It was a pre-emptive strike against truth by some of the biggest names on the American right wing.
Former president Donald Trump warned that the ballot would be “rigged”. The Republican candidate Larry Elder predicted “shenanigans”. The conservative media star Tomi Lahren suggested that “voter fraud” was inevitable.
The attempt to sow distrust in California’s recall effort began well before the Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, scored a crushing victory on Tuesday, thwarting Elder and other Republicans who hoped to replace him.
The barrage of mendacious claims echoed Trump’s “big lie” of a stolen presidential election and were equally baseless. But, crucially, they also demonstrated that undermining faith in election integrity has become normalized as a strategy for many Republicans facing defeat at the ballot box.
“We saw it in the November election; we saw it in the January 6th insurrection,” Sean Clegg, a Newsom aide, told reporters this week. “We do not have a Democratic and Republican party in this country. We have a democratic party and an anti-democratic party.”
He added: “They’re trying to throw battery acid on our constitution, on our electoral norms, and it’s a preview of coming attractions. We’re going to see the same thing in 2022 and the same thing in 2024. And unfortunately, it’s become the Trump playbook and they’re going to it. And they’re going back to it.”
Although Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly two-to-one in California, party leaders had feared that Newsom could be vulnerable to a recall over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, including mask and vaccine mandates.
Talk radio host Elder was the leading contender among 46 on the replacement ballot – which also included the reality TV star and former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner – and would almost certainly have become governor had the recall succeeded.
But as opinion polls showed Newsom in a commanding position, Republicans pushed the circular argument that they could only lose if the vote was rigged. Much of the Republican scaremongering focused on the wide use of mail-in ballots – even though an overwhelming majority of Californians cast ballots by mail before the pandemic without irregularities.
Elder said he believed “there might very well be shenanigans, as there were in the 2020 election”. A website affiliated with his campaign carried a link to a “Stop CA Fraud” site where people could report suspicious voting activity or sign a petition demanding a special legislative session to investigate. Some of the language was identical to a petition circulated to help Trump’s effort to overturn last year’s presidential election.
Trump himself weighed in during the closing days of the campaign, including a statement that asked rhetorically: “Does anybody really believe the California Recall Election isn’t rigged?”
The unfounded allegations seeped into the rightwing media ecosystem. Lahren, a host on the Fox Nation channel, opined: “The only thing that will save Gavin Newsom is voter fraud, so as they say: stay woke. Pay attention to the voter fraud going on in California because it’s going to have big consequences not only for that state but for upcoming elections.”
But the conspiracy theories were blunted by the scale of Newsom’s victory thanks to healthy turnout, support for his Covid-19 measures and a sweeping rejection of Trump-style populism. In the end even Elder did not mention fraud when he addressed his supporters after losing, pleading: “Let’s be gracious in defeat.”
Trump, however, called it “totally rigged” and rightwing media was notably reluctant to acknowledge the outcome. In a Twitter thread Brian Stelter, CNN’s chief media correspondent, noted that the pro-Trump One America News Network (OANN) spent hours talking about the recall while dancing around the fact that Newsom won.
“It’s just strange,” Stelter tweeted. “OAN is not alleging fraud but is totally ignoring the news.” Eventually, 12 hours after Newsom’s win had been widely projected, OANN briefly mentioned that the recall “secured Gavin Newsom’s role as California’s governor”.
A tighter race could have turned uglier. Joe Walsh, a former Republican congressman from Illinois, said: “It’s a damn good thing the California election wasn’t close at all because Larry Elder and Donald Trump and every other Republican signalled that if the election were going to be close, it was all going to be because of voter fraud.
“This is the Republican party playbook. It’s going to be hard to find, moving forward, any Republican candidate who loses and accepts the results of his or her election. They’re all going to be a big sore loser like Trump.”
Walsh, who challenged Trump for the Republican presidential nomination last year, added: “To be a viable Republican today, you have to lie or you have to deny the truth. You cannot say that Joe Biden won fair and square. You cannot say that January 6th was an insurrection. You’ve got to be careful saying the vaccines work.
“To be a Republican today, you’ve got to pretty much call into question every single election that you lose. This is Trump’s legacy and you’re going to see it again big time in 2024.”
But relentlessly trashing the electoral process could prove counterproductive. Last year Republicans feared that Trump’s claims about widespread fraud due to an expansion of mail-in voting during the pandemic would persuade many Republicans to stay at home. His constant crying foul in Georgia may have cost Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue their seats in a Senate runoff last January.