Election Deniers Who Lost In Midterms Advance Trumpian ‘Precinct Strategy’ As State GOP Chairs

WASHINGTON, MICHIGAN - APRIL 02: Kristina Karamo, who is running for the Michigan Republican party's nomination for secretary of state, gets an endorsement from former President Donald Trump during a rally on April ... WASHINGTON, MICHIGAN - APRIL 02: Kristina Karamo, who is running for the Michigan Republican party's nomination for secretary of state, gets an endorsement from former President Donald Trump during a rally on April 02, 2022 near Washington, Michigan. Trump is in Michigan to promote his America First agenda promote several Michigan Republican candidates. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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Since losing their midterm elections, several election deniers have sought leadership positions within their state Republican parties, all part of a national play by Trump supporters and Big Lie enthusiasts to keep election denialism alive and well, while they seek more control over local elections.

Two-thirds of the 345 election deniers who ran for office in 2022 won their races, according to a Brookings Institution study. But many, like former community college teacher Kristina Karamo, still lost, particularly in battleground states.

Karamo was running to become Michigan’s secretary of state during last fall’s midterm elections. The Trump-endorsed nominee argued as part of her campaign platform that the state’s election systems were vulnerable to fraud. True to form, Karamo even filed a lawsuit ahead of the election to try to force Detroit voters to either show up to polls or pick up absentee ballots in person, a legal challenge inspired by claims from Dinesh D’Souza’s debunked propaganda film. The suit was swiftly shot down.

She lost her race by 14 points, but that wasn’t the end of her election-denying crusade: On Feb. 19, Karamo beat out 10 predominantly far-right candidates to become chair of the Michigan Republican Party, which she said needed to be rebuilt into “a political machine that strikes fear in the hearts of Democrats.”

Karamo was just one part of a recent wave of election deniers who ran for secretary of state who are now seeking to take the reins of their state’s Republican Party. Kansas Republicans similarly elected Mike Brown, a former Johnson County commissioner and conspiracy theorist, to chair their party organization after he lost his bid to become the state’s chief elections officer in November.

In Colorado, Tina Peters – the former Mesa County Clerk and Big Lie truther facing felony charges for an alleged election equipment security breach tied to her 2020 election-overturning efforts –  is also running for the state GOP’s chair after losing the Republican nomination for Colorado secretary of state. Her pitch? “There’s no way a jury of 12 people is going to put me in prison.”

This trend appears to be part of the Trump base’s ongoing “precinct strategy,” a plan in which far-right Republicans fill the lower ranks of their state parties in order to keep the former president’s Big Lie relevant in the GOP’s broader messaging. The strategy was created by Dan Schultz, an Arizona lawyer who’s aligned himself with the far-right Oath Keepers militia; he’s promoted the strategy in conservative circles for over a decade, and even (self-)published a book on the topic in 2017.

Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon first promoted the idea on his “War Room” podcast in 2021. “We’re going to take this back village by village,” he said in an episode from that May, “precinct by precinct.”

Since he boosted the idea, thousands of right-wingers have taken low-profile jobs within state Republican parties and election administration. “We’re signing up election inspectors like crazy right now,” a Wisconsin party official told ProPublica in September 2021. Trump has since endorsed the plan in an email to his supporters.

Precinct officers are responsible for routine tasks like door-knocking on an individual level, but collectively they wield some power within the state party: from working the polls on Election Day to electing high-ranking party officials, like Karamo.

Far-right party chairs, once installed, can use their seats to influence elections in a myriad of ways, specifically as it relates to messaging around the election, experts say.

“The problem with election deniers running state parties is that they’re going to continue to support candidates and run messages that are going to undermine people’s confidence in the process,” Rick Hasen, an election law scholar and law professor at UCLA, told TPM.

“Parties can play a vital role in restoring some of our norms if they support candidates who will concede if they lose, if they provide endorsements for those who follow the rule of law and encourage voter participation,” Tammy Patrick, chief executive officer for programs at the Election Center, told TPM. If party chairs choose to spread mis- and disinformation instead, she said, “we will see further degradation of the confidence in our elections.”

Norm Eisen, senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, noted that Michigan served as a petri dish for this strategy during the midterms: Republican officials in Wayne County, for example, encouraged poll workers to break election rules during a virtual training session right before the state’s primary election.

Their influence remains limited, since state party chairs have no direct power over election administration.

“They’re not officially part of the government,” Hasen said. “So, it’s not as bad as, say, having an election denier be a local election official, or a member of a particular board.”

But Eisen notes that the ongoing persistence of election denialism as a movement should be taken seriously. 

“It suggests that we need to remain vigilant,” he told TPM. “We need to continue to not just be aware of the threat, but push back on it in a bipartisan way.”

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