“I very much believe it and I think it exists.”
That’s what New Hampshire Senate hopeful Don Bolduc told the New Yorker last October when asked whether he genuinely believed that the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump through voter fraud.
But when asked again on Fox News this month, the retired Army brigadier general walked back his belief. “I’ve come to the conclusion and I want to be definitive on this,” he said. “The election was not stolen. Elections have consequences and, unfortunately, President Biden is the legitimate president of this country.”
He’s not the first to make the abrupt switch: Former triage nurse and Washington’s Republican Senate candidate Tiffany Smiley used to wear her denialism with pride. Statements like, “The 2020 elections raised serious questions about the integrity of our elections” and “I believe that courts have an obligation to give all evidence of voter fraud a fair hearing” sat pretty on her website until early August when, as Axios reported, they disappeared.
There seems to be a growing pattern of Republican congressional candidates smothering their denialism once they hit the general election. Some haven’t even admitted their belief out loud: Colorado Republican congressional candidate Erik Aadland, for example, was exposed as a believer in the Big Lie only when a recording surfaced of a man who seemed to be him expressing his fealty to it.
Some of this is to be expected. “It’s natural for candidates to move more toward an ideological extreme in a primary and then cut back in the general,” said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst and managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball. It’s not uncommon for candidates to try to moderate — or even overhaul — their views after winning their primaries.
In fact, similar switcheroos have been on display throughout the country in recent months on another topic — abortion. Minnesota Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Jenning, for example, reeled in his support for an abortion ban after the Supreme Court repealed Roe v. Wade, a deeply unpopular decision in his state. His opponent, Democratic incumbent Tim Walz, enjoys an 18-point lead, widely seen to be in part a result of his pro-life stance.
Yet some of the examples of former election deniers who have seemingly renounced their earlier convictions are particularly striking.
“Don Bolduc was sort of a whiplash version of that because he was a major election denier and then immediately repudiated the position once he won the primary,” said Kondik.
Bolduc wasn’t just a casual supporter of the Big Lie: In May 2021, he signed an open letter alongside 123 other retired generals and admirals stating that the 2020 election was rigged in Biden’s favor, and that the supposed fraud had put the nation in “deep peril.” He also bragged about signing it at a debate as recently as last month.
But Bolduc happens to be running in a state where President Joe Biden won by seven percentage points. He’s currently trailing the incumbent, Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH), by eleven points.
“He’s got a big resource disadvantage against Maggie,” Kondik said. It doesn’t necessarily mean he can’t win, but it does mean that Bolduc, a conservative firebrand, will have to customize his campaign to appeal to a broader audience.
Election denialism may mobilize Republican voters, but mobilizing the base isn’t enough. Persuasion is needed to expand your base and win elections.
“You generally try to moderate on certain things if you’re trying to persuade,” said Kondik.
That’s also why candidates like Aadland in Colorado may instead opt to hide their beliefs entirely. “He’s running in a district that Biden won by 14 points,” Kondik said. “I don’t know what his actual position is on it as of now, but you’d be sort of leading with your chin if that’s all you talked about in a district like that.”
Aadland seemed to know that reality all too well. “I don’t always use this kind of language on the campaign trail because I am so deliberate with what I say, because the consequences of not winning are so significant,” a man who FiveThirtyEight believed to be Aadland said, discussing claims of voter fraud in a tape of the candidate that the outlet obtained.
“So I am strategic,” he continued. “I don’t go out and talk about election integrity on and on and on because it’s not an issue that wins us this race.”
Will voters buy the more shameless reversals from candidates like Bolduc?
“Flip-flopping is a killer in politics because it convinces everybody that you aren’t an authentic candidate,” Republican political strategist Liz Mair told TPM. “I don’t know who they think they’re going to be able to fool.”
It also puts the erstwhile election deniers at odds with the man they are perhaps most seeking to emulate: Trump. “Nobody thought Donald Trump was lying about what he thought,” said Mair. “Donald Trump was authentically Donald Trump, and people had a choice about whether to take him or leave him. It’s a lot better to run as a deeply, deeply flawed candidate than it is to run as a liar.”