Last week, Don Bolduc became the last Republican to win a Senate primary, in New Hampshire. He had campaigned on the right-wing red meat of 2020 election denialism, Sparta cosplay, and accusing the state’s popular Republican governor of being a “Chinese communist sympathizer” and “globalist world-government guy.” (In the previous election cycle, Bolduc had spread conspiracy theories about vaccines containing microchips.) He defeated the more moderate candidate, state Senate president Chuck Morse, with a little help from meddlesome national Democrats.
Given that the primary was dead-last and less than two months before Election Day, Bolduc has had to work quickly to soften his image for centrist voters ahead of the general election. Still, the speed with which Bolduc threw the primary-season iteration of himself under the bus was gob smacking.
“I’ve done a lot of research on this,” he said on Fox News two days after winning the primary. “And I’ve spent the past couple weeks talking to Granite Staters all over the state from every party, and I have come to the conclusion—and I want to be definitive on this—the election was not stolen.”
This was a new view! “I signed a letter with 120 other generals and admirals saying that Trump won the election, and, damnit, I stand by my letter,” he had said during the primary. “I’m not switching horses, baby. This is it.” Watch the clip. The crowd is loving it. He gives a little wink! It wasn’t the only time he said this.
When asked about this change, he said: “We, you know, live and learn, right?”
This unbelievable about-face is something more than a post-primary “pivot.” It’s more than “flip-flopping.” It’s closer to attempting interdimensional travel between separate realities.
Mere “pivoting” after a primary win is a fact of life. If done properly, it doesn’t necessarily require changing a position, but changing an emphasis. A Democrat might emphasize the need for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in a primary, for example, while emphasizing the need for stronger border security in the general. A Republican might emphasize their “pro-life” credentials in the primary and emphasize abortion exceptions in the general. (Seeing a lot of this right now!) It’s an art.
There is little room for art in Donald Trump’s Republican Party. Either you question, or outright dispute, the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election—a conspiracy theory—or you risk, and likely receive, Trump’s enmity. Most were not willing to risk that. A Washington Post analysis late this summer found that “across the battleground states that decided the 2020 vote, candidates who deny the legitimacy of that election have claimed nearly two-thirds of GOP nominations for state and federal offices with authority over elections.”
Some of them, like gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania, are true believers who’ve remained committed to the cause. We’ll see how that works out for him. Others clearly just said stuff to get through the primary. In tight races, where Republicans have to make some inroads with the suburban, college-educated voters they lost during the Trump years, a certain adjustment is necessary.
And Bolduc is hardly the only one doing this.
In Arizona, Blake Masters, whom Trump endorsed, offered the following words on his website during the primary: “We need to get serious about election integrity. The 2020 election was a rotten mess—if we had had a free and fair election, President Trump would be sitting in the Oval Office today and America would be so much better off.” All of those words except the first sentence—we need to get serious about election integrity—are gone.
In Pennsylvania, Mehmet Oz, whom Trump also endorsed, never went whole-hog on election denial claims. His efforts to not go whole-hog could make for some excruciating moments, in fact. During a debate, Oz said that “we cannot move on” from the 2020 election, and that “we have to be serious about what happened in 2020, and we won’t be able to address that until we can really look under the hood.” When pressed to follow up on what that meant, though, he wouldn’t go so far as to use the word “stolen” or “rigged.” Once into the general election, he was eager to say that he would have voted to certify the election results.
Herschel Walker had also called the election “stolen.” When asked in May if Biden was lawfully elected, he said “I don’t know.”
The thing is, you don’t get to do this. You do! But you don’t.
The legitimacy of the 2020 election is not a “campaign issue.” Social Security is an issue. Abortion is an issue. Guns are an issue. The size of the federal budget, immigration, education policy, water rights, land use, climate change, trade, paid leave, prescription drug costs, campaign finance, health care, student loans: These are issues. Stupid things are issues, too. Whether your opponent looks or acts or walks funny, that is an issue. An issue is something on which a position can be taken. A “pivot” is when you change emphasis of your position. A “flip-flop” is when you change your position.
And it’s shredding the space-time continuum when you go through the primary insisting that someone who did not win the election may have won (or did win!) the election, only to say that’s not true when you get to the general election. It is saying during the primary that the sky is neon green with maroon dots, and saying during the general election that it is, on average, blue. It’s nice that the 2020 election was no longer stolen now that primary season is over. But this isn’t an ordinary subject, and that’s not a normal “pivot” that should be chin-stroked away as typical campaign strategy.