RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Most Republican candidates running for the Virginia legislature this year are centering their pitches to voters on issues such as education, the cost of living and gun rights.

But for a small segment of contenders, former President Donald Trump's false claims of a rigged 2020 election have remained an important campaign selling point heading into Tuesday's primary.

“There’s still an underlying distrust of the election process by Republicans,” said state Sen. Amanda Chase, who is in a three-way primary for a GOP-leaning seat in suburban Richmond.

Chase has persistently repeated Trump's lie that the 2020 election was stolen, once called for martial law to overturn the results and was censured by the state Senate for telling falsehoods and voicing support for those who attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

She is one of at least six Republican candidates for the General Assembly who attended Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally or the subsequent march to the Capitol. All say they did not enter the building during the riot, and none has been charged with a crime. Another GOP candidate is a lawyer who worked on Trump's attempts to reverse his loss in Wisconsin, a result that was affirmed in recounts and audits.

Nearly three years after Democrat Joe Biden won the White House, the Virginia candidates' messaging shows the durability among Republicans of Trump's claims, something that's been reflected in previous election cycles and echoed in polling. In interviews, recent appearances or social media posts, those candidates who were in Washington on Jan. 6 have either defended claims that the election was rigged, worn their attendance as a badge of honor or pledged to pursue major changes to Virginia voting laws if elected.

Virginia is one of the few states that holds its state legislative races in odd years. Every seat is on the ballot in a year where control of the General Assembly, which is split between Democrats and Republicans, is up for grabs.

In last year's midterms, candidates who rejected the 2020 results fared poorly, with deniers losing every bid for statewide office in the swing states of Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Virginia, a quasi-swing state with its unusual off-year election cycle, is closely watched for hints of voter sentiment heading into the following year’s midterm or presidential cycle. How some of the Jan. 6 attendees fare this year could offer further insight on voters’ willingness to back candidates who continue to embrace the false claims by Trump, who lost the state to Biden in 2020 by about 10 percentage points.

Most of the Virginia statehouse candidates who attended the Jan. 6 rally or march said that if Republicans can win majorities in both chambers, they would push to roll back voting changes enacted by Democrats. They expanded access to early voting and absentee ballots, and eliminated the previous voter ID requirement.

John McGuire, a former Navy SEAL and current House of Delegates member, has said in interviews that he wants to change election laws in order to “turn Virginia red again.”

“If we can lock arms and get the House, get the Senate, change the election laws, get rid of election season, get a voter ID, ban these drop boxes that are not secure, we could have a red state that could be in play for 2024,” he said in an April interview on the John Fredericks radio show.

To be clear, the 2020 election was not stolen from Trump, who is dominating early primary polls for the GOP presidential nomination in 2024. Multiple reviews, recounts and audits in the battleground states where Trump contested his loss validated Biden's victory. Even Trump's former attorney general said there was no evidence of widespread fraud in the 2020 election, and dozens of judges, including several nominated by Trump, rejected his claims. An Associated Press review of every potential case of voter fraud in the six battleground states disputed by Trump found no evidence of widespread fraud.

None of the six Virginia legislative candidates is running in any of the highly competitive swing districts that are expected to help determine party control in the fall. In all but one case, the winner of the Republican nomination is almost assured of winning the seat.

McGuire has already won a party-run Senate nomination contest in a heavily Republican district after receiving Gov. Glenn Youngkin's endorsement. Another, former Chase aide and House candidate Jody Pyles, recently lost his bid for the GOP nomination to an incumbent in a different party-run process. Neither responded to requests for comment.

Philip Hamilton, a longshot candidate with no primary opponent in a heavily Democratic Senate district that includes Charlottesville, said he questions whether Biden was legitimately elected but isn't emphasizing the issue in his campaign.

In addition to Chase, the other Jan. 6 participants on Tuesday's ballot are current state delegates Dave LaRock and Marie March.

LaRock did not agree to an interview request from the AP but responded to questions by email. He has made 2020 a central part of this year's campaign as he competes with seven other Republicans for the party's nomination in a deep red Shenandoah Valley-area Senate seat.

“I have no regrets about participating in the peaceful, political free-speech rallies on January 6. I spoke out against the violence and lawbreaking as soon as I learned of it through news reports,” he said, adding that people who did not break the law “had every right to be there.”

Former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, who at one point suggested that Trump could invoke the military to stop Biden from taking office, endorsed LaRock last month. He lauded LaRock for his “faithfulness to the cause” when LaRock wrote a letter asking then-Vice President Mike Pence to delay the certification of Virginia’s presidential electors in the 2020 race.

March, who didn't respond to requests for comment, told a crowd about her Jan. 6 participation in April, mentioning at a campaign event that restaurants she owned were “attacked relentlessly” because she was there.

March faces a primary contest against another delegate, Wren Williams in one of the state's few incumbent-on-incumbent matchups, a result of new district maps created through redistricting.

Williams, who worked on Trump's Wisconsin legal team, said in an interview that the 2020 election was “absolutely rigged” but that liberals are the ones keeping the issue front and center. Biden's victory in Wisconsin and the lack of any widespread fraud has been affirmed through recounts and a nonpartisan audit — even a partisan investigation ordered by legislative Republicans.

“I feel like the left is the one more interested in 2020 and the 2020 election and Jan. 6 because they inevitably have very little record to run on with Joe Biden’s administration and the wreckage and the damage that they’ve done to America over the last few years,” Williams said.

The six candidates who were in Washington on Jan. 6 are among a longer list of Republicans running for office in Virginia who have pushed false claims about the 2020 election, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee said in a new research report.

The group's research counts 16 total candidates in Virginia’s 2023 state legislative races who have engaged in what the DLCC calls "election denial or other anti-democratic activity.”

Among them are candidates who attended local “Stop the Steal” rallies after the 2020 election, shared false claims of voter fraud or promoted the debunked film “2,000 Mules.”

Heather Williams, interim president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, said those types of candidates “are an ongoing threat to our democracy.”

“State legislatures are the most impactful level of the ballot when it comes to our elections and voting rights, and with these extreme candidates and lawmakers running, the stakes couldn’t be higher this cycle,” she said.

Rich Anderson, chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia, pushed back on that argument. He said in an interview that while he thinks most GOP candidates are looking forward, candidates should have the license to freely discuss their beliefs on any issue.

America is a “sturdy” nation that has been through “lots worse than somebody who may feel concerns over the process of the 2020 election and its ultimate outcome,” he said.


Swenson reported from New York.


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