For the first seven minutes of his Michigan rally Saturday, former President Donald Trump stuck to two familiar issues Republicans are running on this November: inflation and the rising cost of living under President Biden, and immigration and the southern border.
Then, he turned to a topic that's been occupying him since November 2020: that the presidential election had been "stolen" from him.
He claimed John James, now a congressional candidate for Michigan's 10th District, had won his last race for U.S. Senate in 2020. He did not. James lost to Sen. Gary Peters by over 92,000 votes. Trump accused Democrats of obliterating "election integrity." He said America is a "third world country" because of how ballots are counted, and he praised France for using paper ballots.
Trump did not acknowledge a Michigan investigation led by a panel of state Republicans that found no evidence of widespread fraud.
And then he urged the crowd crammed into the arena in Macomb County, where he won by 8 points in 2020, to turn out in November so that they can overtake Democrats.
"Michigan patriots have to shatter every record, because they cheat like hell, these people," Trump said, implying that Republican voters have to run up the margins so Democrats "can't rig it."
Republican voters in the state — and at the rally — also believe Trump was cheated in 2020. "Absolutely," the election was stolen, said Deborah Brown, a retired telecommunications worker and longtime Republican.
Over half Republican politicians in the state, too, agree with Trump that the election was stolen.
Nine of the 17 statewide and federal GOP congressional nominees in Michigan have expressed doubt about President Joe Biden's victory, even though his margin in the state exceeded 154,000 votes, according to a CBS News analysis. Three of those nine are incumbent members of Congress who voted to object to the electoral college results in Arizona and Pennsylvania on Jan. 6, 2021. They were all recognized by Trump during his rally.
This is happening in all of the states that Trump won in 2016 but lost in 2020: in Arizona, 11 out of their 13 candidates are considered "election deniers." In Wisconsin it's 5 out of 13 candidates, in Georgia 10 out of 19 candidates deny Mr. Biden won the election, and in Pennsylvania, it's 9 out of 20 who believe this is the case.
"How pervasive the fraud was, that's a secondary issue," Michigan Republican candidate for secretary of state Kristina Karamo told CBS News before Trump's remarks. "Some people just don't know how big of a problem it is, but when you start to lay out the evidence, it's horrible."
Karamo cited wireless modems being used in some of the state's election machines, falsely claimed they were hacked in 2020 and suggested they invite fraud in future elections. While there's been no instances of fraud in these systems, some have moved away from using modems according to The Detroit News.
In response to a question on whether she believes the upcoming election will be credible, Karamo declined to answer and instead said she "can't believe" Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson's warnings that election officials have been threatened with violence.
"I think that is so grossly irresponsible of an election official to say that. I've lived in Michigan my whole life, I've never seen anything like that ever," Karamo said.
In early September, Benson said on "Face the Nation" that many secretaries of state and election officials are worried about "violence and disruption on Election Day… and in the days surrounding the election."
A Brennan Center survey of election officials in March found that 1 in 6 officials have "experienced threats."
Republicans including Shane Hernandez, GOP nominee for lieutenant governor, are calling for voter ID laws and closer monitoring of drop boxes. He said that state Republicans want to replicate Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin's poll-watching measures on Election Day.
"We need to make sure we have the team on the ground to make sure people are comfortable," he said.
The GOP nominee for Michigan governor, Tudor Dixon, signaled she agrees with the falsehood that Trump won the 2020 election, raising her hand at a primary debate when asked if candidates believe it was stolen, though she didn't bring it up at the Trump rally Saturday.
A Trafalgar Poll released last week found Dixon is trailing Gov. Gretchen Whitmer by about 5 points. No poll in the state has shown Dixon leading in the past month.
The unfounded belief that the election was stolen — "that's why so many people are here now, and we expect to get [Trump] back. There's a lot of Christians like myself here, and we're praying that [Trump] gets back in here in 2024," Brown, the retired communications worker said as she waited in line for the rally. She said she'd like to hear GOP candidates say more about the 2020 election and "election integrity," too, a sentiment shared by other rallygoers.
Michigan pollster Steve Mitchell says most Michigan GOP voters think Mr. Biden "is an illegally elected president."
"If you're going to run as a Republican and you find yourself denying that, you're not going to get support from Republicans," Mitchell said.
The source of their belief in this is Trump. "The voters believe him," Mitchell said. "There's nothing that anyone can do to dissuade them from the fact that the election was not indeed stolen in Michigan."
Ronald Dwyer, who's running for Oakland County commissioner, is the rare GOP candidate in the state who isn't sure there was enough fraud to turn the election against Trump, but he still thinks it's time to move on.
"We're halfway through the current term; we just got to move forward," he said.
A CBS News poll in September found that 63% of Republicans believe there was "widespread fraud" in the 2020 election, primarily in Democratic and urban areas. Another poll found that if they lose midterm elections, 64% of Republicans said they should accept the results and look to 2024, while the remainder said they should challenge places where Democrats won.
Who controls the statewide positions in Michigan and other battleground states could play an outsized role when it comes to certifying the winner of the next presidential election, in 2024.
Whitmer, who was taunted by chants of "Lock her up!" from a GOP-heavy crowd Saturday, has argued she's the "last line of defense" against what she characterizes as GOP efforts to weaken democracy, according to Bridge Michigan.
Carl Marlinga, the Democratic nominee for Michigan's 10th District, said a central reason for his campaign is to help ensure Michigan Democrats are the majority in the congressional delegation — in case the Electoral College results are tied in 2024 and the state's congressional delegations become the final arbiters of the presidential election.
"I want to be there in January of 2025– I want to be at least one of the 435 to say whatever the reality is, whether it's a Democrat or a Republican, I want to make sure the real winner gets certified," he said.
While Trump says he doesn't think there will ever be a "fair election" again, he's hoping the candidates he supports this November will pass more restrictive election laws.
"Everywhere the Republican party has a chance, we must pass critical election integrity reforms," he said.
The Michigan GOP-led Legislature is already trying to do this. In 2021, the state senate introduced 39 election-related bills — to require photo IDs to vote and others to curb access to absentee ballot applications, according to the Detroit Free Press. Whitmer has vetoed several of these bills, calling them part of a "a coordinated, national attack on voting rights that is designed to undermine confidence in our election system."
In Michigan's August primary, the number of absentee ballots issued and returned was nearly double the amount in 2018, after the state dropped its requirement for voters to have an excuse in order to obtain a mail ballot. Last Thursday, Michigan began making absentee ballots available to be picked up.