CNN  — 

Arizona Republican gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake showed Sunday how a new generation of Donald Trump protégés are using the former President’s anti-democratic playbook to taint another election.

Lake appeared on CNN’s “State of the Union,” days after the House select committee investigating the January 6, 2021, insurrection aired fresh evidence that Trump knew he lost in 2020 but was determined to declare victory anyway.

Her responses made clear that Trump’s strategy of casting doubt on the result even before ballots are cast is a legitimate tactic in the eyes of some GOP office seekers two years later.

Pressed by CNN’s Dana Bash, Lake repeatedly refused to say that she would accept the result of her election if she lost, implied that vote counting that happens after election night is illegitimate and insisted that the 2020 presidential election was corrupt despite high-ranking officials in Trump’s administration and multiple courts denying this was the case.

“I’m going to win the election, and I will accept that result,” Lake said.

Her response underscored the potential for a crisis around November’s midterm elections if GOP candidates who lose decide they will not accept the result. And it recalled a similar statement by then-Republican presidential nominee Trump in Ohio in October 2016 when he said: “I would like to promise and pledge to all of my voters and supporters and to all of the people of the United States that I will totally accept the results of this great and historic presidential election, if I win.”

Many GOP candidates who have been endorsed by Trump or who support him repeat his false claims that the 2020 election was illegitimate. The possibility that some of them could win key statewide offices that end up controlling elections alarms advocates of free elections – a particularly dangerous scenario without the courage of certain Republican officials who thwarted Trump’s election-stealing bid in 2020.

Lake’s appearance also highlighted how the most significant political dividing line in the country is not between the left and the right but between candidates who will play by the rules of democracy and those willing to further undermine it. Trump, who remains the most dominant Republican electoral force in the country, has exacerbated this situation by making acceptance of his voter fraud lies the price of admission in many GOP primaries and an effective condition for his endorsement.

His claims that he won key 2020 swing states, including Arizona, despite failing to prove any irregularities, have helped to convince millions of Republican voters that he was unfairly ejected from office – and have hurt the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s presidency among many conservatives.

For all of her evasions and willingness to embrace Trump’s debunked accusations of election fraud in 2020, Lake also showed on Sunday why she may be one potential future voice of Trumpism when its author eventually leaves the stage.

As a former veteran television news journalist in Phoenix, Lake is a skillful television performer. Her answers sound persuasive, even when she’s putting across information that is false or questionable, and she’s adept at flipping an answer away from an issue where she could be exposed to one that will please her voters. But her political nimbleness will not be tested on a debate stage, however, since Democratic nominee Katie Hobbs has refused to debate her.

Lake also showed a facility to demagogue undocumented migrants and asylum seekers at the southern border. Trump won the presidency after making that the centerpiece of his 2016 election campaign.

Lake’s evasions are following a path blazed by Trump

Lake’s evasion mirrors Trump’s position ahead of the 2020 election. And it is one that is deeply damaging to democracy since it implies that any time a Democrat wins, it must mean fraud took place. If GOP candidates imply to their supporters the system is corrupt, many will believe it.

Any candidate has the right to challenge the result of an election if they think it was unfair. But increasingly, those who just deny the facts established by officials and courts are using the specter of fraud as a political tool. This is a deeply corrosive tactic since free and fair elections rely on a defeated candidate accepting their loss. Once that is gone, democracy is in deep peril.

Trump repeatedly raised questions about the fairness of the 2020 election well before voters went to the polls and suggested that he could only be defeated by illicit means. While Lake does not go quite as fair as the ex-President, her refusal to unequivocally say she will accept the result, whatever it is, in a currently tight race does not bode well. A recent CNN poll showed no clear leader in the race between Lake and Hobbs among likely voters.

Trump is still pushing falsehoods of widespread fraud in the 2020 election, repeating many of his unfounded accusations in a screed that he issued after the House select committee voted to subpoena him for testimony and documents on Thursday. Even though his claims are spurious – for example, that he must have won in 2020 because he won more votes than in 2016 – they have contributed to widespread mistrust of the electoral system among his supporters. Trump did get more popular votes in 2020 than he did in 2016. But Biden got roughly 7 million more votes than Trump and won a comfortable Electoral College majority. Skepticism about the election that was fueled by Trump persisted after he left office, however. In a CNN/SSRS poll conducted in April 2021, for instance, 70% of Republicans didn’t think Biden won sufficient votes to be elected.

Lake’s opponent pressed on her refusal to debate

Lake deflected a question about why she was using debunked information about 2020 fraud as a platform in her 2022 gubernatorial bid.

“The real issue, Dana, is that the people don’t trust our elections,” she said. When asked why multiple courts and senior Trump appointees in 2020, including then Attorney General William Barr, said there was little or no voter fraud, she insisted there was plentiful evidence, but did not produce any.

“The problem is, the media won’t cover it,” Lake insisted.

CNN’s Daniel Dale has chronicled just how many GOP nominees for federal and state office in November have questioned, rejected or tried to overturn the results of the 2020 election – including at least 11 secretary of state nominees and more than half of gubernatorial nominees. That’s a scary proposition in states where those elected officials have a great say over how elections are conducted and how votes are counted in 2024, when Trump is expected to be a candidate again.

Lake’s answers to Bash gave an opening to Hobbs, the current Arizona secretary of state, who said her rival had a responsibility to bring forward any evidence of voter fraud.

“This is absolutely disqualifying. This is somebody who will have a level of authority over our state’s elections, the ability to sign new legislation into law, the responsibility of certifying future elections.”

“And she has not only, as you heard, refused to say if she will accept the results of this election, but also whether or not she would certify the 2024 presidential election if she’s governor.”

Hobbs, however, has declined to directly debate Lake, warning that she could use any debate to create a “spectacle.” But her position also makes it impossible for Arizona voters to compare each candidate side by side.

As Bash put it: “If you think she’s as dangerous as you’re saying to democracy, is it your responsibility as a candidate who wants to run Arizona to show and explain who their alternative is?”

Hobbs insisted that the kind of conversation she was having on CNN would have been impossible with Lake on stage.

“I guarantee you, people that are struggling in Arizona right now are not making their decisions about whether or not there was a debate between myself and Kari Lake. They’re going to make their decision based on the person who understands their struggle and has real solutions to try to fix that struggle.”

One of the key questions in the coming election is the extent to which Democratic warnings about the fate of the system of free and fair elections influences voting. With annualized inflation at near 40-year highs and gasoline prices rising again, it is likely that voters are considering less lofty concerns than the fate of democracy as they decide the destiny of the House of Representatives, the Senate and key state races.

So even though democracy itself is on the ballot next month, it could well emerge from the election even more tarnished.