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As Democrats press 'threat to democracy' in campaign's final days, few GOP candidates still want to talk about 2020

Republicans switched gears to focus on issues such as inflation and crime while highlighting “parental rights” to bolster conservative credentials rather than take aim at the 2020 vote.
President Biden Joins Maryland Democrats For Election Eve Rally
Democratic candidate Wes Moore raises arms with President Biden, first lady Jill Biden and Sen. Chris Van Hollen on Monday night in Bowie, M.d.Nathan Howard / Getty Images

MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. Matthew DePerno, the Republican nominee for attorney general in Michigan, checked off every issue he says his campaign is focused on in the closing weeks of a key midterm race: Crime, sex trafficking, fentanyl, education, the economy, business regulations and gas prices.

One issue he did not mention? Efforts to investigate the 2020 election and institute changes to the state’s election procedures — the promises that helped propel DePerno onto the political map and won him former President Donald Trump’s endorsement.

“I think it polls down the list,” DePerno told NBC News in an interview. “Certainly, I think it’s an important issue. But when we’re out talking to voters across the state — independents and soft Democrats and those middle-aged, suburban women in southeast Michigan — it’s just an issue that ranks lower than crime and education. It ranks lower than religious liberty, ranks lower than the business issues, inflation, gas prices and meat-and-potato issues of putting food on the table. I think it’s still important. It’s just … sort of a lesser issue.”

With midterm campaigns in their closing sprint, DePerno’s focus speaks to a trend across the battleground states. While Democrats are framing the elections as a referendum on the future of democracy, offering stark warnings that a significant number of Trump allies running for office have demonstrated they will not respect the democratic process after two years of Trump pushing his stolen election lie, Republicans have shifted their attention elsewhere. They’ve switched gears to focus on issues such as inflation and crime that poll highest among voter concerns while highlighting their stance on “parental rights” to bolster their conservative credentials rather than taking aim at the 2020 vote.

The result can be disorienting, as Republicans have largely not renounced their efforts to delegitimize the 2020 vote, though some have attempted to muddy the waters on their positions. In a promising election cycle for Republicans, the renewed focus on other issues has coincided with improved polling across the battleground landscape and has political observers predicting that Republicans could see gains not only in the House, but in key Senate and governors’ races. 

Buoyed by President Joe Biden and former President Barack Obama, both of whom have emphasized the GOP’s attacks on democracy in recent days, Democrats are going all out to remind voters of how their Republican rivals behaved after 2020. 

“It’s no surprise to me that election deniers are now trying to change the subject,” Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat running against Trump-backed election denier Kristina Karamo, said in an interview. “But all that is, and I hope voters see through it, is a distraction from what’s really on the ballot, which is the future of our democracy.”

After the 2020 election, DePerno filed a lawsuit on behalf of a resident claiming that voting machines in Michigan’s Antrim County, which went overwhelmingly for Trump, had inserted fraud into the results. County elections officials had initially posted the wrong numbers as the county’s totals, but those were quickly fixed, and a GOP-led state Senate investigation found the claims about Antrim County to be meritless, and the lawsuit was dismissed. On Jan. 6, 2021, DePerno met with a Trump appointee at the State Department to, as he said in a candidate questionnaire last year, detail “how the election was stolen.” His efforts quickly put him on Trump’s radar and contributed to the former president endorsing him. 

Now, DePerno is the target of an investigation launched by the office of his Democratic opponent, Attorney General Dana Nessel, into whether he and eight others illegally tampered with the state’s voting machines. He has denied any wrongdoing.

Nessel holds a polling advantage, but the race remains close, in part because of DePerno’s ability to win over skeptical Republicans following the state’s nominating convention.

“I took a lot of hits from the media early on,” DePerno said. “A lot of media tried to tie me to Donald Trump in many ways, call me an election denier, and really kind of paint me as sort of a crazy person.”

In an interview with NBC News, Nessel said DePerno had “made his name as an election denier” and still won’t accept the results of the 2020 election, nor will he commit to accepting the results on Tuesday as legitimate no matter who wins. DePerno told NBC News: “I’m going to win. So I’ll accept the results.” Nessel and Benson, whose opponent is currently trying to invalidate mail-in ballots in the overwhelmingly Democratic city of Detroit, both pledged that the Democrats will accept the results regardless of the outcome.

As to why the race is close, Nessel, who also mentioned complaints filed against DePerno before the Michigan Attorney Grievance Commission, said it’s because “people don’t know enough about him.”

“And if you ask — and I have done this repeatedly, ‘Why do you support Matthew DePerno?’ — they don’t know anything about him,” she said. “Not the first thing. And they can say things like, ‘Well, my gas is too high and I don’t like inflation.’”

Similar developments are taking place elsewhere. In Arizona, GOP gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake has repeatedly called the 2020 election “rigged” and “stolen” during the primary only to spend most of the general election talking about immigration, education, the economy and crime. The party’s Senate nominee in the state, Blake Masters, cut an ad during the primary saying he believed Trump was the rightful winner only to later say during a debate that he had seen no evidence of the state’s vote being manipulated — earning him a call from Trump in which the former president accused him of going “soft” on 2020. After trailing in earlier polling, both Lake and Masters appeared neck-and-neck with their opponents in the campaign’s final days. 

Arizona Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake
Arizona Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake takes the stage at a campaign rally in Mesa on Oct. 9.Mario Tama / Getty Images file

Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, who is running against Lake in the governor’s contest, said Lake’s shift away from 2020 does not make it any more difficult to campaign on democracy. The state’s attorney general, Mark Brnovich, a Republican, recently called the fraud claims in his state “horses---” in an interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes.”

“Whatever you say is out there forever,” Hobbs said in a recent interview in which she also noted that Trump’s pick for secretary of state in Arizona, Mark Finchem, has claimed Biden’s win was illegitimate. “And we have plenty of things to pin on Kari Lake in terms of her full-throated support of Trump’s election lies, and we know that she’s running because she’s focused on loyalty to him over serving Arizonans. And that he’s supporting all these candidates because he wants them to have control over the next election.”

Democrats had raised concerns with Hobbs’ campaign for being less visible than Lake’s earlier in the contest, though Hobbs has since loaded up her schedule. She also declined to debate Lake.

“No one has given me specific examples of what they think I should have been doing,” Hobbs said. “But I can tell you, we’ve been going after Kari this whole time.”

But Benson, the secretary of state, said Lake’s campaign and her forceful presence on the trail has best illustrated how Democratic efforts to prosecute a case on the future of democracy is “in some ways … a two-front battle.”

“One is actual efforts to intimidate voters and disrupt processes,” she said. “But there’s also a narrative battle, a PR battle that is being fought as well.”

Pennsylvania is proving to be an easier lift for Democrats to make their case, specifically in its high-profile race for governor. Doug Mastriano, the GOP nominee who was outside the Capitol on Jan. 6 and whose campaign paid to bus people to the pro-Trump protest that proceeded the riot, has kept the 2020 election near the forefront of his campaign.

Speaking at a rally in suburban Pittsburgh last week, Mastriano said, “Asking questions, media, does not make you an election denier.”

“What a stupid thing to say, ‘He’s an election denier,’” Mastriano continued. “An election happened. We have questions.”

Mastriano trails his Democratic rival, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, significantly in the polls, while GOP Senate nominee Mehmet Oz is essentially in a toss-up race against Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman. Oz questioned the 2020 vote during the primary but has not campaigned on probing it during the general election, even saying he would have voted to uphold Pennsylvania’s results had he been in the Senate then.

“I’ve had only a handful out of thousands of people that I’ve talked to [who] have asked me about that,” Jeremy Shaffer, the Republican nominee in a swing House district outside Pittsburgh, said in an interview of the 2020 vote. “I think people have definitely moved on. I’m looking towards the future.”

Democrats here have remained focused, with Shapiro saying this election is crucial to having voters’ voices heard moving forward. Speaking at a rally in Pittsburgh, Obama said Saturday that he understands why some question whether democracy itself should be at the top of voters’ concerns.

“But let me tell you something, Pennsylvania, we’ve seen throughout history, we’ve seen around the world, what happens when you give up on democracy,” he said, adding, “When that happens, people get hurt. That has real life consequences.”

One prominent Republican who has not relegated election denialism to the background is Trump himself, who, speaking for roughly two hours about an hour outside of Pittsburgh on Saturday, promoted his lie of widespread “cheating” in the 2020 election while expressing he is “worried about Oz and Doug,” opening the door to future fraud claims.

In Michigan, which has been a particular fixation for the former president, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and her ticket-mates have emphasized democracy issues — specifically, their belief in elections that don’t cater to the conspiracy theories of a former president who lied about the last presidential election and is preparing to run again in 2024. 

At stops along a statewide bus tour last week, they spoke with great urgency about the threat they say Republicans pose.

In the Detroit suburb of Clawson, Nessel fretted about a new poll that suggested she and DePerno were tied while alternating between calling her rival “a really dangerous guy” and “the worst person in the world.” State Rep. Kyra Harris Bolden, a Democrat running in a nonpartisan state Supreme Court race, was explicit about the ramifications Tuesday’s vote would have for 2024.

“Your votes, what happens in the next week, will determine the circumstances for the 2024 race,” she said. “And make no mistake, it has national implications. ... Michigan will be the point that everyone is going to be looking for in 2024.”

Supporters cheers as former President Barack Obama speaks at a campaign rally for Senate candidate Lt. Gov. John Fetterman
Supporters cheers as former President Barack Obama speaks at a campaign rally for Senate candidate Lt. Gov. John Fetterman in Pittsburgh on Saturday.Rebecca Droke / AFP via Getty Images file

Whitmer echoed that sentiment in an interview with NBC News. 

“Michigan,” she said, “plays an outsized role in national elections.”

The target of an alleged 2020 kidnapping plot by anti-government extremists in retaliation for her public health restrictions during the early days of the pandemic, Whitmer said her Republican opponent, former right-wing commentator Tudor Dixon, “has stoked political violence.” She specifically mentioned jokes Dixon made about the case in September. 

“It’s people like her,” Whitmer said of Dixon, who has baselessly raised doubts about the 2020 election results, “who are the greatest threat to our democracy right now.” 

Dixon has defended her use of such rhetoric. And consistent with DePerno’s pivot away from election issues, her remarks at a rally with the attorney general candidate and other GOP hopefuls Wednesday in Midland lacked any direct references to the 2020 results and only a few scattered mentions of Trump at all.

“I know that there have been a lot of groups that are focused on making sure that the elections are fair,” Dixon said afterward when asked by a reporter if she believed Tuesday’s election would be fair. 

Dixon then took a shot at Benson, repeating an unsubstantiated assertion about the 2020 results that she had made at times during the primary: “As long as our secretary of state doesn’t try to break the law, like she did the last time, then I feel it will be fair.”