In 2021, as candidates around the country announced their intention to run in the midterm elections, an alarming trend emerged that could not be ignored: hundreds of them were openly spreading destabilizing lies about our elections, peddling dangerous conspiracy theories, and engaging in hate speech or even violent rhetoric.
By the end of last year, the Renew America Foundation (RAF) had begun tracking these individuals and their radical ideologies. While extremists certainly aren’t new, historically they tend to flame out in the primaries or get trounced by a more moderate electorate in the general. Would that happen again in 2022, with an unusually high number of such candidates seeking office? We wanted to know, and we chose to share our findings publicly to shine a light on the spread of extremism in post-Jan. 6 America.
What Did We Learn?
RAF tracked a total of 256 candidates running for federal, statewide, and local offices across the country. Nearly 49% of them won their primary election or were unopposed. The most successful of these candidates were election deniers, who claim that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen” from Donald Trump through widespread voter fraud. Of the candidates we tracked, 122 election deniers will appear on the general election ballot in their respective states next month.
We also took a look at candidates who espouse conspiracy theories like QAnon, use hate speech, or promote the use of political violence. Of the candidates we tracked, 45% of the QAnon sympathizers and one-third of those who have engaged in or defended hate speech or violent rhetoric advanced to the general election. The strongest pockets of this activity were found in the Midwest, Southwest, and Southeast regions, but no part of the country was spared.
Election denial is pervasive. Ninety-seven percent of the candidates RAF tracked, running for offices up and down the ballot, share 2020 election lies. Perhaps the most immediate threat are those running for statewide office, especially governor, secretary of state, and attorney general—positions that usually oversee the voting and certification processes. Recall how Donald Trump sought to influence Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” 11,000 votes that would swing the state to Trump’s column in 2020. To his credit, Raffensperger refused. With an election denier in the same position, the outcome would have been far different, and that’s the disturbing possibility we could face again in 2024.
Even if election deniers never take action on their lies, they are still damaging our democracy. False claims about election fraud erode voters’ faith in our electoral system, depress voter participation, and diminish respect for elected officials. As we witnessed on Jan. 6, they can also lead to violence among citizens who believe, wrongly, that they have been cheated and have no other lawful recourse. Ultimately, they contribute to government dysfunction, as partisan hostilities hinder bipartisan cooperation. Most detrimental of all, election deniers may actively use their positions of authority to alter an election result they don’t like, thwarting the will of the people. It’s a dangerous precedent that could be exploited by future officials of any party.
RAF has tracked 19 candidates who made the November ballot and are seeking a statewide office that would give them direct influence on elections. Doug Mastriano, the Republican candidate for governor of Pennsylvania, is a prime example. Mastriano used his power as a state legislator in 2020 to attempt to appoint alternate delegates to the Electoral College after Joe Biden’s win. Later, he showed up at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and participated in the protest that led to the insurrection.
Mastriano has made clear that, if elected governor, he would decertify all the state’s election machines at his own discretion. He also has promised to delegate to the secretary of state (an appointed, not elected, position in Pennsylvania) “the power to make the corrections to elections, the voting logs, and everything.” Bear in mind that Pennsylvania was decided by just 1.2 percentage points in 2020. As a swing state with 19 electoral votes in 2024, it could well determine the next President of the United States.
Conspiracy Theories, Political Violence, and Hate Speech
Candidates who traffic in conspiracy theories, political violence, and hate speech weren’t as numerous or as successful in the primaries as election deniers were, but given the nature of their extreme positions, any success must be seen as a potential threat. Of the 56 QAnon adherents we tracked, 25 candidates won their primary and will be on the general election ballot in November. We also tracked 83 candidates who have promoted hate or political violence through their public statements, actions, or affiliations. Twenty-seven of them advanced out of the primary and may appear on a ballot near you.
Who are these people? In addition to known entities seeking re-election like Reps. Lauren Boebert, Paul Gosar, and Marjorie Taylor Greene, they’re candidates like Dan Cox, who’s running for governor of Maryland. Cox organized buses to take protesters to the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, called former Vice President Mike Pence a “traitor,” and has been described by outgoing Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a fellow Republican, as a “QAnon whack job” who isn’t “mentally stable.” Running for attorney general in Maryland is Michael Peroutka, a neo-Confederate and Christian nationalist who served on the board of the League of the South, which believes the Southern states should secede from the U.S. He has described the separation of church and state as a “great lie,” and called public education “the 10th plank in the Communist Manifesto.” That’s just in one state.
Like Cox and Peroutka, the candidates who met our criteria for extremism are overwhelmingly Republican, but that doesn’t mean the Democrats’ hands are entirely clean. Democratic organizations threatened our democracy as well by funding far-right extremists to the tune of $53 million. According to Axios, they succeeded in boosting these candidates in six of the 13 Republican primaries in which they meddled. Their goal was for Democrats to face the worst possible Republican opponents, which is the kind of short-term thinking campaign consultants and political operatives routinely indulge in. But in so doing, they've put radicals one vote away from real power over our democracy. That's playing with fire.
Lies, conspiracies, and hate—especially when promulgated by public officials—can fuel real-world danger, not only to democracy but to people’s lives. The rise of these radical candidates demonstrates the injurious impact of hyperpartisanship, which significantly lowers our standards of candidate quality and discourages good candidates from running at all. Character matters; leaders who lack it have a corrosive influence on the whole of society. The relative success of these candidates in the primary elections speaks to the need for primary reform, so that candidates are rewarded for unifying ideas that appeal to a broad swath of the electorate, rather than for throwing red meat to an ideologically extreme base.
While it’s encouraging that 51% of the radical candidates we tracked were turned away by voters early on, extremism is still ascendant in America. Election Day 2022 will tell us just how much. As voters, we have an opportunity to halt the rise of American radicalism on Nov. 8, and it is vital that we view the election through that lens. We urge all Americans to review RAF’s findings in full for additional insight into the candidates on the ballot next month. Let’s resolve to elect leaders who respect us, our choices, and our system of self-government at the polls this year. And please, vote.
Miles Taylor is the executive director of the Renew America Foundation and the acting director of strategy and research at the Forward Party. He formerly served as chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security.
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