Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to supporters at a campaign stop on August 24, 2022.
CNN  — 

As Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis stumps for some of this year’s midterm candidates ahead of what looks increasingly like a showdown with former President Donald Trump in 2024, he’s seemed to be more nimble than most on the Trump tightrope.

He’s offered a wink and a nod to the election fraud claims that animate the former President’s loyalists while concentrating on base-pleasing stunts like flying migrants to Martha’s Vineyard.

But DeSantis has flirted with election conspiracy theories and installed a state elections chief who appeared committed to the aggressive tactics of activists who have embraced those theories, as described in new CNN reporting Monday. All of that underscores just how many GOP leaders still try to appease a base that fervently believes Trump’s myth that he won. There is no evidence of widespread election fraud in the 2020 presidential results.

DeSantis has carefully skirted the issue in his public comments – avoiding a definitive declaration of whether he believes Joe Biden was rightfully elected president, but never making that topic central to his message – while campaigning for midterm candidates who have trumpeted the former President’s election lies. And yet, CNN’s reporting shows how DeSantis is letting the dangerous falsehoods that threaten this country’s democratic institutions flourish inside his administration in a key swing state.

The Florida governor elevated Cord Byrd, a Republican state lawmaker who has entertained election conspiracy theories, to be Florida’s secretary of state this spring, CNN’s Steve Contorno reported, and records obtained by CNN show that officials within DeSantis’ administration repeatedly met with Florida activists aligned with Trump lieutenants who sought to overturn the 2020 presidential results, including one of Trump’s election lawyers, Cleta Mitchell.

More on DeSantis

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  • Florida lawmaker sues DeSantis to block future migrant flights from the border
  • DeSantis makes appeal to GOP base with migrant move as he faces reelection and eyes 2024
  • Crist urges Democratic donors to help stop DeSantis before he becomes too powerful

  • Shortly before taking the job as the state’s elections chief, Byrd addressed a gathering of activists in Orlando who embraced Trump’s election theories, telling them they were going to be “our army on the ground” monitoring local election supervisors “to ensure that they’re doing their job right,” according to leaked recordings obtained by CNN. When DeSantis addressed the same group – the Orlando summit organized by the Conservative Partnership Institute – he echoed flimsy concerns that Trump has raised about the way elections are run in Georgia, a state the former President narrowly lost where efforts to overturn the results are now the subject of a grand jury investigation.

    That unwillingness of GOP leaders to challenge Trump’s election mirage comes as the House select committee investigating the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol has meticulously unraveled how Trump pushed his election lies despite being told repeatedly that his claims were false – essentially punctuating the conclusion of the courts, which had tossed out dozens of attempts by Trump’s team to challenge the 2020 results.

    New evidence about the mindset of Trump and his closest allies before the 2020 election emerged on Monday. CNN obtained footage provided by a Danish documentary film crew that shows Roger Stone, a close confidante of Trump, arguing on November 1, 2020, that Trump should claim victory on election night even when the result is still “up in the air.”

    “F**k the voting, let’s get right to the violence,” Stone said in a separate clip filmed before the election that was also obtained by CNN. The filmmakers have shared the footage with the House January 6 committee. Stone disputed the authenticity of the footage in a statement to CNN.

    A politically risky strategy in a general election

    And yet, even a potentially formidable Trump rival like DeSantis – who faces reelection this fall but is already the biggest name in the GOP outside of the former President – apparently has calculated that the best strategy for his political ascent is to allow Trump’s misinformation about the 2020 election to remain unchallenged.

    It’s a dangerous strategy that may well throw future elections into chaos with Trump-backed candidates now in the running for jobs that would put them in charge of critical states’ election infrastructure. But it’s still not clear whether voters are as focused on the threats to the election apparatus as they are to other issues like inflation and abortion rights, which seemingly have a more immediate impact on their lives.

    The general election in November will serve as the first big test of this Trump-era GOP strategy – and whether the party’s tolerance for or, in some cases, elevation of election deniers in primaries will repel independents and moderate Republicans who don’t have patience for Trump’s obsession with the last election.

    The former President has complicated his party’s chances of retaking the US House, Senate and a number of governors’ mansions around the country by hand-selecting candidates who were the most vociferous defenders of his baseless theories about 2020 election fraud. His endorsement helped push many of them across the primary finish line. His imprint extends all the way up and down the ballot – most notably in the fact that at least 12 Republican nominees running to be elections chief in their states have questioned, rejected or tried to overturn the results of the 2020 election, as CNN’s Daniel Dale chronicled last month.

    There are some signs of GOP jitters about how election denialism will play in November. Republican officials have privately groused for months that the smartest strategy is to shift the national conversation away from Trump’s election obsession to voters’ more immediate concerns like inflation, crime and the 2 million encounters with border crossers this fiscal year. Disquiet with Trump’s actions has been evident in some polls. In a recent New York Times/Siena College national survey of registered voters, 54% said that Trump “went so far that he threatened American democracy” in his actions after the 2020 election, while only 38% said he was “just exercising his right to contest the election.”

    But because Trump remains so popular within the GOP base, only a handful of Republican candidates have backtracked in their embrace of Trump’s false election theories as they attempt to appeal to a broader swath of the electorate before the November contests. The most notable examples were in the swing states of New Hampshire and Arizona, two states where independent voters are a powerful force.

    In Arizona, CNN’s KFile uncovered how GOP Senate nominee Blake Masters removed language from his campaign website that referred to the 2020 election as a “rotten mess” and that “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.” After the August primary, the page said: “We need to get serious about election integrity.” (When questioned about website revisions around his position on abortion after the primary, a person close to Masters told CNN that the candidate viewed the policy section of his campaign website as a “living document.”)

    The most dramatic reversal was by New Hampshire Senate Republican Don Bolduc who campaigned during the primary on the false premise that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, but then did an about-face shortly after winning the GOP nomination in September, stating that he had “done a lot of research on this” and spoken to many voters in New Hampshire about it.

    “I’ve come to the conclusion, and I want to be definitive on this: The election was not stolen,” Bolduc said on Fox after his win. “Elections have consequences and, unfortunately, President Biden is the legitimate president of this country.”

    The straddle that DeSantis, and other candidates are attempting could get tougher as the voting in the 2022 and 2024 elections draws closer.

    Rep. Liz Cheney, who lost her Wyoming primary last month after becoming one of Trump’s most vocal GOP critics, warned during an appearance at the Texas Tribune Festival this weekend that independent voters, along with moderate Republicans and Democrats, “want sanity.”

    She urged Americans to vote against election deniers and said she would campaign for Democrats to prevent contenders who echo the former President’s election lies from winning. While demurring on whether she will run for the White House, she said she will do everything she can to prevent Trump from becoming the nominee in 2024 – and said that if “he is the nominee I won’t be a Republican.”

    Cheney argued that the most important obligation every American has is “to make sure that people who believe in what the election deniers are saying, the people who would tear the Republic down, don’t get power.”

    Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican who proved adept at appealing to independents and moderates in his campaign last year, has taken heat for committing to campaign for Arizona GOP gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake. Youngkin, another potential White House contender, won his election (in a state that Biden won handily the year before) after acknowledging that Biden’s election was legitimate. Lake has falsely stated that the 2020 election was stolen, a centerpiece of her primary campaign.

    When asked about the incongruence of their positions at the Texas Tribune Festival, Youngkin noted he has said, “I firmly believe that Joe Biden was elected president.” On the question of whether he was comfortable standing alongside a Republican who disputed the 2020 outcome, he replied: “I am comfortable supporting Republican candidates, and we don’t agree on everything.”

    But a difference over whether the 2020 election was fairly won is no small policy quibble. For some of those coveted voters in the middle who help determine elections on the margins, it will represent the difference between truth and lie. Republicans in tough races who continue to stand with Trump on that subject may end up paying a hefty price.