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Republicans are priming their voters to believe the California recall was stolen

And right-wing media is helping them.

Republican businessman and gubernatorial recall election candidate John Cox campaigns in Santa Monica, California, on September 9.
Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

With polling ahead of California’s gubernatorial recall election showing Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom more likely to survive the Republican effort, GOP elites — including Donald Trump himself — are pivoting to baseless claims about the result being tainted by fraud.

“Well, it’s probably rigged,” the former president claimed on Newsmax on Tuesday in response to a question about strong polling for Newsom. “They’re sending out all ballots. The ballots are mail-out, mail-in ballots.”

“The one thing they’re good at is rigging elections,” Trump continued. “So I predict it’s a rigged election. Let’s see how it turns out.”

Trump’s comments on Newsmax came hours after Tomi Lahren made similar claims on Fox News. Notably, on neither network did this evidence-free conspiracy theory meet any pushback.

There’s a reason the Trumps and Lahrens of the world aren’t citing any evidence. Ballots are mailed to every registered active voter, and the system has a number of security measures, including signature verification and barcodes matched to specific voters — making California one of a number of states that have demonstrated that mail voting is safe and secure.

But a lack of evidence hasn’t stopped the apparent frontrunner among the Republican candidates, talk show host Larry Elder, from making an appearance on Fox News and suggesting Democrats are engaging in “shenanigans” aimed at stealing the election for Newsom.

“The 2020 election, in my opinion, was full of shenanigans. And my fear is they’re going to try that in this election right here and recall,” Elder said on Fox News last Sunday, before urging people to go to his website to report “anything suspicious.”

Elder echoed those comments during a campaign event on Wednesday, teasing a Trump-style effort to use the courts to overturn the election results in the event he loses.

It might seem odd that Republicans are getting so worked up about a race against California Democrats, who enjoy a nearly 2-to-1 registration advantage, hold every statewide office, and haven’t lost a statewide election in 15 years. And Newsom, who won 61.9 percent of the vote in 2018, would almost certainly beat Elder in a head-to-head matchup.

But because of the strange design of California’s recall system, Republican control of the governorship is within the realm of possibility. As Shawn Hubler recently explained for the New York Times, Elder could unseat Newsom as governor even if he wins just a fraction of Newsom’s support:

The ballot asks voters two questions: Should the governor be recalled? And if so, who should be the new governor? If the majority of voters say no to the first question, the second is moot. But if more than 50 percent vote yes, the challenger with the most votes becomes the next governor. Critics of the recall contend this is a major flaw because 49.9 percent of the voters could theoretically vote to keep Mr. Newsom, and he could still lose and be replaced by a challenger whose plurality makes up a far smaller sliver of voters. A legal challenge to this effect is pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

A Suffolk University poll released Wednesday found that about 58 percent of registered voters in California say they want Newsom to continue as governor. But questions remain about how many California voters will return ballots for the unusual off-year election, and in a sign of how seriously Democrats are taking the recall, President Joe Biden plans to travel to California to campaign for Newsom the day before the election.

Elder’s campaign has been largely negative. He’s criticized Newsom’s pandemic-related restrictions on businesses and support for vaccine mandates, even though polling shows Californians support Newsom’s mandate policy by a 2-to-1 majority. Centering his campaign on such an unpopular stance would be a big problem for Elder in a traditional election, but is perhaps less so in a contest where the main order of business is making sure that a majority of those who cast ballots vote to recall the governor.

And if that fails, Republicans and the right-wing media outlets that amplify them have an insurance policy — riling their base with claims about Democratic cheating.

Refusing to accept defeat has become a central part of the GOP brand

Beyond the idiosyncrasies of California and its unique recall system, the broader importance of Republicans trotting out the same baseless election fraud conspiracy theories as last year is what it says about the existential threat the Trumpified GOP represents to free and fair elections.

It was just over a year ago that I first wrote about Trump’s attacks on mail voting. I asked readers to imagine an election night scenario where Trump prematurely declared victory, citing purported irregularities with mail-in votes — a scenario that in fact played out months later and, after Trump’s legal options were exhausted, culminated in the January 6 insurrection. Then and now, the problem for Republicans isn’t that mail voting is ripe for fraud — it isn’t — but that by making it easier for people to vote, they believe (perhaps wrongly) that it makes it harder for them to win elections. Instead of trying to broaden their base, Republicans are changing the rules of the game to make it harder for people to vote.

The violence and chaos of the insurrection prompted leading Republicans like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) to briefly put some daylight between themselves and Trump, but the former president remained popular with the Republican base and is currently the frontrunner for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.

Instead of distancing themselves from his lies about the election, Republicans in a number of states, including Texas and Georgia, have in the months since January passed laws inspired by those lies to restrict voting. Meanwhile, Republicans in Arizona opened a new front on the GOP war on free and fair elections with a partisan “audit” of the 2020 election results that’s likely to soon culminate in a blizzard of misinformation aimed at feeding Trump’s falsehoods.

Unlike Texas, Georgia, and Arizona, California is a blue state where Trump stands next to no chance of winning in 2024. And yet even here, sowing doubt about America’s elections has become part of GOP orthodoxy. That’s bad news for US democracy.

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