By MATTHEW BARAKAT Associated Press
FALLS CHURCH, Va. (AP) — It’s an issue the top GOP contenders for governor in Virginia say is a high priority: election integrity.
Whether it’s tightening voter ID laws, making the Department of Elections politically independent, or cleaning up voter rolls, the candidates say change is necessary to restore integrity to the voting process.
But with a notable exception, the leading candidates are unwilling to say that their prioritization of the issue stems from a belief that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump.
With a majority of Virginia Republicans telling pollsters that they believe the election was stolen — a claim that has been repeatedly refuted by elections officials nationwide — candidates need to find a way to tap into the party base’s anger about the election without linking themselves too closely to Trump’s claims of voter fraud. Doing so could damage them in the general election: The same Christopher Newport University poll that shows Republicans in Virginia believe the election was stolen also shows that two-thirds of independents and 100% of Democrats believe Joe Biden’s victory was legitimate.
Stephen Farnsworth, political science professor at the University of Mary Washington, said “election integrity” rhetoric provides a way for candidates to show the GOP based that they are “Trump adjacent.”
“Talking about ‘election integrity’ is an effective way to reach Trump supporters without torpedoing chances of a general election victory in November,” Farnsworth said.
Former Republican U.S. Rep. Denver Riggleman, who has not ruled out an independent bid for governor, and who has been critical of his party’s acceptance of election conspiracy theories, said the emphasis on election integrity is a wink and a nod to those conspiracy enthusiasts.
“‘Election integrity’ is a cover term for ‘Stop the Steal.’ And ‘Stop the Steal’ is a cover term for ‘QAnon,'” Riggleman said in a phone interview, referring to the elaborate conspiracy theory that claims Trump is waging a secret battle against a “deep state.”
Among the four leading candidates to win the nomination at the party’s May 8 convention, Amanda Chase, Kirk Cox, Pete Snyder and Glenn Youngkin all say election integrity is a top issue.
But Cox, Snyder and Youngkin all frame the issue as distinct from Trump’s claims of voter fraud.
Youngkin, in an interview, said Democrats expressed similar concerns about fraud in 2016 when Hillary Clinton lost to Trump.
“It’s an issue that’s been raised by both parties for 10 years,” Youngkin said. “It’s a democracy issue.”
Cox, the former Virginia House speaker and a longtime legislator, cited a 2017 legislative audit that found potential problems in the state department of elections, including its susceptibility to political influence.
He blamed changes made by the Democratic-controlled legislature to make voting easier during the pandemic for undermining voter confidence.
“A lot of people lost confidence in the system,” he said. “Some of these things that passed in the legislature, they were problematic.”
Still, he was quick to point out that he accepted Biden as the legitimate president once the states cast their Electoral College ballots in December.
Snyder’s campaign did not make the candidate available for an interview, but in his announcement of an election integrity plan that includes requirements for signature verification on absentee ballots and other items, he makes no mention of Trump or the 2020 election and he says that “for too many Virginians, whether they be Republicans, Democrats or Independents, trust in our election system has been severely strained.”
The exception among the four candidates, as is often the case, is state Sen. Amanda Chase, who has been unapologetic in her support of Trump.
When asked how she stands out on election integrity from the other candidates, she cited her participation in the Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” rally that spawned the mob march on the Capitol. While she was clear that she did not condone violence or illegal activity, she reiterated her stance that many rally participants were patriots.
“No other candidate was at the Jan. 6 rally. I’m the only one who says the 2020 election was stolen. They haven’t been on the front lines like I have,” she said in a phone interview.
She said she hasn’t met a single grass-roots Republican who believes Biden’s election was legitimate.
Chase said she is even skeptical that Biden carried Virginia, despite official election returns showing he won by 10 points. The results were affirmed by a statewide audit in which roughly 1,400 ballots were pulled at random. Chase, though, said the audit did not pull enough ballots.
Riggleman said some of the specific policy issues cited by the candidates, like requiring voter identification, are not necessarily bad ideas. He noted that he sponsored legislation with Democrat Tulsi Gabbard to end the practice of “ballot harvesting” in which one person collects absentee or mail-in ballots on behalf of many others.
“But we’re not even able to have that discussion because in reality the talk about ‘election integrity’ is a wink and a nod at the Stop the Steal electorate,” he said.
While he disapproves of the tactic, he said from a purely political standpoint, candidates know it allows them to tap into the energy of an angry GOP base.
“It’s going to be wildly successful,” he predicted.
The party’s convention will be “unassembled,” meaning GOP officials plan to offer multiple voting sites around the state where convention delegates who pre-register as such can cast ballots. The other candidates recognized by the party are Paul Davis, Peter Doran, Octavia Johnson, Sergio de la Pena, Merle Rutledge and Kurt Santini.