By Ned Parker and Joseph Ax
RENO, Nev. (Reuters) -A slate of conspiracy theorists seeking to take over key U.S. election posts lost races in battleground states, after months of warnings from election experts and Democrats that their ascension could threaten American democracy itself.
The final nail in the coffin arrived on Saturday in Nevada, where Republican Jim Marchant, who helped organize candidates under the "America First" banner, lost his bid to become the state's top election official to Democrat Cisco Aguilar, Edison Research projected.
Marchant and like-minded candidates echoed former President Donald Trump's false claims that the 2020 election was rigged and promised to overhaul the voting apparatus in pivotal states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Arizona with an eye toward 2024, when Trump is expected to seek the White House once again.
Their defeats were a sign of voters rejecting anti-democratic tendencies in tight midterm elections. President Joe Biden's Democrats also held their majority in the Senate, Edison Research projected on Saturday, while officials continue to count ballots in 20 races that will determine control of the House of Representatives.
But the "red wave" that Republicans had expected to give them wide congressional majorities and position them to sway the outcome of the 2024 White House race, did not materialize.
In an interview, Aguilar said his victory proved Americans were fed up with election denialism, two years after Trump's defeat.
"I think it also showed that voters are tired of chaos, and chaos doesn't work," Aguilar said. Marchant did not respond to requests for comment.
In swing states Arizona, Nevada and Michigan, "America First" candidates were nominated for secretary of state, the position that oversees elections. Their rise drew an unusual level of attention and spending to the races, which have historically been political afterthoughts compared with the pitched battles for Congress and governorships.
All of those candidates lost. None have publicly conceded defeat.
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said his party won because voters were alarmed by the election denial and violent political rhetoric of some Republicans. "We were on the edge of autocracy and thank God the American people pulled us back," Schumer said at a press conference on Sunday.
In Pennsylvania, where the governor appoints the secretary of state, the Republican gubernatorial candidate was Doug Mastriano, who helped bus supporters to Washington for the Jan. 6, 2021, protests that turned into an attack on the Capitol and said he would not have certified the 2020 results. He lost decisively to Josh Shapiro, the Democratic attorney general.
The only "American First" candidate to win a secretary of state race on Tuesday was Diego Morales in solidly Republican Indiana.
Election deniers consistently ran behind other Republican statewide candidates, according to New York University's Brennan Center for Justice.
"That says to me that Americans understood the stakes and are firmly on the side of free and fair elections," said Lawrence Norden, the senior director of Brennan's elections and government program.
Fears about political violence – stoked by a spike in threats against election workers and armed observers at ballot drop boxes – have also proven unfounded, at least thus far.
Nevertheless, many Republican election deniers won other races around the country.
Trump's falsehoods about the 2020 election have permeated the Republican base, prompting many candidates either to decline to repudiate his claims or outright embrace them. Reuters/Ipsos polling has shown about two-thirds of Republican voters believe the election was stolen from Trump.
Ahead of the midterms, a Washington Post analysis found more than half of Republican nominees for House, Senate and key statewide positions had questioned the 2020 outcome.
Many of those candidates found success on Tuesday, particularly in more solidly Republican areas. The Post had tracked more than 170 election deniers who won their races as of Sunday morning, with all but half a dozen in contests that had not been seen as competitive before Election Day.
In Arizona, Republican Kari Lake, who has already suggested without evidence that slow vote-counting there is due to malfeasance, is locked in a yet-uncalled race for governor with Katie Hobbs, the Democratic secretary of state.
In campaign appearances this fall, Biden repeatedly warned voters that "democracy was on the ballot."
On a trip to Cambodia, he told reporters that the opposition party had reached an inflection point: "I think the Republican Party is going to have to make, like our parties in the past have done, it's going to have to decide who they are."
(Reporting by Ned Parker in Las Vegas and Joseph Ax in New York; Additional reporting by Nandita Bose in Phnom Penh; Editing by Scott Malone and Daniel Wallis)