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Even the Sane Republicans Are Embracing Election Deniers

Chris Sununu is just the latest to put party before country.
November 1, 2022
Even the Sane Republicans Are Embracing Election Deniers
Chris Sununu, Governor, State of New Hampshire (Photo by Jon Cherry/Getty Images for Concordia )

Chris Sununu, the governor of New Hampshire, is one of the saner people in today’s Republican party. He concedes that the 2020 election was free and fair. He acknowledges climate change. He has criticized Republican leaders for ostracizing Rep. Liz Cheney and other principled dissidents while protecting the party’s worst extremists.

That’s why Sununu’s decision in the final weeks of the 2022 campaign to embrace election deniers is a particularly bad sign. Like other Republican officials, he has decided that sabotage of public faith in democracy doesn’t matter, as long as the saboteurs are Republicans. And he’s defending their reckless behavior with pernicious excuses.

On Sep. 13, election deniers won the Republican primaries for two of New Hampshire’s three federal offices. Don Bolduc, who has insisted that “Trump won the election” in 2020, captured the GOP nomination to face off against incumbent Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan. And Karoline Leavitt, who has said Trump “absolutely” won, got the nomination for one of the state’s two congressional seats.

Sununu could have said that he considered these nominees unfit for office. At a minimum, he could have kept his distance. Instead, he has endorsed Leavitt and praised Bolduc.

Last Tuesday, in a gubernatorial debate, Sununu was asked why he supported candidates who claimed “without evidence that elections were stolen.” He didn’t dispute that characterization of their views. Instead, he said endorsement decisions should be based on more than just “one issue,” as though election denial were no different from energy subsidies or water management.

Two days after Sununu’s comment, Bolduc—who had indicated after the primaries that he would tone down his allegations of fraud—again insinuated that elections were being stolen. In a Senate debate, he said the people of New Hampshire “don’t like the fact that they can’t trust the mail-in ballot system,” that there were “proven irregularities with voting machines,” and that “same-day voter-registration causes fraud.” He added: “We need to make sure that school buses loaded with people at the polls don’t come in and vote.”

The debate’s moderator, apparently taken aback, asked Bolduc whether he was “claiming that buses full of voters who are not permitted to vote here” were, in fact, showing up at polls in New Hampshire. Bolduc replied: “This is what Granite Staters are telling me. And I think it’s valid.”

Bolduc’s answer reflected a common tactic in today’s GOP. Investigations and fact checks have found no evidence to support the allegation about buses (which has been around for years) or claims of fraud in New Hampshire’s 2020 election. So instead of evidence, Bolduc invokes the misinformed opinions of ordinary people. These opinions, he insists, are inherently “valid.” Like liberals who pretend that every opinion on moral questions is equally sound—for example, that single-parent families are just as good for kids as two-parent families—many of today’s so-called conservatives are subjectivists about election fraud.

It’s bad enough that quacks like Bolduc peddle this nonsense. But now there’s a second tier of Republicans—Glenn Youngkin and Ron DeSantis, for example—who, while not affirming the lies about massive fraud, proudly campaign for election deniers. Sununu, like others, has joined this tier.

On Sunday, in an interview with Sununu, Meet the Press moderator Chuck Todd played a video of Bolduc’s rant about the buses. Todd noted that a week earlier on his show, Cheney had implored Republicans not to support election deniers. He asked Sununu why he was backing Bolduc.

Sununu responded by shrugging off the topic and his past disagreements with Bolduc. “Don and I didn’t see eye to eye during the primary,” he said, but “I’m going to support the Republican ticket, because the issues that folks are voting on are inflation, gas prices,” and other economic concerns.

Sununu, like Bolduc, is deferring to misinformed voters. But he’s not deferring to them about what’s true. He’s not suggesting, as Bolduc does, that because they believe the bus myth, he should believe it, too. He’s deferring to them about what’s important. If voters don’t see election denial as the paramount issue, neither does he.

Todd asked the governor: “Do you think the inflation issue is enough to sort of rationalize support for somebody who thinks school buses of voters are going to show up in New Hampshire?” It was a moral question, but Sununu treated it as a political one. “You’re in a bubble, man,” he told Todd. “You are in a bubble if you think anybody’s talking about what happened in 2020. . . . People are talking about what is happening in their pocketbooks every single day.”

It’s true that a central element of democracy is listening to voters’ everyday concerns. It’s also true that this year, according to polls, Americans are far more likely to vote based on inflation than based on who’s claiming election fraud. But voters can be wrong, and in this case, they are. Election denial is the most important issue, because without respect for election results, democracy will collapse. And if democracy collapses, people won’t be able to hold the government accountable for respecting or addressing any of their concerns.

Inflation, in particular, is a bad reason to support an election denier. Everyone agrees that inflation has to be reined in through some combination of increased supply and reduced demand. There are disagreements about the exact mix of remedies, but these disagreements are relatively small. Both parties, for instance, are trying to accelerate oil production. Differences on that issue pale in comparison to the gulf between politicians who respect elections and those who don’t.

Sununu is a governor. His job is to lead. But he’s not leading; he’s following. He’s refusing to contradict voters who think, mistakenly, that the differences between Bolduc and Hassan on inflation are more important than the differences between Bolduc and Hassan on respecting elections. Worse, Sununu is using this popular misconception as a cudgel against Todd and others who put democracy first. He belittles their approach—thinking things through instead of just following the polls—as a “bubble.”

Sununu also argues that voters are right to focus on their pocketbooks. At one point, Todd asked him whether voters should prioritize inflation and other issues “over election denialism.” Sununu responded: “Of course! . . . The beauty of the American system is every voter has the right and almost the responsibility to be selfish with their vote, to vote in terms of what is best for their family.”

Again, the governor has a point: Part of what makes democracy work is that people vote their pocketbooks, and this forces politicians to pay attention to citizens’ material concerns. But when democracy itself is threatened, marginal differences in pocketbook issues have to be set aside. Elected policymakers and the Federal Reserve will spend the next two years trying to crush inflation, regardless of which party controls Congress. So when Sununu says voters should be selfish, he’s not really encouraging them to be prudent. He’s encouraging them to ignore threats to the system.

Todd put that question directly to the governor. “Are you at all concerned,” he asked, that worries about inflation might drive voters to elect “a bunch of election denialists”? Sununu replied that new blood in Congress would be healthy. The only way to solve problems, he argued, was “bringing new people to Washington.” What voters want this year, he noted with approval, was simply “to send somebody different back to Washington, mix things up.”

That’s a formula for trouble. If voters across the country choose candidates who are new and different, the most unconventional candidates will be election deniers, and the freshest faces will be nominees who have never worked in—and may never have shown much respect for—democratic institutions. Governors like Sununu, who grew up inside the political system, will face a Congress full of Republicans who, when the next presidential election comes around, may not accept certified results from states like New Hampshire. And they’ll have no one to blame but themselves.

William Saletan

William Saletan is a writer at The Bulwark.