False election fraud claims thrive on Pennsylvania campaign trail

George Bochetto, Kathy Barnette, Mehmet Oz, Jeffrey Lord, Rose Tennent, John Gizzie, Jeff Bartos, Carla Sands, and Lowman Henry pose for a photograph during a forum for Republican candidates for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania

In this file photo from April 2, 2022, George Bochetto, Kathy Barnette, Mehmet Oz, Jeffrey Lord, Rose Tennent, John Gizzie, Jeff Bartos, Carla Sands, and Lowman Henry pose for a photograph during a forum for Republican candidates for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania at the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference in Camp Hill, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

With two weeks until Pennsylvania’s primary election, Republican candidates running for U.S. Senate and governor continue to sow doubts about the legitimacy of 2020’s presidential election, showing the extent to which the GOP campaign trail remains in thrall to former President Donald Trump’s extreme and baseless election claims.

Both offices are hotly contested and could be critical to the outcome of Pennsylvania’s 2024 presidential election when Trump may run again, whether certifying election results or dictating election laws in the battleground state.

But, while Republicans have made anger over the 2020 election a staple of this year’s midterm primary campaigns to appeal to Trump-loyal GOP voters, such messages could be a liability in fall’s general election campaign, pollsters say.

There, Republicans can be expected to focus on inflation, the economy and President Joe Biden’s performance, especially considering that Americans continue to feel pessimistic about the direction of the country and the national economy.

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Democrats, however, appear prepared to revisit Trump’s baseless election fraud claims, tying them to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and the ensuing armada of Republican-sponsored election legislation that Democrats frame as an attack on voting rights.

Pennsylvania’s primary election is May 17, with big and wide-open Republican fields vying for the nominations for the state’s open U.S. Senate seat and its open governor’s office.

Efforts to overturn elections and change election laws in Pennsylvania and other battleground states lost by Trump are part of the larger story playing out in some GOP primaries.

Many of the baseless claims target Pennsylvania, recaptured from Trump by Democrats in 2020.

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Candidates sometimes repeat Trump’s conspiracy theories about fraud or distort the actions of state officials and judges in an attempt to portray Democrats as having cheated — or both.

In the Senate race, five of the seven Republicans in the primary field have refused to say whether they would have voted to certify Pennsylvania’s 2020 presidential election result, in which Biden beat Trump by 80,000 votes, according to the official tally.

Such a position puts them on the fringe of not only the Senate, which voted 92-7 to certify, but the Senate’s Republican caucus, including the man they hope to replace, retiring Republican Sen. Pat Toomey.

Just the Trump-endorsed Mehmet Oz — best-known as the heart surgeon-turned-TV celebrity host of “The Dr. Oz Show” — and real estate investor Jeff Bartos say they would have voted to certify the election.

“By the time it gets to the Senate, it’s not my job, nor should it be, to question what states have said,” Oz said in a recent interview.

Still, Oz has agreed with other Republican candidates in saying the 2020 election still needs to be investigated and laws need to be changed.

Some go farther.

“As a matter of fact, we know that the election of 2020 was stolen,” Senate candidate Carla Sands told a debate audience last week.

In the governor’s race, every candidate in the GOP’s nine-person field has vowed to repeal Pennsylvania’s 2-year-old law that established no-excuse mail-in voting.

Many Republicans on Pennsylvania’s campaign trail also talk up the need to expand Pennsylvania’s voter identification requirement and to ban drop boxes. That’s despite the fact that prosecutors identified perhaps just one case in the 2020 election of in-person voting fraud and zero evidence that drop boxes were a conduit for fraudulent ballots.

Prosecutors brought charges in about five cases in which voters — all Republicans — cast ballots for a dead relative or spouse. That gives gubernatorial candidate Lou Barletta his punchline.

“Listen, we know dead people have been voting in Pennsylvania all of our lives and now they don’t even have to leave the cemetery to vote,” Barletta told a debate audience last week. “They can mail-in their ballots. I’m going to get rid of it.”

Mail-in voting is, he said, “ripe for fraud, ballot harvesting. We could go on and on.”

Among the claims about 2020’s election is that widespread voter fraud occurred, but an Associated Press review found fewer than 475 instances of potential voter fraud in the six states disputed by Trump — a number that would have made no difference in the election.

One candidate for governor, state Sen. Doug Mastriano, who maintains the election was skewed by fraud against Trump, proposed a plan in the Legislature to overturn it and was issued a subpoena by the congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol over the GOP’s creation of an alternate slate of electors.

He said, if elected, he would require voters to “re-register. We’re going to start all over again.”

That, however, is barred by the National Voter Registration Act, and likely runs into significant protections under the federal — and possibly state — constitution and laws, constitutional law scholars say.

Democratic candidates have not shied away from emphasizing the GOP’s efforts to overturn 2020′s election — and pollsters who have surveyed on it say majorities are skeptical about election fraud claims and resulting investigations.

“Trying to make this an issue, a core election issue, does more harm than good for Republicans,” said Christopher Borick, a pollster and political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. “And it’s night and day, primary versus general election.”

At a campaign stop in Potter County recently, Josh Shapiro, the sitting state attorney general who is uncontested for the Democrats’ gubernatorial nomination, made the subject a core part of his pitch.

Election lies led to lawsuits to overturn the election, the Jan. 6 insurrection and then legislation in state Capitols to restrict voting rights, Shapiro told listeners. Republicans’ voting legislation passed in some states, but was vetoed in Pennsylvania by Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat.

“But make no mistake, they’re coming back,” Shapiro told the crowd. “And I will always stand up and protect our democracy. I will always stand up and ensure that you have a right to cast your ballot and to be heard in our system.”

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