trump campaign or its supporters alleging voter fraud and anti-Trump conspiracies collapsed in court. The myth of the stolen election lives on as a way to raise money and as a way to snare the endorsement of the most popular man in conservative politics.
The gubernatorial candidate who can claim to have risked the most in support of Trump is probably Pennsylvania state Sen. Doug Mastriano (R–Fayetteville), who attended the January 6, 2021, election protest in Washington, D.C., that devolved into a riot at the U.S. Capitol. Mastriano has claimed that he did not participate in the riot and walked away from the scene once violence started—but photos and videos from the scene show Mastriano beyond police barricades outside the Capitol (no evidence has emerged showing that he entered the building itself). He's been subpoenaed by the congressional committee investigating the riot.
Back in Pennsylvania, Mastriano has spearheaded a different sort of investigation. He's running a legislative audit of the 2020 election results that he says will uncover evidence of widespread voter fraud.
By the time the congressional investigation is finished, he might be governor of a crucial swing state. Polls show Mastriano running neck-and-neck with Lou Barletta, the former mayor of Hazleton, Pennsylvania, who rose to prominence via political stunts like making English the town's official language and trying to ban illegal immigrants from working there.
Fittingly, the race also includes state Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R–Centre) who played the role of Pennsylvania's Brian Kemp in 2020. When Trump's allies were pressuring top Republicans in state governments to overturn results in a handful of close states, including Pennsylvania, Corman backed a legislative audit of the vote tallies but refused to take more radical steps like appointing an alternative slate of electors to represent Pennsylvania at the Electoral College. Corman is trailing badly in the polls.
In Arizona, incumbent Gov. Doug Ducey memorably sent Trump to voicemail and (like Kemp) dutifully certified the election results showing Biden's win in the state in 2020. But he's term-limited and can't run again. Leading the pack to be his replacement is former television news anchor and political neophyte Kari Lake, who has made it very clear where she stands.
Citing "serious irregularities and problems with the election," Lake told One America News (OAN) last year, "I would not have certified it."
Lake has gone further than simply second-guessing Ducey. Early on, her campaign loudly proclaimed that she would seek to retroactively decertify the 2020 results if an audit showed that Trump had actually won the state. After that audit was completed and revealed that Biden had, in fact, prevailed in Arizona, she called for decertifying the results anyway.
In a nutshell, this is the worry of liberals, anti-Trump conservatives, and anyone else harboring concerns about rising authoritarianism on the political right: What if this campaign rhetoric translates into official behavior. What happens if elected Republicans begin ignoring their oaths of office and the rule of law to declare illegitimate any election the GOP loses?
As the country learned in 2020, presidential elections aren't a single national contest. Instead, the race for the White House is 51 separate contests (D.C. gets to cast electoral votes too)in which the winner must be certified by a series of top-ranking officials. Without people like Kemp and Ducey to ensure that legitimate electoral outcomes are certified, the argument goes, the outcome could be rigged long before the official counting of the electoral votes in Congress.
Arizona, Georgia, and Pennsylvania's gubernatorial races are rated as "toss-ups" right now. That means characters like Lake, Perdue, and Mastriano will have a decent shot at being elected in the fall (and helped by a political environment that's shaping up to be favorable to Republicans across the board) if they can win their respective GOP primaries during the spring and summer. And this trend goes beyond those three. In Wisconsin, Republican gubernatorial hopeful Rebecca Kleefisch said this week that she believes the 2020 election was "rigged." According to Politico, some 57 participants in the January 6 protest are running for office this year—though mostly for lower-level posts.
But, there's an alternative way to read what's happening here: Maybe it's just politics. Deeply cynical politics, to be sure, but these are politicians, after all. They'll say whatever they think gives them the best chance at getting elected—and polls say the majority of Republican voters believe, despite massive amounts of evidence to the contrary, that Biden's victory was not legitimate. So that's what the pols are saying.
To be sure, cynically refusing to accept election results for future political gain is not unique to Trump or to Republicans. Hillary Clinton has repeatedly called into question the legitimacy of Trump's 2016 victory. Stacey Abrams, who lost to Kemp in Georgia's 2018 gubernatorial election and is the presumptive Democratic nominee for the same post this year, claimed the 2018 result was not "right, true or proper" and famously refused to concede. Biden has gone a step further and declared that future contests should be viewed as illegitimate if Congress does not adopt Democrats' proposed election reforms—though the White House later walked back that claim.
For Republicans, though, it's not just about following the polls or playing politics. Trump really wants Kemp gone, remember? Any challenger would be foolish not to try to take advantage of the former president's animus towards the current governor—which is great for fundraising if nothing else. In Pennsylvania and Arizona, candidates who would probably be well beyond the fringes in a more typical primary season are effectively trying to ride Trump's coattails (and his grievances), even in a year where Trump's not actually on the ballot.
In an age when the power of political endorsements has faded significantly, Trump seems to be the exception to the rule. His endorsement isn't a sure bet—in fact, the track record is far from terrific—but it's a way to tap into an angry and energized portion of the Republican electorate.
Are Lake, Mastriano, and Perdue true believers or cynical opportunists? There is, unfortunately, no way to know for sure at this stage. Thankfully, that's not actually the most important question. Whether sincere or not, they have built their campaigns around ideas that are dangerous and anti-democratic.
And it might not pay off. In Georgia, Perdue is trailing badly in the polls. Mastriano, despite being a co-front-runner in Pennsylvania, will likely struggle to get more than 30 percent of the vote—in a closed Republican primary.
Pennsylvania does not allow independents to participate in primary elections. If Mastriano wins, it will be with the backing of less than a third of the voters in his own party. Perhaps, like Trump, he can parlay that into a general election win. But he seems likely to alienate many moderate Republicans who are crucial to winning statewide elections in Pennsylvania.
Lake seems to have the clearest primary path, but the leading Democratic candidate has pulled even with her in some head-to-head polls. (For the sake of comparison, Ducey won the state by more than 14 points in 2018.)
This Republican primary season will test the limits and staying power of Trump's election grievances. It's far from clear whether the strategy of continuing to contest the last election is a winning one in Republican primaries—and it seems more like to be a liability in November.
One thing that is clear: When candidates like Perdue stand on a debate stage and tell outright lies to prospective voters, the only thing they accomplish is demonstrating they're unfit for office.