Election deniers performed especially poorly in races to oversee voting in key states
Over nearly two years, the political future of Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger had looked somewhere between uncertain and untenable.
In 2020, sitting President Donald Trump called him an "enemy of the people" after Trump lost Georgia and the election. Then Raffensperger, who refused Trump's request to find votes, faced a primary challenge this year from a Republican congressman who voted not to certify election results on Jan. 6, 2021.
But in this month's midterms, Raffensperger got the last laugh.
"I think what Americans are looking for, Georgians are looking for, they're looking for people of character," Raffensperger told NPR the day after voting ended. "I think people want to see the country move forward."
What they don't want, according to a new NPR analysis of voting data, is state election officials who deny the 2020 results.
Election deniers running in competitive states for secretary of state — which in most places oversees the voting process — generally underperformed fellow Republicans on the ballot for three other statewide positions: U.S. Senate, governor, attorney general.
"Voters sent a pretty loud message about election denialism," said Trey Grayson, who served two terms as the Republican secretary of state of Kentucky. "The message got out. The voters took that information, processed it, and said, 'We reject those candidates. We're going to reward the candidates who will do their jobs, who will follow the law.' "
In Arizona's secretary of state race, for instance, Republican Mark Finchem was among the most radical candidates running for one of these statewide jobs. He was endorsed by Trump, is a member of the extremist group the Oath Keepers, and his Twitter feed is a spigot of conspiracies.
In an election environment that was widely seen as friendly to the GOP, Finchem lagged behind most other Republicans running for statewide office in Arizona.
As of midday Friday, incumbent Republican state Treasurer Kimberly Yee was the top vote-getter for either party, with nearly 1.39 million votes, and had Finchem kept pace with her, he would have won his secretary of state race against Democrat Adrian Fontes.
Instead, Finchem managed just 86% of Yee's total, and lost to Fontes by more than 100,000 votes. Finchem also lagged fellow election denier Kari Lake — the Arizona GOP gubernatorial nominee, who also lost — by more than 70,000 votes.
"These were winnable races with the right kinds of candidates," Grayson said. "Unfortunately, my party, we didn't nominate the right people."
Similar trends played out in contests in competitive states across the country.
NPR's analysis found that election-denying secretary of state candidates in Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico and Nevada garnered between about 90-95% of the votes of the top vote-getting Republican among the four statewide positions.
On the other hand, Raffensperger and the GOP nominee for secretary of state in Colorado, Pam Anderson, who did not deny the 2020 election results, ended with vote totals just 1.5 percentage points below their state's top Republican.
And in less competitive states like Iowa and Idaho, GOP secretary of state candidates who accepted the results of the 2020 election even ended up their state's top vote-getter, as of midday Friday.
Democrats all year indicated they thought Republicans running extreme election-denying candidates would benefit them in this year's midterms, and in an interview after voting ended, Raffensperger's Democratic opponent, Bee Nguyen, told NPR that she struggled specifically because he did not deny the 2020 results.
"We also had a larger challenge in Georgia, running against incumbents who were not seen as extremists to Georgia voters," Nguyen said. "And so going up against that is obviously an uphill battle."
Grayson said he hopes Republican candidates going forward take a lesson from that.
"Election denialism is a signal that maybe you're not capable of doing this job," he said. "The data is clear."
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