ORLANDO, Fla. – Donald Trump will probably spend years protesting his 2020 election loss to President Joe Biden – and, if a weekend conference of conservative activists is any indication, most of his supporters are prepared to help him spread conspiracy theories about it.
This year’s Conservative Political Action Conference devoted hours to the issue of “Protecting Elections” – code for “voter fraud” – and Trump is expected to hit the theme hard when he addresses CPAC on Sunday afternoon; it’s the former president’s first public speech since he left office on Jan. 20.
Many CPAC delegates echoed Trump’s claims of a “rigged” or “stolen” election, and said he and other potential GOP candidates should make “election integrity” an issue in the 2022 congressional and 2024 presidential contests.
“I don’t believe the (2020) election was valid,” said Becky E. Hites, 56, a strategic consultant for the steel industry who lives in Douglasville, Georgia. “I don’t believe it was conducted legally.”
June Presley, 57, a teacher from The Villages, Florida, said “the term ‘stolen’ is loosely used (for) shock value,” but she believes Democrats took advantage of “loopholes” to pad their vote in certain states.
“They used these tactics,” she said, “and we the people were asleep at the switch.”
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Some observers said it’s dangerous for Trump and other Republicans to promote conspiracy theories about the 2020 election. Unfounded claims helped trigger the Jan. 6 insurrection by Trump supporters at the U.S. Capitol, they said, and could inspire future violence as well.
“You can’t build a majority coalition upon a lie that the majority of the electorate rejects,” said John J. Pitney, Jr., a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California. “The ‘stolen election’ myth is like Bigfoot, UFOs, and Elvis sightings: it’s an effective way to sell merchandise and a lousy way to establish credibility.”
‘A debate about election integrity’
Throughout the CPAC conference that began Thursday night, delegates, speakers and video presentations alleged a number of problems with the 2020 election, most dealing with mail-in ballots – and all without proof.
The conference program featured a seven-part series on “Protecting Elections,” including a session on how “The Left Pulled The Strings” and “Covered It Up.”
The country’s largest annual gathering of conservative activists, CPAC participants talk about lots of issues they hope to use in future elections.
A parade of speakers and panels on Saturday dealt with items like immigration, abortion, the nuclear family, energy policy, and fighting China, all featuring attacks on the new Biden administration. One panel asked “Who’s Really Running The Biden Administration?”
A woman takes a photo with a golden Donald Trump statue at the Conservative Political Action (CPAC) conference on Friday, Feb. 26, 2021, in Orlando, Fla. (Sam Thomas/Orlando Sentinel via AP) ORG XMIT: FLORL801 (Photo: Sam Thomas, AP)
In between speeches, an oft-repeated video asked delegates: “Are Your Votes Being Distorted?”
In the weeks after Election Day on Nov. 3, judges and state election officials, including many Republicans, rejected the protests of Trump and his allies about the election results. Undeterred, Trump-ites at CPAC still complained about things like mass-mailed ballots, signature comparisons, and drop boxes.
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., drew a standing ovation on Friday when he mentioned his objection to the counting of the electoral votes that elected Biden.
“I stood up,” Hawley told CPAC delegates. “I said, ‘we ought to have a debate about election integrity.'”
Daniel Wessel, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, said CPAC proves that Republicans would rather complain about 2020 than work on the nation’s real problems, like the COVID-19 pandemic. “Republicans are focused on spreading the same dangerous lies that led to a deadly insurrection on our Capitol,” Wessel said.]
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A Republican primary issue?
Despite a lack of evidence, alleged voter fraud in 2020 is likely to be a mantra for future Republican candidates.
Trump and allies say they will support primary challengers to GOP lawmakers who backed impeachment, or refused to help Trump with his election protests. Their hit list ranges from Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., the third-ranking House Republican, to state officials like Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.
“If you want to win a Republican primary in 2022, you have to say the 2020 election was stolen, and you have to say Donald Trump walks on water,” said Joe Walsh, a former Republican congressman and now a conservative critic of the ex-president.
“Because,” he added, “GOP primary voters believe both those things.”
The issue may work for GOP primaries, analysts said, but general election voters may look askance at Trump’s claims he was somehow cheated by Biden.
Pitney, a former Republican and author of “Un-American: The Fake Patriotism of Donald J. Trump,” said the GOP has a good chance to win back the House and the Senate in 2022, “but they need a message that reaches beyond the hard core.”
“Echoing the insurrectionists isn’t it,” he said.
Democratic political strategist Jesse Ferguson said Trump and the Republicans made claims about the election during two January runoff races in Georgia – both won by Democrats, giving the party control of the U.S. Senate. (Those runoffs took place a day before the Jan. 6 insurrection.)
Election conspiracy theories “helped lose it for them in Georgia,” Ferguson said. “The more Republicans double down on the big lie of this violent, radical mob, the more it reminds voters that their party is controlled by that violent, radical mob itself.”
Trump vs. the Republican establishment
Some Republicans have said the party needs to distance itself from Trump, in part because of his repeated lies about the election.
Cheney, one of the 10 House Republicans to vote for impeachment, said Trump’s claims provoked the mob that attacked the U.S. Capitol and that he should not be part of the GOP’s future. Cheney said a special commission should investigate the insurrection, including details of how Trump and allies “pushed this idea that the election had been stolen.”
“That is a dangerous claim,” Cheney said. “It wasn’t true.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., while voting in the impeachment trial to acquit Trump of charges that he incited the insurrection, also excoriated the president’s role in the violent incident. He cited “the growing crescendo of false statements, conspiracy theories, and reckless hyperbole which the defeated President kept shouting into the largest megaphone on planet Earth.”
More recently, however, McConnell said he would support Trump again if he becomes the GOP’s presidential nominee in 2024.
Trump may talk about McConnell, Cheney and establishment Republicans in his CPAC remarks Sunday. He will almost certainly talk about “protecting elections,” though it’s uncertain how much he will talk about recent election events.
Anticipating Trump’s remarks, CPAC delegates said they remain suspicious of the returns behind Biden’s election.
“There is no way you can tell me those election results were accurate,” said Phil Bell, 39, the owner of a publishing company from Vienna, Va. “We are owed an explanation.”
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