At least three dozen lawyers and law firms that advanced Donald J. Trump’s failed attempt to overturn the 2020 election are now working for Republican candidates, parties and other groups, filing lawsuits and other complaints that could lay the groundwork for challenging the results of midterm elections, according to a New York Times analysis of campaign finance records and legal filings.
Though the 2020 legal push failed, with just one victory out of more than 60 lawsuits, scores of lawyers behind it have continued to work on election litigation.
That includes partners at large law firms like Consovoy McCarthy and Snell & Wilmer, which filed challenges shortly after Mr. Trump’s defeat and dropped them within weeks. But it also includes lawyers who for months argued cases based on groundless allegations and dubious legal theories, giving Mr. Trump’s false claims a veneer of legitimacy and propelling a swirl of misinformation about elections.
On that list are Cleta Mitchell and John Eastman, two lawyers who helped devise Mr. Trump’s legal strategy in 2020 and are now mobilizing activists to hunt for evidence of fraud in the midterm count. Lawyers with the Thomas More Society, a conservative legal group that pushed the so-called fake electors proposal through the courts after the 2020 election, have recently filed a lawsuit in Pennsylvania disputing how officials handle absentee ballots.
In Michigan, Erick Kaardal, another lawyer with the group, told a group of right-wing organizers in late October suggested he was already preparing to challenge the results if the Republican candidate for governor, Tudor Dixon, loses narrowly to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat.
“Are we going to be ready if they rigged the election so Tudor loses a close race?” Mr. Kaardal said, according to an audio recording of the call obtained by The New York Times. “And are we going to be ready to bring those cases into court, bring those facts, that investigation into court, that would require it to be redone, right? I mean that’s really what it’s about. If election official illegalities and irregularities cast doubt on a close election result, then the Michigan election has to be redone.”
Election lawyers and administrators say they fear 2020 may have ushered in a sea change in election law. Previously, campaigns and parties challenged election rules before Election Day and, typically, accepted a court’s ruling and the results of the vote. But after many of Mr. Trump’s pre-election lawsuits failed and he lost the election, his allies returned to similar legal arguments — now citing falsehoods, rumors and exaggerations as evidence — to claim that all votes were fraudulent.
With less than a week to go before Election Day, the 2022 midterms have had an avalanche of litigation. More than 115 cases have been filed this year, with a roughly even split between groups aligned with Republicans and Democrats, according to Democracy Docket, a left-leaning website that tracks election litigation. At this point in 2020, fewer than 70 lawsuits had been filed.
As in 2020, much of this litigation has focused on absentee ballots, including disputes over how election officials count ballots that are incomplete, contain errors or arrive late. Many of these cases are unlikely to be resolved before Election Day on Nov. 8.
Richard L. Hasen, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, described many of them as “placeholders.”
“So, if it’s really close in Nevada, then you’ve got these lawsuits that are pending, already in the pipeline, that could provide a basis for trying to claim that there was fraud or some reason to think that a Democrat didn’t win,” he said.
Behind the surge of lawsuits is a surge of cash. Both Republican and Democratic groups are spending record sums on legal services, with Democratic committees pouring $14.5 million into legal and compliance fees as of Saturday, and Republicans spending more than $17.5 million, according to campaign finance records.
Of that Republican total, more than $10 million has gone to firms or lawyers who helped with the 2020 litigation effort, according to campaign finance records.
Several of the more far-fetched claims now, as in 2020, have been filed by the Thomas More Society. Before the 2020 election, its election project, called Amistad Project, filed several lawsuits that were ultimately dismissed. After the election, the group’s lawyers worked with Mr. Trump’s legal team, led by Rudolph W. Giuliani, to try to overturn the results and push for a slate of Trump-supporting electors to replace those elected by voters.
In early December 2020, Thomas E. Breth and Thomas W. King III, two lawyers in Pennsylvania for Thomas More, filed a motion to direct Gov. Tom Wolf to decertify the election, making a host of claims about improper and illegal ballots cast in the 2020 election. The suit was dismissed in less than a week.
Now Mr. Breth and Mr. King are again suing Pennsylvania, challenging whether county election boards have the authority to create procedures for voters to fix errors in their absentee ballots.
In Michigan and Pennsylvania, Mr. Kaardal has filed complaints with the secretary of state offices, claiming that a common information-sharing tool is illegal under federal law. The platform — which is used by election officials in 33 states and Washington, D.C., to help clean up voter rolls — could “potentially rig Michigan’s federal elections toward certain candidates,” the group said in a statement.
Secretaries of state who use the platform said that claim had no merit.
“There’s been no evidence of any impropriety, any irregularity or inconsistency” related to the platform, said Alabama’s secretary of state, John Merrill, a Republican. “It is one of the finest tools introduced to us to help us prevent voter fraud.”
Mr. Kaardal was recently candid about his legal strategy. In the call with organizers, he said he had “found ways that voters can challenge close election results” if there are “irregularities” and allegations of misconduct against election officials.
“So a lot of this is building up to that,” he said.
Neither Mr. Kaardal nor a press officer for the Thomas More Society responded to multiple requests for comment.
Some major firms that filed challenges after the 2020 election have remained on Republican payrolls. Consovoy McCarthy, which filed a motion to intervene for the Trump campaign in the Supreme Court challenging Pennsylvania mail-in ballots, earned more than $2.1 million from Republican committees in 2022. Snell & Wilmer, which filed a lawsuit in Arizona on behalf of the Trump campaign claiming corrupted ballots, was paid more than $280,000 by both the R.N.C. and Republican candidates for Congress, including Juan Ciscomani, a Republican running for a competitive, open seat in Arizona.
Consovoy McCarthy declined to comment. Snell & Wilmer did not respond to a request for comment.
Statecraft Law, another law firm involved in the Arizona suit, has been retained by Blake Masters, the Republican candidate for Senate, and several other candidates, and was paid more than $600,000 this year.
Senator Ron Johnson’s re-election campaign in Wisconsin has paid $20,000 to James R. Troupis, a lawyer who argued for overturning the 2020 election in Wisconsin by invalidating ballots. He was a part of the scheme to send alternate electors to Congress. Soon after his hiring, the Johnson campaign introduced a website and a video on Wednesday encouraging people to report suspected “election integrity” problems.
Jenna Ellis, one of the most visible members of Mr. Giuliani’s legal team, is a senior legal adviser to Doug Mastriano, who is running for governor of Pennsylvania.
Other Trump-aligned lawyers appear to be working to build cases before the votes are counted. Ms. Mitchell, a former lawyer for Mr. Trump, has stood up a loose national network recruiting and training partisan poll watchers to search for fraud.
Mr. Eastman, who helped devise a failed plan to block Congress from certifying the 2020 election, recently encouraged an audience of right-wing activists in New Mexico to aggressively file complaints and challenges at the polls — and document the results carefully.
“That then becomes the basis for an affidavit in a court challenge after the fact,” according to audio of the event obtained by The Times and first reported by Politico.
Mr. Eastman did not respond to requests for comment. In an email, Ms. Ellis defended her work challenging the vote in 2020.
“While the Democrats frame any challenges to election administration as ‘election denying’ or ‘voter suppression,’ the truth is that simply following the law and enforcing the rules should be a nonpartisan issue,” she wrote. “President Trump’s 2020 challenges underscored the need for greater transparency and uniform application and enforcement of the law.”
For some lawyers, involvement in the 2020 election has bolstered their political profile.
Before 2020, Walter S. Zimolong, a Pennsylvania lawyer, largely focused on construction and labor law (though he did represent a student mocked for wearing a campaign T-shirt in 2012).
Afterward, Mr. Zimolong, along with lawyers for True the Vote, a right-wing group that hunts for voter fraud, filed a lawsuit seeking to invalidate more than 2.2 million votes from four Pennsylvania counties around Philadelphia and Pittsburgh — areas where President Biden led by hundreds of thousands of votes. They said, among other claims, that high turnout in suburban counties was suspicious. The suit was voluntarily dismissed a week later.
In a statement to The Times, Mr. Zimolong said “my litigation was not part of the Trump campaign. I never coordinated with the campaign either.”
Soon after, Mr. Zimolong replaced the images of hard hats and work boots on his website with a picture an American flag laying on a table, underneath a pair of work gloves. He pledged to be a “‘go-to’ lawyer in Pennsylvania for conservative causes and candidates for office.”
Now, Mr. Zimolong is working alongside America First Legal — a conservative organization founded by Mark Meadows and Stephen Miller, former Trump aides. The group has filed multiple lawsuits in Pennsylvania, challenging the use of unmanned drop boxes in two counties.
In a statement, Mr. Zimolong disputed that he was new to political work: “I have been an active Republican lawyer my entire career.”
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