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Republicans who questioned the 2020 results are bringing back an old norm: Admitting defeat

In a political climate marked by fears of violence, democracy watchers are heartened that most losing candidates did not follow Trump's playbook.
Mehmet Oz, Republican Senate candidate for Pennsylvania, speaks during an election night rally in Newtown, Pa., on Nov. 8, 2022.
Mehmet Oz, the Republican Senate candidate in Pennsylvania, at an election night rally in Newtown on Tuesday. Michelle Gustafson / Bloomberg via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The losers of this year’s midterm elections are winning praise for doing something that would be entirely unremarkable in another era — admitting defeat.

From Maine to Michigan, Senate to state legislature, Republican to Democrat, most high-profile candidates who fell short in the 2022 midterm elections are offering quick concessions and gracious congratulations to their opponents. They include candidates who earned endorsements from former President Donald Trump by embracing his false claims that elections are rigged against Republicans.

“I know it’s a low bar, I really do, but: I am heartened by the number of defeated Republicans who are conceding and congratulating their opponents,” tweeted Josh Chafetz, a constitutional law professor at Georgetown University.

Of course, dozens of Republican candidates who questioned the legitimacy of President Joe Biden’s election won Tuesday and will end up in Congress, including J.D. Vance of Ohio, who won a Senate seat. And some, like Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, haven't seen their races called yet and have hinted at invoking baseless claims of fraud.

But most of those who lost ended up not following Trump’s playbook.

Democracy watchers are breathing a sigh of relief, especially because many feared Trump had set a precedent that Republicans might use to deny ever losing another election.

“Democracy depends on losers acknowledging the legitimacy of their defeat,” said Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth political scientist who co-founded Bright Line Watch, a watchdog group that monitors the status of American democracy. “Donald Trump and the denialism that has spread through the GOP have shredded that norm. That’s why it’s heartening to see candidates conceding — we need to celebrate these acts of grace.”

Celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz, who won Trump’s endorsement and his GOP primary with it by saying things like “we cannot move on” from the 2020 election, extended an olive branch in conceding the Pennsylvania Senate race to Democrat John Fetterman.

“We are facing big problems as a country, and we need everyone to put down their partisan swords and focus on getting the job done,” Oz said Wednesday. “I wish him and his family all the best, both personally and as our next United States senator.”

Last year, Dan Cox helped arrange tour buses to take Trump supporters to Washington on Jan. 6 and attended the rally that preceded the deadly insurrection at the Capitol. While he said he never entered the Capitol, he did tweet “Pence is a traitor” after former Vice President Mike Pence certified the 2020 result. 

This year, Trump helped Cox defeat a well-connected moderate in the GOP primary to run for governor of Maryland. 

But when Cox lost the general election Tuesday, he did not cry foul or insist the race had been stolen, even though he said “the outcome was a complete surprise.”

Image: Dan Cox
Dan Cox, the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Maryland, at a campaign results reception Tuesday in Annapolis.Steve Ruark / AP

“I wish Governor-elect Wes Moore and Lt. Gov.-elect Aruna Miller and their families every blessing and success to ensure that he will keep his word and govern positively for all Marylanders,” Cox said in a two-page concession statement. “I will pray for them and their new role for all of us.”

Most losing Republican candidates followed scripts more like Cox’s than Trump’s.

“I accept the results of yesterday’s election,” Paul LePage, Maine’s fire-breathing former Republican governor, said in a statement after he failed to reclaim his old job.

Lee Zeldin, who as a congressman went to the House floor hours after the Jan. 6 insurrection to inveigh against “rogue election officials” whom he falsely blamed for Trump’s loss, made no such claims after he lost his campaign for governor of New York to Democratic incumbent Kathy Hochul. Instead, he released a statement Wednesday congratulating her.

Michigan gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon initially said Tuesday night that she wanted to see more results before she admitted defeat. But the next morning, she released a statement saying, “We came up short.”

Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a historian of authoritarianism and propaganda at New York University, noted that powerful conservative media outlets like Fox News are no longer reflexively pro-Trump.

"Fox News, which has supported the ‘big lie’ from its inception, promptly called the races for Democrats. That set the tone," she said. "Why did Fox News choose this course of action after supporting the coup attempt of Jan. 6? It is likely is a sign of the network's turn away from Trump, although its new hero, [Florida Gov. Ron] DeSantis, also espouses election fraud claims."

Grace in defeat was expected from politicians in the past, and concessions were routine. 

Most people don’t like to look like sore losers. And before Trump forced the Republican Party to devote itself to relitigating his loss, most candidates wanted to appear gracious in defeat, even if they were privately devastated.

That candidates would accept the results was hardly taken for granted this year, as many Trump-aligned candidates seemed to be preparing the ground for post-election fraud claims.

Instead, however, candidates in both parties seemed to recognize the importance of being a gracious loser in a political climate marked by fear of political violence. 

“I have the privilege to concede this race to J.D. Vance,” Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan said Tuesday night. “Because the way this country operates is that when you lose an election you concede. You respect the will of the people. We can’t have a system where if you win it’s a legitimate election and if you lose someone stole it.”

Tim Ryan gives his concession speech during an election night campaign event in Boardman, Ohio, on Nov. 8, 2022.
Tim Ryan gives his concession speech at an election night campaign event Tuesday in Boardman, Ohio. Phil Long / AP

Trump did not invent refusing to concede. And some candidates in both parties have, presumably since elections have existed, refused to admit defeat for one reason or another. 

But this year, some who had picked nits with their elections in the past focused on the bigger picture.

Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams never formally conceded her 2018 race against Gov. Brian Kemp, alleging the Republican had used his position as secretary of state to suppress the vote, with help from allies in the state Legislature. 

But this year, after running against him and losing again, Abrams called Kemp to concede and marched herself to the lectern to admit defeat before NBC News and other media outlets had even called the race against her. 

“Tonight we must be honest,” she told supporters Tuesday night in Atlanta. “I am doing what is clearly the responsible thing. I am suspending my campaign.”

CORRECTION (Nov. 10, 2022, 9:15 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated that Tim Ryan is a former representative. He is still a member of the House.