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In Ohio, Trump endorses an election official who doesn't think 2020 was stolen

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose gives his victory speech after winning his election in 2018.
Justin Merriman
Getty Images
Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose gives his victory speech after winning his election in 2018.

Shortly after voting ended in 2020, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican, defended the integrity of America's election systems.

He said he believed Joe Biden was the rightful winner of that presidential election, and that calling an election stolen without proof was "irresponsible."

"I certainly have faith in Ohio's elections, and I believe that other states ... almost all, I think all the other states do it very well also," LaRose told Cleveland's The Plain Dealer newspaper in November 2020. "If anybody believes that there's something out there, they need to show evidence. Otherwise, making claims without any basis or evidence behind it is problematic."

A year and a half later, former President Donald Trump is still making those sorts of claims. He came to Ohio two weeks ago and declared that the U.S. had a "fake, phony election."

But in the same week, he also endorsed LaRose, who has softened his criticisms of the former president and sharpened his tone about the state of voting in the U.S., as he faces a challenge in Tuesday's Republican primary in Ohio.

A more mainstream endorsement

LaRose does not fit the typical profile of a Trump-endorsed candidate to oversee voting. The former president has so far endorsed three other candidates in secretary of state races across the country:

  • Kristina Karamo is running in Michigan and made a name for herself by claiming she saw election fraud in Detroit in 2020.
  • Arizona state Rep. Mark Finchem was at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and spoke at a QAnon conference last year.
  • And in Georgia, U.S. Rep. Jody Hice argues that Trump's requests to overturn the results there were "reasonable."
  • LaRose, however, has prided himself on ballot access in Ohio and bipartisanship.

    While serving in the Ohio Senate, he led the effort to implement online voter registration in the state. And leading up to the 2020 election, he co-chaired the National Association of Secretaries of State elections committee along with Michigan Democrat Jocelyn Benson — a frequent target of the far-right. LaRose and Benson would go running together sometimes during NASS meeting weekends.

    LaRose's pivot

    Recently, though, LaRose has pivoted toward the Republican base ahead of Tuesday's primary. His challenger, former state Rep. John Adams, argues the 2020 election was not secure, and has advocated policy positions based on conspiracy theories, like pulling Ohio out of the Electronic Registration Information Center.

    In response, LaRose has moved closer to some of Trump's election fraud narratives.

    LaRose argued recently on Twitter that the mainstream media has wrongfully downplayed voter fraud as an issue in American elections, even though it has never been shown to be a widespread problem.

    And in an interview with NPR, LaRose said he now feels like there were "shenanigans" in other states in 2020, though he declined to characterize the election as stolen.

    That, and much of Trump's language about wanting people loyal to him in powerful election offices, comes in stark contrast to LaRose's prior language around voting, even as recently as earlier this year.

    "People that are influencers, we need to turn the heat down on politicizing elections administration," LaRose told NPR in January. "When it comes to the way the ballots are counted, when it comes to the way the polls are opened, when it comes to the way that elections are run, we should stop politicizing that now."

    In that same interview, LaRose called the trend of candidates not conceding elections that they lose "a very dangerous thing."

    But this week, LaRose responded to questions about Trump's endorsement by saying people don't need to agree on everything to support each other.

    "My wife and I disagree from time to time and we're going to spend the rest of our lives together," LaRose said. "I can certainly accept the endorsement of the [former] president when I support the vast majority of his policies. ... That doesn't mean we agree on everything."

    LaRose said he has not had any in-depth conversations with Trump about election integrity or policy issues regarding voting.

    "Like deer in the wilderness"

    Larry Jacobs, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for the Study of Politics and Governance, said LaRose is responding like all candidates do when faced with a primary challenge.

    "Politicians are like deer in the wilderness — their ears are always detecting potential threats," Jacobs said. "For politicians, the primary is the threat."

    Because turnout is so low for primary elections (they often garner less than a 30% turnout rate), candidates are forced to fight for the most ideologically devoted voters, who are the ones mostly likely to vote in such elections. That means leaning away from more moderate positions and toward ideological extremes.

    Jacobs argued in a recent Washington Post op-ed that primary elections are the chief problem facing American democracy in 2022.

    "Though proposals to save American democracy abound — from abolishing the electoral college to overhauling campaign finance laws — none will succeed without pragmatic primary election reform," he wrote.

    So while a primary challenge may explain LaRose's shift toward the Republican base, what about Trump's late embrace of a voting official candidate who doesn't share his beliefs about the 2020 election?

    Jacobs says LaRose is favored to win this week, and Trump and his team may be looking to boost their scorecard.

    "There's going to be a lot of scrutiny of Trump's ability to influence the outcome of these nominations," Jacobs said. "LaRose could be a quick pickup."

    Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Miles Parks
    Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.