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Election denialism beliefs animate some GOP candidates in Michigan

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

I'm in Michigan because of a lie. It's a lie that still holds a lot of sway here, this false claim that Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election. Now, no evidence whatsoever has ever backed up this claim. But just last month, while on stage stumping for local candidates in the Detroit suburbs, Trump trotted out this same lie again.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: We did win, and we won big. We won big. And we won big in Michigan.

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

CHANG: Nope, Trump did not win big. He didn't win at all. He lost Michigan by 154,000 votes. And despite all evidence confirming this margin of loss, Trump's big lie has taken hold of and animated large swaths of the Republican Party all across the country, including here in Michigan.

ZACH GORCHOW: And you can look no further than what happened at state Republican convention on April 23.

CHANG: That's Zach Gorchow of the Gongwer News Service in Michigan.

GORCHOW: They're the ones doing all the work. They are the spine of the party. And they voted to back for secretary of state in the state of Michigan and attorney general in the state of Michigan...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Candidate for secretary of state, Kristina Karamo.

KRISTINA KARAMO: Thank you.

GORCHOW: ...Two unknowns, kind of fringe characters whose whole cause has been the election was stolen.

CHANG: Gorchow's talking about Kristina Karamo, who is running for secretary of state in Michigan, and Matt DePerno, who's running for state attorney general. Zach Gorchow, whom you just heard from earlier, tracks all things political in Michigan. And when I met him on a cold, gray day in the shadow of the Michigan State Capitol...

GORCHOW: ...Everybody who's got to be too in front...

CHANG: You're like a five-minute walk away from...

GORCHOW: Yeah.

CHANG: ...All your sources.

GORCHOW: Right, yes. Exactly. That's why it's important to be close to the Capitol.

CHANG: He walked me through one of the incidents here that had helped give rise to conspiracy theories about the 2020 election.

GORCHOW: First was what happened in a small county in northern Michigan called Antrim County. On election night in this county, which is a solidly Republican county, numbers started to show that Joe Biden and Democrats down the ticket were winning Antrim County by a substantial margin. Immediately, this went from, boy, this doesn't make any sense - what's going on? - to, among a set of President Trump supporters, this is a sign the election is being stolen.

CHANG: Now, election officials caught the mistake. They corrected it, and Trump won the county. Still, conspiracy theories did not stop there because more than 200 miles south in Detroit, chaos was unfolding at what was then known as the TCF center, where absentee ballots were getting counted.

GORCHOW: As everyone knows nationally, Republicans were tending to vote in person in 2020, and Democrats were using the absentee process. So it was sort of known there's a huge outstanding absentee ballot vote, and it's going to be heavily Democratic.

CHANG: And those votes did indeed take away Trump's early lead.

GORCHOW: And so I think that's what drove a lot of Republicans to go down to TCF Center in Detroit. And, you know, let's not sugarcoat this - suspicions about race playing some sort of a role in the factor because Detroit is, I believe, the nation's largest Black city. Most of the elected leadership out of the city of Detroit is Black. And so metropolitan Detroit is a very segregated place. And so there's long been this tension, assumptions - Detroit is corrupt. And when I say assumptions - by white suburbanites, by and large.

CHANG: And in November 2020, those tensions boiled over.

GORCHOW: Republican activists who have not been given permission to be in there as poll challengers descend on TCF center and are pounding on the doors demanding to get in. They do not have the right to be there, but they immediately start casting this as we're being shut out. Funny business is going on.

CHANG: Now fast-forward to today. This false idea that Trump won in 2020, it still drives much of the Michigan Republican Party, including the candidacy of Kristina Karamo. Remember, she's running for secretary of state, which means if she does win, she could be in charge of elections in Michigan.

How much power would she have over how elections unfold here in Michigan? Give us a sense.

GORCHOW: Considerable power, not end all, be all. Ultimately, the courts are the final arbiter of how the Michigan election law and the Michigan Campaign Finance Act are enforced, but you have considerable administrative authority. If the secretary of state believes that a local county clerk or local municipal clerk is not enforcing election law, they can come in and take over. That's a substantial power. And you could just imagine, you know, could Kristina Karamo - if she decides the Detroit city clerk, the Wayne County clerk, any of these areas that tend to vote heavily Democratic are not, in her view, enforcing the election law properly could cause considerable tumult.

CHANG: So how many other Republican candidates campaigning this year for the upcoming midterm elections - how many of them are mostly attacking the election of 2020 itself rather than their political opponents specifically?

GORCHOW: Well, in the governor's race right now, we have 10 candidates for governor, and most of them are not focusing on the election. There are a couple of fringier candidates who are making no bones about the fact they think the election was stolen. Garrett Soldano and Ryan Kelley would probably be at the forefront of that.

CHANG: Right.

GORCHOW: When you get further down the ticket, and you look at the races for the Michigan Senate and the Michigan House, you do have a number of candidates campaigning for Republican nominations who are all in on the election was stolen. They've been endorsed by former President Trump because they are campaigning on that basis.

CHANG: Well, given that there is a strong current in this state of people who believe the election of 2020 was stolen, are they concerned about not only this upcoming election, but elections going forward in terms of - you know, former President Trump used misinformation about the 2020 election in Michigan to try to overturn the election. And a lot of Republicans are still continuing to cast doubt. So what sort of concerns are you hearing from voters or politicians about the potential for a real crisis in elections ahead?

GORCHOW: There's a lot of concern out there about what's going to happen after these 2022 elections. Every county has its own board of canvassers that certifies their results...

CHANG: Right.

GORCHOW: ...Before the state does. And those folks are chosen by local political parties. And there's been a lot of good reporting done that in counties all across the state, Republicans who believe the election was stolen are getting put onto these boards.

One of the saving graces of the 2020 election was that the election was certified in all 83 counties by every bipartisan board of canvassers. And you just wonder, could we have a situation this November where some of these counties don't certify the election because of this idea that there's fraud - false fraud ideas? And it will definitely be a crisis.

CHANG: Zach Gorchow is executive editor and publisher of Gongwer Michigan News Service. Thank you so much for meeting with us today.

GORCHOW: It was great to be with you.

CHANG: And that board of canvassers you just heard Zach Gorchow talk about - well, on Monday, we're going to hear how a member of one board voted to certify Joe Biden's win in 2020 and then faced a backlash from her fellow Republicans.

Was there ever a moment of any doubt where you thought maybe I shouldn't certify?

UNIDENTIFIED CANVASSER: No, absolutely not.

CHANG: That's Monday on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.