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Did 2020 election fraud claims ruin the red wave?

Fact-checking the narrative that “election-deniers” became election losers

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California watches results come in on Nov. 9. Getty Images/Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post

Did 2020 election fraud claims ruin the red wave?

Throughout his campaign to represent California’s 25th Congressional District, Republican candidate Pastor Brian Hawkins intentionally steered clear of the 2020 election fraud controversy. He didn’t list the issue on his website, made no mention of it on his social media, and in personal interactions when the issue came up, Hawkins made it clear he affirmed President Joe Biden’s place in the Oval Office. So when he found out that The Washington Post and Business Insider grouped him with candidates rejecting the results of the 2020 presidential election, he was surprised.

“They listed me as an election-denier?” he asked when I pointed it out. “I didn’t even know Business Insider or The Washington Post even commented on my race. I just thought my race went under the radar a little bit.”

It’s something he found out after the midterm election—a contest he lost to Democratic candidate Raul Ruiz.

In the months leading up to the election, a plethora of news outlets attempted to identify which Republicans raised questions about the legitimacy of the 2020 election. Bloomberg identified 254 candidates. Business Insider counted about 370. FiveThirtyEight, a polling aggregation site and news outlet, determined that there were 199 candidates who had “fully denied” the election. And the Post counted 291 races featuring such a candidate. Despite their differences, the varying counts had a common denominator: a majority of those candidates had a harder time winning a competitive race.

Preliminary analysis from the 2022 midterms suggests that assertions of a “stolen presidential election” hurt the odds of Republican candidates in potentially winnable contests—especially with undecided voters. But determining the precise effect of such a position isn’t easy due to uncertainties about which candidates fully espoused the claim, as well as the presence of other key issues influencing voter decisions.

Working from Business Insider’s initial evaluation of “election-deniers” on the ballot, WORLD identified 54 congressional races decided by 15 points or fewer. Of those, only 16 Republicans won their contests compared to 34 that lost, and an additional four remain undecided. Less than a third of these “election-deniers” won their races in competitive situations.

But it’s not a perfect count.

Despite his efforts to separate himself from the controversy, Hawkins fell into the group identified by Business Insider. He said that’s a label he didn’t earn.

“There’s no record or recording of me saying, ‘oh, [2020] was a fraud,’” Hawkins said. “I know there are people in the Republican Party who didn’t like that. There were people whose support I lost because I wasn’t doubling down on election fraud.”

Hawkins said his refusal to embrace the stolen election claim separated him from other Republicans in the primary race. In his view, the claim only encouraged Republicans to focus on the past while discouraging voter participation.

Further complicating matters, candidates gave varying degrees of support to claims that the 2020 election was stolen. Some outright declared former President Donald Trump as the rightful president of the United States. Others merely made election-integrity measures part of their platform to address voter fraud concerns.

Gunner Ramer, the Republican Accountability Project’s political director, personally defines an election-denying candidate as someone “sowing any distrust in our election system.”

Ramer is less concerned with discrepancies in how individual news outlets perceived candidates and more focused on how candidates described themselves. From multiple focus groups conducted in swing states, Ramer said it was clear that undecided voters turned away from Republicans who readily claimed the election was stolen.

“If there was a generic Republican running in [Ohio’s 9th District], that generic Republican would have won and beat Marcy Kaptur,” Ramer said. “But there wasn’t a generic Republican. There was an election-denier … who was at Jan. 6 named J.R. Majewski. And that was a bridge too far for these swing voters.”

Majewski lost his race by a 13-point margin against Kaptur, the Democratic representative of the district, who has held the seat since 1983.

Ramer noted that questioning the election was only one of many factors that potentially influenced voters’ decision-making. He pointed out that stances on issues such as abortion likely played a large role in swing voters’ decisions not to vote Republican.

“The election denialism in some of these races was another data point for swing voters to look at—not the only one, I want to be clear about that. But it was one of the reasons why they didn’t vote for someone like Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania,” Ramer said.

Ramer believes the 2022 election and its results provide a clear takeaway for Republicans going forward—the convictions of individual candidates matter, regardless of the political climate or the potential for a “red wave.”

Hawkins for his part thinks he could have done better as a candidate by clarifying his position. He doesn’t think that he lost because of the unfavorable national coverage or its label, but it’s not something he’s happy about, either.

“I guess I could say it’s water under the bridge now,” Hawkins said. “Apparently it’s something that I have to do better in getting a definitive message out there.”

Leo Briceno

Leo is a WORLD politics reporter based in Washington, D.C. He’s a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and has a degree in political journalism from Patrick Henry College.


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