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‘Big Lie’ candidates’ primary success could further erode democracy, advocates say

Tabitha Mueller
Tabitha Mueller
Bert Johnson
Bert Johnson
Election 2022
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Protesters wave signs at a "Stop the Steal" rally in Carson City on Monday, Jan. 6, 2020. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Editor’s Note: This is part of ongoing coverage made possible through a partnership between KUNR Public Radio and The Nevada Independent focused on the influence of the baseless claim that the 2020 presidential election was rigged by massive voter fraud, popularly referred to as the “Big Lie.”

Hundreds of donors poured nearly a quarter million dollars into the primary campaigns of Nevada legislative candidates who publicly expressed support for the “Big Lie.” 

An examination of campaign finance documents by The Nevada Independent and KUNR revealed contributions made between January and June came from various sources: a conservative pro-business nonprofit, Republican Senate hopeful Adam Laxalt’s campaign committee, a sheriff’s deputy association, a cryptocurrency entrepreneur and numerous individual donors. 

The donations helped prop up the candidates, providing the financial backing for a growing movement taking place on both a national and local scale. Now, half of the candidates perpetuating the stolen election myth are moving on to the general election — and experts warn that could undermine democracy and be a precursor for rising extremism. 

Support for the “Big Lie” has ramifications beyond the initial cries of voter fraud, said Stephen Piggott, an expert on right-wing extremism with the pro-democracy nonprofit Western States Center. He explained it could inspire political violence, such as the insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. 

“Do I expect more political violence as a result of the ‘Big Lie?’ In short, yes,” Piggott said. 

Before the June primary election, 16 legislative candidates – representing about a third of all districts in the state – had promoted former President Donald Trump’s false allegations that widespread voter fraud marred the 2020 election, according to an analysis by The Nevada Independent and KUNR.

Further reporting revealed an additional candidate supporting the “Big Lie” running in North Las Vegas’ Assembly District 11 — bringing the total number to 17, with 15 of those candidates running as Republicans, one as a Libertarian and one as a Democrat. Official election results show nine of those candidates (eight Republicans and one Libertarian) are moving on to the general election in November.

Two of those nine candidates are running in a district that leans Democrat based on analyses of voter registration numbers. One is in a district that leans Republican, one in a district considered safe for Republicans and one in a safe Democrat district. The remaining four candidates are in swing districts that could favor Republicans if a predicted “red wave” occurs.

Paul Bodine, who won the Republican primary for Las Vegas Assembly District 41 with 1,799 votes, featured the words “Stop the Steal” on his campaign website. The phrase was above a link to an article from The Nevada Independent about court rulings blocking initiatives that would limit voter access, including proposals to require voter ID and restrict mail-in ballots in Nevada. In a May interview with The Nevada Independent, he said of President Joe Biden, “I don’t know if he was duly elected.”

Bodine’s opponent in November will be Democrat Sandra Jauregui, who ran unopposed in the Democratic primary and was re-elected in 2020 with 19,118 votes.

Fellow Las Vegas Republican Jacob Deaville also won in the primary. He’ll face off against attorney Shea Backus who was elected to the seat in 2018 and held it for one term before losing in 2020 to Republican Assemblyman Andy Matthews by a narrow margin.

Deaville has shared articles on his social media feed questioning the legitimacy of the election process and called for “extensive investigations” into mail-in ballots in Clark County. After the 2020 election, he wrote, “this appears to be the first presidential election where widespread voter suppression/tampering/fraud will effect [sic] the outcome of the election. Very disturbed about reports coming out of Nevada, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan, etc.”

The proliferation of the “Big Lie” messaging emerged as a discussion point during a media call last month hosted by the Defend Democracy Project, which formed in response to false messaging surrounding election fraud. The organization had gathered experts to examine the ramifications of the insurrection and Nevada Republicans’ role in the effort to overturn the 2020 election. 

UNLV Associate Professor and attorney Bradley Schrager — whose law firm defended the results of the 2020 election in court on behalf of the Biden campaign — spoke on the panel. He said the false election narratives represent a “tremendous rupture” in how communities understand what’s true, what happened or didn’t happen and how people deal with lies. 

“Thus far, Nevada has shown itself to be able to withstand these kinds of challenges,” Schrager said. “The stress in the system, however, is ongoing.”

The “Big Lie” in Nevada and beyond

A Washington Post analysis published in mid-June showed that at least 108 Republican primary winners in 14 states backed Trump’s false voter fraud claims. 

The pervasiveness of the “Big Lie” grows as white nationalists and anti-democracy groups have built political power and pushed the Republican Party further to the right, Piggott said.

Mirroring national trends, election deniers in Nevada’s statewide contests did well, too: Former Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who’s running to unseat incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, won the GOP primary. As co-chair of Trump’s 2020 Nevada campaign, Laxalt played a crucial role in efforts to stop vote counting in Clark County, and later sued the secretary of state’s office over its alleged inability to keep non-citizens off state voter rolls. That lawsuit was eventually dismissed.  

Laxalt has also long criticized the state’s vote-by-mail laws, which were expanded during the pandemic as a public safety measure. He alleged during a campaign speech in February that the policy change in 2020 amounted to state Democrats having “fundamentally altered our election” to give Joe Biden “a leg up.” He did not provide any evidence to support his claims.

Jim Marchant, a Republican candidate for secretary of state, is a prolific peddler of the “Big Lie” who unsuccessfully sued to overturn the results of his congressional race during the 2020 cycle. He’ll face off against Democrat Cisco Aguilar in the general election. 

Backed by prominent 2020 election denier and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, Marchant has joined other secretary of state candidates who have dubbed themselves ”America First,” a group that Marchant has said is working behind the scenes to fix allegedly corrupt election systems.

As part of his effort to place the “Big Lie” on a greater stage, Marchant has visited rural county commissions across the state, calling on leaders to end the use of voting machines owned by Dominion Voting Systems and switch to hand-counted paper ballots. At least three counties have made the transition.

Marchant is also a key player in a national strategy to put Trump loyalists in positions that will allow them to oversee the next presidential election. Meanwhile, The Washington Post reported the former president may announce his intention to run for re-election this fall – and recent polling by Emerson College shows about 43% of registered Nevada voters would cast a ballot for him.

In April, Trump extended his coveted endorsement to Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, who won the Republican nomination for governor. Though his platform is more moderate than those of Marchant or Laxalt, Lombardo publicly cast doubt on the outcome of the 2020 presidential election without outright declaring fraud.

Lombardo said Nevada’s recent adoption of universal mail-in ballots created “an environment for fraud,” despite analysis that shows it is more likely for an Amer­ican to be struck by light­ning than to commit mail voting fraud.

Reno attorney Joey Gilbert — who attended Trump’s “Save America” rally in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021 — came in second place in the Republican gubernatorial primary with more than a quarter of the votes. His runner-up status shows the conspiracy theory’s continued popularity.

Schrager called candidates’ support of Trump’s election lies a “dangerous path.” He warned that it allows them to delegitimize an election if they don’t like the result. 

“That is not a functioning democracy,” Schrager said. “How Nevadans and how people everywhere react to people both in [former Assemblyman] Jim Marchant’s situation or down the ticket, who are parroting that particular line, that's going to tell us a lot about the health or sickness of the entirety of our political process.”

Erosion of democracy

Piggott, who has spent a decade studying the far right, said election lies can serve as an on-ramp to more extreme ideologies.

“White nationalist and anti-democracy groups are constantly looking for new recruits to impose their views on,” he explained. “These folks often migrate to spaces like ‘Big Lie’ communities.”

The experience of Assembly District 30 Republican candidate Ricci Rodriguez-Elkins offers a real-world example of the slide into radicalism: Rodriguez-Elkins, who now openly espouses conspiracy theories connected to the antisemitic QAnon movement, said in an interview with The Nevada Independent and KUNR that she began by rejecting President Joe Biden’s electoral win. 

That initial rejection led her down an online rabbit hole, exposing her to more extreme ideas. Those include the belief that Biden is a “puppet” for greater forces and that Trump was fighting a satanic child sex-trafficking ring — beliefs stemming from neo-Nazi conspiracies surrounding the New World Order.

“I know it sounds wackadoodle,” Rodriguez-Elkins said. “It started my eyes opening that, oh, my God, this doesn’t stop. The media is just not objective at all anymore. They’ve become political tools for the people who wanted Trump out.”

Piggott says far-right extremists are also developing new strategies to tamper with the November midterms. During a recent Las Vegas event, leaders of the far-right Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association called on law enforcement officials to insert themselves into the election process.

“The new project that they’ve started is looking to recruit sheriffs to look into accusations of voter fraud in their counties,” Piggott explained. “And encouraging sheriffs across the country to engage in searching for this mythical voter fraud.”

Ultimately, Piggott says the movement to deny election results poses a real threat to democracy in the U.S. — pointing to the recent wave of laws limiting ballot access around the country as a result.

“Voter suppression has been a major issue in our country for some time,” he said. “Those looking to suppress the vote have used false accusations of voter fraud as a vehicle to advance suppressive legislation.”

The “Big Lie” continues

Even before Nevada’s June primary, legislative candidates were already sowing the seeds that would lead to further claims of voter fraud.

Libertarian candidate Mindy Robinson, who is running in Las Vegas’ Assembly District 35, told The Nevada Independent and KUNR in early June that the primary would be a “litmus test,” referring to the security of the election.

“If Gilbert doesn’t win this, then I know. I know they’re cheating bad,” Robinson said. “Lombardo, no one likes him. No one, not a Republican, not anybody I know. And the 10 people he pays to show up with a T-shirt, yeah, I don’t care. I have more people at my birthday party.”

Robinson is an ally of Gilbert, appearing at many of his rallies and often interacting with his Facebook feed. She and other proponents of the “Big Lie” coalesced around Gilbert’s rallying cry of fraud after the primary election.

Almost an hour before the Republican gubernatorial primary was called, Gilbert announced in a Facebook post that he would be suing for voter fraud. He refused to acknowledge Lombardo’s victory and repurposed “Big Lie” talking points to baselessly claim the gubernatorial primary was rigged. 

“I will concede nothing,” he wrote.

Northwest Las Vegas’ Assembly District 13 Republican candidate Vem Miller and Robinson both liked the Facebook post. 

A screenshot of Reno attorney Joey Gilbert's Facebook post on June 14, 2022, where he said he would not concede the primary election.

Gilbert’s lawsuit arrived as other GOP primary losers questioned the results of elections in states across the country, including Georgia, South Carolina and Arizona.

July campaign finance documents show that as the general election approaches, the nine legislative candidates supporting the “Big Lie” who survived the primary have a combined $81,700 in cash on hand. Many of them spent most of their contributions during the primary, and will need to continue raising funding to succeed in the general.

As for voter registration advantages, two of the candidates are running in a district with a voter registration advantage that favors Republicans and four are campaigning in swing districts. The remaining three are in districts that favor Democrats. It remains to be seen whether an expected red wave will shape the outcome of their races. 

Piggott cautioned that there could be dire consequences if the current slate of election-denying candidates succeeds in November.

“If more proponents of the ‘Big Lie’ get elected to office, regardless of what office they hold, it really does have the potential to further erode our democracy,” he said.

This story was updated on Friday, June 22, 2022, at 10:45 a.m. to indicate that Bodine won his race with 1,799 votes.

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