How the Worst Fears for Democracy Were Averted in 2022

Not long ago, Joe Mohler would have seemed an unlikely person to help bury the political legacy of Donald J. Trump.

Mr. Mohler, a 24-year-old Republican committeeman and law student in Lancaster Township, Pa., voted for Mr. Trump in 2016. He voted for him again in 2020 — but this time with some misgivings. And when Mr. Trump began spouting lies and conspiracy theories about his 2020 loss, Mr. Mohler, who grew up in a solidly conservative area of southeastern Pennsylvania, was troubled to hear many people he knew repeat them.

Last January, after county Republican leaders aligned with a group known for spreading misinformation about the 2020 election and Covid-19 vaccines, Mr. Mohler spoke out against them — a move that he said cost him his post as chairman of the township G.O.P. committee.

“I just realized how much of a sham the whole movement was,” he said. “The moment the veil is pulled from your face, you realize how ugly the face is that you are looking at.”

Mr. Mohler was part of a precariously narrow but consequential slice of the electorate that went against its own voting history this year in order to reject Republican candidates who sought control over elections, at least in part out of concern for the health of the political system and the future of democracy.

After deciding that preserving the integrity of elections was his single most important issue in 2022, he voted last month for the party’s nominee for Senate, Mehmet Oz, who hedged carefully on the question of who won the 2020 election but eventually said he would have voted to certify Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s victory had he been in office. But in the governor’s race, Mr. Mohler decided he could not vote for Doug Mastriano, the Republican candidate, who as a state senator was central to efforts to overturn Pennsylvania’s 2020 election results.

Mr. Mastriano had pledged to decertify voting machines in counties where he suspected the results were fraudulent and to appoint as secretary of the commonwealth, the office overseeing elections in Pennsylvania, someone who shared his views.

“It was just so reprehensible,” Mr. Mohler said. “I didn’t want anybody like that in the governor’s office.”

Doug Mastriano, a leader in the movement to investigate and overturn the 2020 election, was defeated in the Pennsylvania governor’s race.Credit…Mark Makela for The New York Times

The decisions of voters like Mr. Mohler, discernible in surveys and voiced in interviews, did not necessarily lay to rest concerns about the ability of the election system to withstand the new pressures unleashed upon it by Mr. Trump.But they did suggest a possible ceiling on the appeal of extreme partisanship — one that prevented, in this cycle, the worst fears for the health of democracy from being realized.

Mr. Mastriano lost by nearly 15 percentage points to the Democratic candidate, Josh Shapiro — part of a midterm election that saw voters reject every election denier running to oversee elections in a battleground state.

In Arizona, Michigan and Nevada, Republican primary voters nominated candidates campaigning on Mr. Trump’s election lies for secretary of state, the office that in 40 states oversees the election system. In all three, those candidates lost. The rout eased the immediate concern that strident partisans who embraced conspiracy theories about hacked voting machines, foreign meddling and smuggled ballots might soon be empowered to wreak havoc on election systems.

The election results suggest that a focus on Mr. Trump’s election lies did not merely galvanize Democrats but also alienated Republicans and independents. Final turnout figures show registered Republicans cast more ballots than registered Democrats in Arizona and Nevada, but election-denying candidates nevertheless lost important races in each of those states.

Republican candidates in statewide contests who embraced Mr. Trump’s election lies also significantly underperformed compared with Republicans who did not. This was true even in districts that voted overwhelmingly for Mr. Trump in 2020, suggesting that the defection of ticket-splitters like Mr. Mohler likely played a role.

In a survey of voters in five battleground states conducted by the research firm Citizen Data for the advocacy group Protect Democracy, a third who cast ballots for a mix of Democrats and Republicans in November cited a concern that G.O.P. candidates held views or promoted policies “that are dangerous to democracy.”

The Aftermath of the 2022 Midterm Elections

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A moment of reflection. In the aftermath of the midterms, Democrats and Republicans face key questions about the future of their parties. With the House and Senate now decided, here’s where things stand:

Biden’s tough choice. President Biden, who had the best midterms of any president in 20 years as Democrats maintained a narrow hold on the Senate, feels buoyant after the results. But as he nears his 80th birthday, he confronts a decision on whether to run again.

Is Trump’s grip loosening? Ignoring Republicans’ concerns that he was to blame for the party’s weak midterms showing, Donald J. Trump announced his third bid for the presidency. But some of his staunchest allies are already inching away from him.

G.O.P leaders face dissent. After a poor midterms performance, Representative Kevin McCarthy and Senator Mitch McConnell faced threats to their power from an emboldened right flank. Will the divisions in the party’s ranks make the G.O.P.-controlled House an unmanageable mess?

A new era for House Democrats. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the first woman to serve in the post and the face of House Democrats for two decades, will not pursue a leadership post in the next Congress, paving the way for fresher faces at the top of the party.

Divided government. What does a Republican-controlled House and a Democratic-run Senate mean for the next two years? Most likely a return to the gridlock and brinkmanship that have defined a divided federal government in recent years.

And in a postelection survey conducted by Impact Research, a Democratic polling firm, 69 percent of independents and Republicans who voted for a Democrat for the House said that democracy was critical to their decision. The poll was shared exclusively with The New York Times.

“That gives me some optimism that the general election voter wants a return to some normalcy and some stability,” said Ethan Demme, a former G.O.P. chairman in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County, who formed a new third party in Pennsylvania after Trump supporters attacked the U.S. Capitol last year.

Even so, a review of the election outcomes in several states, along with interviews with voters, political strategists, pollsters and political scientists, suggests that what happened in November was something less than a clear repudiation of an anti-democratic push in the Republican Party.

While election deniers suffered losses across the board, in states like Nevada and Arizona they still won nearly half the vote. And in interviews, Republicans and independents who rejected election deniers often said they did so for other reasons, like the candidates’ stances on abortion or a more general sense that they were too extreme or too closely aligned with Mr. Trump.

Jim Marchant, a Republican who lost to Cisco Aguilar in Nevada’s secretary of state race, made little effort to campaign beyond the conservative base.Credit…Bridget Bennett for The New York Times

In most statewide races, Democrats enjoyed conventional advantages over election-denier Republicans, fielding much better-funded campaigns with more unified support from their party. On the Republican side, many election deniers ran poorly financed and generally lackluster campaigns, with almost no monetary support from Mr. Trump or other national Republicans, and depressed the use of mail-in voting by inundating their supporters with dire warnings about its insecurity.

But even though voters’ reasons for opposing election deniers were often more complex than an intent to defend the electoral system, some experts suggested that they might have done just that — by showing the political limits of campaigning on election conspiracy theories.

“The good news from the 2022 elections is that election denial seems like a loser for Republicans to run on,” said Richard L. Hasen, an election law scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Maybe that will lead more Republicans to speak out against fact-free claims of election fraud.”

A Price to Pay With Independents

Pollsters have studied Americans’ views on the state of the country’s democracy with heightened interest since the 2020 election. For much of that time, surveys have shown that many voters in both parties believed there was “a serious threat to the future of our democracy,” as a NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll put it in October 2021.

Those surveyed cited opposite reasons: Democrats saw Republicans as the source of the threat, reflecting alarm over Mr. Trump’s stolen-election claims. Republicans saw Democrats as the source of the threat, reflecting a belief in those claims.

Democracy watchdog groups were particularly concerned about the implications of these findings in races for secretary of state, a post that was obscure to most voters but to which Mr. Trump had personally drawn the attention of his supporters, endorsing candidates who most loudly trumpeted his 2020 claims and casting their campaigns as crucial battles for the fate of the country.

But finer-grained polling from last year also suggested that, while distrust of the 2020 election still motivated much of the Republican Party’s base, it carried a serious political cost.

OH Predictive Insights, a Phoenix-based polling firm, surveyed Arizona voters in August 2021 about their support for a partisan Republican “audit”-style review of the 2020 election results in Maricopa County.

Arizonans who had heard of the so-called audit were almost evenly split between favorable and unfavorable views, the pollsters found, but independents had a negative view of it by a margin of 20 points. The audit polled particularly poorly with female, Latino, young and self-identified moderate voters.

“That might be 16, 18 percent of the vote in the middle that you’ve really got to win,” said Mike Noble, the firm’s chief of research.

Mr. Noble’s firm polled the Nevada secretary of state’s race this year, and found similar sentiments. “It was no surprise why every single secretary of state candidate that had that position across the country lost,” Mr. Noble said.

In Arizona, Mr. Noble’s research also found a split between Republicans who identified first and foremost as supporters of Mr. Trump and those who saw themselves simply as Republicans.

The latter group, which was slightly larger, still overwhelmingly approved of Mr. Trump. But they were also apt to trust the integrity of the election system, and much less likely to believe the 2020 election was stolen.

After the primaries, in which election-denier candidates prevailed in bitter contests with more conventional Republicans and their supporters in prominent state Republican circles, some disaffected Republicans wound up supporting Democrats.

In Arizona, those defectors included people like Karie Dozer, a Phoenix radio personality, and her husband Rich, a former president of the Arizona Diamondbacks, longtime Republicans who were supporters of Senator John McCain until his death in 2018 and have hewed to the center as the state party veered right.

Karie Dozer, a longtime Republican, rejected all four of Arizona’s top statewide Republican nominees.Credit…Caitlin O’Hara for The New York Times

This year, Ms. Dozer said, she and her husband rejected all four of the party’s top statewide nominees, seeing them as extremists. “For the two of us, if you denied the election results of 2020, you weren’t a valid candidate for us,” she said.

Instead, the Dozers fell in behind Katie Hobbs, the Democratic candidate for governor, appearing with her at campaign events and in digital videos denouncing her election-denying Republican opponent, Kari Lake.

For her part, Ms. Lake, at a rally days before the election, told any “McCain Republicans” present to “get the hell out.”

A Telltale Sign of Other Problems

Democrats welcomed crossover voters with open arms. After all, they’d been looking for them.

In Pennsylvania’s governor’s race, Mr. Shapiro commissioned focus groups of Trump voters to glean insights into how to peel them away from Mr. Mastriano.

About a third of Mr. Trump’s voters did not buy into Mr. Mastriano’s claims about the 2020 election, and Mr. Shapiro’s team found that voters with such misgivings were also receptive to appeals on other issues.

“Those voters had real sensitivity to not only Mastriano’s history and position on democracy issues, but also his positions on abortion, marriage equality, and climate change,” the Shapiro campaign wrote in a postelection memo.

The campaign’s strategy reflected an awareness that election denialism could be an indicator of other weaknesses as much as a weakness itself.

“This extreme conversation about voter fraud, it attracts an extreme flavor of people,” said Kristopher Dahir, a councilman and pastor in Sparks, Nev., who ran as a Republican for secretary of state this year. After losing the primary to Jim Marchant, a prominent figure in the election denier movement, Mr. Dahir endorsed Mr. Marchant’s Democratic opponent, Cisco Aguilar, who won in November.

National Democrats spent nearly $8 million on advertising in Nevada to promote Mr. Aguilar; Republicans spent nothing to help Mr. Marchant.Credit…Bridget Bennett for The New York Times

Concerns about other issues won out even for some Republicans who did believe the 2020 election had been compromised — suggesting that election deniers and democracy watchdogs alike may have overestimated its motivating power.

“I’m sick of the whole issue,” said Lisa Davidson, a former U.S. Forest Service range aide and Census worker in Kingston, Nev., an unincorporated town of 194 people in Lander County, in the rugged, sparsely populated center of the state.

Mrs. Davidson, 59, a longtime Republican who said she voted for Mr. Trump over Mr. Biden, said she believed that the 2020 election was marred by fraud. But she said she supported abortion rights and was moved by the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade to vote for independent and Democratic candidates, rather than for Republicans like Mr. Marchant who oppose legal abortion.

“I’m a believer that men have no business governing what happens with women’s bodies,” she said.

Mr. Trump carried Lander County in 2020 with 79.5 percent of the vote. Mr. Marchant, who ran behind Mr. Trump’s 2020 share of the vote in every county in Nevada, earned 71 percent for secretary of state in Lander County this year.

Candidates like Mr. Marchant and Mr. Mastriano also failed to make their contests competitive. Both made little effort to campaign beyond the conservative base and struggled to raise money from Republican donors and national campaign groups, who mostly shunned them.

Mr. Mastriano was outspent by Mr. Shapiro 14-to-1 on television and digital ads between Labor Day and Nov. 8, and lost by nearly 15 points.

The highest-profile races for secretary of state were similarly lopsided. National Democrats spent nearly $8 million on advertising in Nevada to promote Mr. Aguilar; Republicans spent nothing to help Mr. Marchant. In Arizona, Mark Finchem, a champion of the Maricopa audit, was buried by more than $14 million in ads run by Democratic groups.

A significant factor in the imbalance was Mr. Trump, who vocally promoted election denier candidates in Republican secretary of state primaries but put almost none of his money where his mouth was. Save America PAC, his leadership PAC, spent only $10,000 of its $100 million-plus war chest on secretary of state candidates who made it into the general election. A spinoff super PAC, MAGA, Inc., chose to spend money on races for Senate instead.

A Lopsided Battle

The advertising imbalance allowed opponents to define the Republican candidates in secretary of state races that remained, for most voters, largely obscure contests. Sarah Longwell, executive director of the anti-Trump Republican Accountability PAC, which invested heavily in races against election deniers this year, said in an email that when she conducted focus groups of Nevada voters as late as mid-September, she learned that they “knew very little about the duties of the secretary of state’s office or the candidates.”

That gave Mr. Marchant’s adversaries — including the Democratic candidate, Mr. Aguilar, and outside groups like her own, which ran ads supporting Mr. Aguilar — an opening to paint Mr. Marchant as “too extreme for wanting to ban mail-in voting, too extreme on abortion, and an election denier,” Ms. Longwell said.

Such attacks appear to have worked.

Pamella Secrest, a registered Republican in Nevada, voted for the Republican candidate for governor but not for secretary of state.Credit…Emily Najera for The New York Times

Pamella Secrest, an electronics saleswoman who lives in the suburbs of Reno, Nev., said she paid little attention to Nevada’s race for secretary of state. But when Ms. Secrest, a 63-year-old registered Republican, cast her ballot, she determined that, while she would happily support Joseph Lombardo, a more conventional Republican running for governor, she would not vote for Mr. Marchant.

Mr. Marchant’s election denialism had not affected her view of him one way or the other, Ms. Secrest said. She was barely aware of it. Rather, from the blitz of ads she had seen on television, she simply believed that Mr. Aguilar was more capable.

“I thought he had the qualifications, education-wise and history-wise, that he could handle it,” she said.

Mr. Lombardo beat the incumbent Democrat, Gov. Steve Sisolak, by 15,386 votes. Mr. Aguilar defeated Mr. Marchant by 23,102 votes.

A Distaste for the Cult of Trump

The narrowness of some of the election deniers’ losses, and the diversity of factors that likely played into them, have led some experts to caution that November’s results should not be mistaken for a wholesale rejection of anti-democratic politics.

“Anyone who believes that we’re out of the woods because a handful of election deniers lost close races in swing states is deluding themselves,” said Brian Klaas, a scholar on authoritarianism at University College London.

People waiting to enter a rally hosted by former President Donald J. Trump in Latrobe, Pa., last month.Credit…Hilary Swift for The New York Times

But whatever their reasons for voting against candidates who parroted Mr. Trump’s election claims, Republicans who did so often spoke of a more general estrangement from a party that had broadly turned those claims into a loyalty test — and of their distaste for both the party’s indulgence of Mr. Trump and of a no-holds-barred brand of politics that they said favors winning at all costs.

In Lancaster County, where Mr. Trump won in 2020 by more than 15 percentage points but Mr. Mastriano edged Mr. Shapiro by just two percentage points this year, Bob Frail, a lifelong Republican, said he voted for Mr. Shapiro in the governor’s race and a third-party candidate in the Senate race.

Mr. Frail, a Navy veteran and retired nuclear plant manager, said he voted for Mr. Trump in 2016 but not in 2020 because he had grown disenchanted with a G.O.P. that had become too centered on Mr. Trump and his interests.

“He said it was ‘Make America Great,’” Mr. Frail, 70, said. “But it was really ‘Make Trump Great, and if the country follows, so be it.’”

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