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After denialism faltered in the midterms, Republicans seek distance from a movement they unleashed

Democrat Cisco Aguilar defeated an election denier to become Nevada's next secretary of state.Mario Tama/Getty

WASHINGTON — On Jan. 6, 2021, a photo of Missouri Senator Josh Hawley raising his fist in solidarity with the massing crowd outside the Capitol became a symbol of the Republican embrace of Donald Trump’s lie about his stolen reelection — the lie that fueled the violent insurrection later that day.

But this week, when asked how the GOP’s Kari Lake should respond to her narrow loss in the Arizona governor’s race, Hawley — the first senator to announce he would formally challenge the 2020 presidential election results — suggested she simply accept her defeat.

“I think when the votes are all counted, and when it’s done it’s done, you say it’s done,” Hawley told reporters, as he praised Republican Blake Masters for conceding his loss to Senator Mark Kelly, a Democrat, in another tight Arizona race earlier this week.

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Still reeling from a disappointing midterm performance, Republicans are now trying to distance themselves from a cause they exploited to electrify their base over the past two years: election denialism.

After numerous election deniers lost statewide campaigns, an indication that their cause is politically toxic, GOP strategists are insisting it’s time to drop it. Congressional Republicans say they want to move on. And even Donald Trump, the author of denialism, omitted his typical complaints about a “stolen” or “rigged” election in his Tuesday announcement of another White House bid, although his calls for an end to early voting and other changes could still fuel distrust in the system.

“I think there’s a strong feeling generally that we’ve got to focus on the future,” said Senator Mike Braun, a Republican from Indiana who repeatedly questioned “irregularities” and mail-in ballots after the 2020 election. “The 2020 election had a lot of unusual characteristics to it — it’s behind us.”

But the rhetorical shift belies the effect two years of denialism has already had, unleashing a tide of hostility and suspicion that upended election administration. And even though denialism seemed to hurt candidates in statewide races, it did little to damage the fortunes of the House members who embraced it, meaning it will continue to be woven through that chamber. Of the 139 members of the House who objected to certifying the 2020 results, 118 were reelected last week. Particularly prominent election deniers like Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene are poised to wield more power in the Republicans’ narrow majority.

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Most of the objectors who were not reelected decided to retire, sought higher office, or died; only five actually lost their seats in the primary or the general election. The one senator who objected and had to defend his seat, John Kennedy of Louisiana, was reelected.

“It matters that you have so many members of Congress who’ve gone back who are election deniers, because they’ve shown in the past they are willing to lie about election results and to gin up outrage, and there’s every reason to believe that they might do so again,” said Larry Norden, senior director of the Elections and Government Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, a law and public policy think tank.

Still, nonincumbent election deniers suffered staggering losses around the country last week, particularly in swing states. Republican Senate candidates who at least at some point publicly doubted the 2020 election results lost in Arizona, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire. Their failure prevented the Republicans from winning the Senate majority and validated the concerns of some in the party who have long warned that denying election results was a damaging issue.

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“It was a disaster,” said Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, a Republican. “Donald Trump was an albatross, and his insistence on The Big Lie caused a lot of people to seem like they were bizarre and out of touch with reality.”

Beyond the Senate, Republican gubernatorial candidates who questioned the validity of President Biden’s election lost in Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. And deniers who ran for secretary of state and would have overseen future elections also fell short — two developments that, taken together, mean deniers failed to seize control over elections in swing states.

“Voters in America do not accept their irresponsible lies and actions,” said Cisco Aguilar, a Democrat who was elected secretary of state in Nevada. He beat election denier Jim Marchant, a Republican who came to prominence as an activist who tried, sometimes successfully, to persuade counties to tally votes by hand.

“No one wants chaos,” Aguilar said.

In states like Nevada, voters also rewarded Republicans who did not embrace specious claims of election fraud. Joe Lombardo, the GOP gubernatorial candidate who said on a debate stage that the 2020 election was not stolen, defeated Democratic Governor Steve Sisolak. In Arizona, state Treasurer Kimberly Yee, a Republican who didn’t campaign with election deniers and kept her distance from Trump, sailed to reelection.

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“American authoritarianism has been handed a resounding defeat,” said Adrian Fontes, a Democrat who beat an election denier to become the next secretary of state of Arizona.

The deniers’ losses are encouraging signs to moderate Republicans who believed their party’s dalliance with the movement could only be defeated at the ballot box, and to nonpartisan experts in democracy.

“Our democracy is stronger than it was 10 days ago,” said David Becker, executive director and founder of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, a nonprofit that works to bolster trust in elections, “but we’re not out of the woods yet.”

Nonincumbent deniers prevailed in secretary of state contests in a handful of red states, including Alabama, Indiana, and Wyoming, and made gains in state houses in places like Arizona, which could allow them to shape legislation.

Lake, one of the midterms’ most vocal adherents to 2020 election lies, suggested on Thursday that she is planning to challenge the results. Trump ignited the “Stop the Steal” movement in 2020 by contesting his own loss; Lake could stake out a new beachhead of denialism.

“My resolve to fight for you is higher than ever,” she said in a video released on Twitter, saying she was gathering “evidence” and had assembled a legal team.

Becker said he is watching for counties that might slow or stop the certification of their election results, as occurred in Otero County, N.M., during the primaries earlier this year.

And experts are worried about other threats to democracy, including a North Carolina lawsuit the Supreme Court will hear in December that could give state legislatures much more power over election results.

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“[Deniers] did fail to gain new ground when it comes to election oversight, which is a really good thing, but we’ve been tracking their playbook since 2020, and it was never just about taking over these key seats,” said Joanna Lydgate, president and chief executive of the States United Action, a nonprofit focused on free and secure elections.

There are already signs that elements of denialism could live on. In Congress, some Republicans who sought to distance themselves from election deniers were embracing aspects of their rhetoric.

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who easily won reelection last week, said that denialism was limited to “some individuals” but that the country still has “problems with voting.”

“We still have races that are being counted almost two weeks later,” Rubio said. “That’s not so much about ‘stolen’ as it is about conduct of elections that undermine public confidence.”

Representative Doug La Malfa of California, a Republican, said that even if questions about elections aren’t a main campaign focus for Republicans, it should still be an issue they work on.

“There seems to be so many questions with the 100 percent mail-in ballot that so many places have, and the time it takes to do signatures and cure ballots — it’s just making chaos and decreasing confidence.”

But other Republicans acknowledged that denialism had hurt the party, especially with independents. Representative Michael McCaul of Texas blamed Democratic efforts to elevate extreme, denialist GOP candidates in the primaries— a gambit that worked as the Republicans they helped lost in the general election. And Kennedy, the senator from Louisiana, refused to discuss his own decision to object to the certification of the 2020 election, but said voters had shown they didn’t want to give much more power to either Republicans or Democrats.

“The independents broke in favor of the Democrats — that much is clear,” he said. “The message here is for us to learn how to spell humility.”


Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood. Tal Kopan can be reached at tal.kopan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @talkopan.