Republicans and their right-wing media surrogates are telegraphing an attack on the legitimacy of the vote in Pennsylvania during next month’s midterm elections. Their deceptive strategy mimics the approach former President Donald Trump and his allies took in the lead-up to and following the 2020 elections.
Leigh Chapman, Pennsylvania’s top election official explained during a Wednesday interview that because of a state law that does not allow officials to begin counting mail-in ballots until 7 a.m. on Election Day, results for Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial and U.S. Senate elections might not be available for “days” afterwards. Since Democrats are more likely to trust and participate in mail-in voting while Republicans are more likely to vote in-person, early tabulations could show Republican candidates with a lead that is then whittled down as mail-in ballots are tabulated over time.
This is a known issue that was in effect during the last election cycle – and its continued existence is entirely the fault of Pennsylvania Republicans. Chapman, Pennsylvania’s bipartisan Election Law Advisory Board, Democratic state legislators, and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf have all called for the Republican-led state legislature to pass legislation allowing those ballots to be “pre-canvassed” before Election Day, as occurs in other states. But the General Assembly adjourned its legislative session this week without taking action.
Nonetheless, after the New York Post wrote up Chapman’s interview using the headline, “Pennsylvania election results could take 'days,' secretary of the commonwealth says,” right-wing politicians and media figures began using her comments to baselessly cast doubt on the integrity of the counting process.
GOP gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano chimed in on Thursday morning. He described Chapman’s comments as “an attempt to have the fix in” during an interview on the Trumpist Real America’s Voice network.
This wave of false suggestions that the lengthy counting process — which has been enshrined by Republican legislators — is actually evidence of Democratic malfeasance is the latest sign that the GOP and right-wing media are planning to contest the Pennsylvania results if their candidates lose:
- Trump intends to “aggressively challenge elections, particularly ones in which a winner is not declared on Election Night,” and is particularly fixated on the Pennsylvania Senate race, Rolling Stone reported Sunday.
- Tucker Carlson, the Fox star and GOP kingmaker, suggested on Wednesday that his viewers should treat a victory by Democrat John Fetterman in the Senate race as illegitimate.
- Local election denialist groups and national conservative media figures are driving conspiracy theories about voter fraud related to ballot drop boxes and voting machines in the state.
- Fox host Mark Levin, a key player in Trump’s 2020 coup attempt, alleged last week that Chapman’s guidance directing counties to continue to count undated mail-in ballots amid a legal battle shows that Democrats are “trying to steal the election for” Fetterman.
It’s also a rerun of the attack Trump, Carlson, Levin, and their allies made on the integrity of the 2020 presidential race. Election experts had long predicted that Election Day 2020 would end with a “red mirage” showing Trump in the lead, only for there to be a “blue shift” afterward as key states counted mail-in ballots that heavily favored Democratic nominee Joe Biden. But Trump carried out his planned strategy to declare victory on election night, baselessly cited his declining margins and reversals as evidence of widespread election fraud, and spent weeks trying to subvert the result. And right-wing allies like Carlson and his colleagues helped him work their viewers into a frenzy over the fantasy that the election had been rigged.
The same strategy could play out in Pennsylvania this cycle, with Mastriano and Senate nominee Mehmet Oz holding early leads on election night, declaring victory, and, with the support of the right-wing press, alleging that mail-in ballots that subsequently reduce or eliminate their leads are fraudulent. Mastriano is a committed election denier who supported Trump’s 2020 election subversion and would have no qualms about following his subversion plan. And Oz actually road-tested a plan like that after the primary election – holding a narrow lead but with observers declaring the race too close to call, he took Trump’s advice, went on Fox, and said, “This election is ours,” while his ally Sean Hannity baselessly raised the prospect of election fraud changing the result.
Trump’s 2020 statements were obvious nonsense, and everyone at Fox knew it. Chris Stirewalt, the network’s politics editor during the election, explained during a June hearing of the January 6 committee that the “red mirage” phenomenon was well known. He even testified that he and some of his colleagues had “gone to pains” before the election to stress to Fox viewers that this would happen “because the Trump campaign and the president had made it clear that they were going to try to exploit this anomaly.”
Don’t expect to see much of that effort at Fox if the situation repeats this cycle – Stirewalt’s former colleagues have seen what happened to employees too eager to tell the truth about elections. The network purged Stirewalt shortly after the election as executives rallied around Trump to preserve flagging ratings.
Perhaps this time will be different – plan A for everyone involved is to use demagoguery, smears about the Democrats, and misrepresentations of the Republicans’ extreme positions to win the elections for Mastriano and Oz outright. But Fox and the right-wing media are putting the country back on the edge of the abyss. The last time they did that, the result was a bloody insurrection at the U.S. Capital and the near-toppling of American democracy. And two years later, Trump’s election lie has been institutionalized within the GOP, and the meager guardrails in place on the party’s extremism have been leveled.