This is how it’s going to be forever: Republicans and conservatives will claim that any election they lose is fraudulent. Donald Trump established this as the playbook for his party-cum-cult. And the full embrace of this authoritarian and dangerous tactic has been evident in the much-watched and tight-as-a-tick governor’s race in Virginia between Republican Glenn Youngkin and Democrat Terry McAuliffe.
Days before the final balloting on November 2, right-wingers and Republicans began hurling the accusation: The Democrats are stealing this election. They had no evidence. They were just beating this tribal drum. But the aim was to create an echo chamber for the delegitimization of the election should McAuliffe, the former governor, prevail.
The strategy is simple: repeat the phony charge over and over to block full public acceptance of an unfavorable result. And this attack has come from multiple directions. Steve Bannon, the once-indicted-and-Trump-pardoned strategist has inserted himself into the race, and appearing on a Virginia-based talk show on October 29 to discuss the election, warned, “They’re Democrats. They’re going to try to steal it. They can’t win elections they don’t steal, right? They understand this. This is what they did in ’20. It’s time now to start calling them out.”
At a Youngkin rally on October 27, country singer John Rich, who was campaigning for the Republican, suggested to the crowd that a Democratic conspiracy involving Stacey Abrams was afoot: “Why the hell is Stacey Abrams in Virginia right now? What is that? What is she doing up here? We know what she’s doing up here. She’s working on it… Do you really think California voted for Gavin Newsom again? I don’t think so. Stacey Abrams was probably out there, too.” Abrams had been campaigning in Virginia for McAuliffe, much as Rich was doing for Youngkin. (Newsom survived the recall election with 61.9 percent of the vote.)
That same day, conservative talk show host John Fredericks huffed, “Everything’s moving in Youngkin’s direction and the Republicans, but a lot of people fear that this is going to get stolen, they’re gonna try and cheat. We’ve got all kinds of irregularities right now going on.” In another show, Fredericks claimed that Democrats were going into nursing homes to “extract votes from people that were incapacitated.” He did not produce any proof of this nefarious plot.
On one recent episode of Fredericks’ show, John Mills, a former cybersecurity official at the Defense Department who now provides commentary to the conspiratorial-minded and pro-Trump Epoch Times, claimed that security is intentionally poorly designed at vote-counting facilities and “people can walk in and out.”
Amanda Chase, a Republican state senator from Virginia who has campaigned with Youngkin, has been a constant champion of the-Democrats-are-cheating disinformation. On her Facebook page, she declared, “I know how their [sic] cheating. We know. Watching closely.” Appearing on Newsmax, she asserted, “I know how Democrats are cheating, and that information has been given to the Youngkin campaign.” She also told this far-right network that an unidentified man had showed her “exactly how they’re stealing elections in Virginia.” She maintained, “They’re moving, in cyberland, they are switching inactive voters to active voters, all in the same week, it’s undetectable. I know what they’re doing…and now the Youngkin campaign has all that information.” When Virginia attorney general Mark Herring, a Democrat, demanded Chase hand over any material she possessed indicating improbities in the election, a Chase spokesperson told Talking Points Memo, “We don’t owe Herring a thing.” Chase also posted on Facebook a debunked charge that voters had been turned away from early voting in Virginia because they had been sent absentee ballots they never requested.
Other conspiracy theories about the Virginia election have been advanced on the right. On October 23, Christina Bobb, an OAN host who was in the Trump crew’s “war room” as a volunteer on January 6, predicted a “midnight ballot drop” could be coming in Virginia and warned of “suspicious people doing suspicious things.” And Trump, too, has gotten into the act. On Monday, he issued a statement saying, “I am not a believer in the integrity of Virginia’s elections, lots of bad things went on, and are going on.” Trump did not cite any specific “bad thing” underway in the Old Dominion.
With all these claims, Trump and the Republicans are looking to get a head-start on undermining election results if they end up being good for McAuliffe. And these baseless accusations have also been used to motivate right-wing poll-watchers for the Virginia election. Ned Jones of the Virginia Project, a group that has supported Trump’s Big Lie, has been trying to recruit conservatives who can serve, as he put it, as “an army of aggressive, respectful, well-trained observers” at polling locations. In one Zoom video, Jones maintained that “cheating can happen at every precinct.”
Recent polls have cast the Virginia election as a toss-up. A close finish will likely lead to a huge battle over the vote count. And by brandishing unfounded accusations of cheating before the tallying even begins, Trump and the Republicans are signaling that they will not accept a Youngkin loss. Their line boils down to this: if we win, the election was fair; if we lose, the Democrats cheated. That was Trump’s stance in 2016 and in 2020. This poisonous notion will likely be a part of all significant elections in the near-future, and Virginia has become a proving ground for Trump’s most noxious tactic.