She was a firebrand Democrat. Now, Cleta Mitchell is a rising star of Republican election denialism

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She was a firebrand Democrat. Now, Cleta Mitchell is a rising star of Republican election denialism

Before she joined Donald Trump in asking Georgia state officials to ‘find 11,780 votes’ in 2020, Mitchell was the feminist flag bearer of the Equal Rights amendment in Oklahoma

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Decades before she joined the now infamous call in which Donald Trump asked Georgia’s top election official to “find 11,780 votes”, conservative election activist Cleta Mitchell was a young Democratic powerhouse legislator in Oklahoma fighting for progressive causes.

How Mitchell – who advised Trump during his 2016 campaign and who founded the national Election Integrity Network, a group working to get grassroots conservatives to monitor their polls and protect the country from voter fraud – ended up on that phone call, is still confounding for those who knew her earlier in her career. Such a stunning political pivot is certainly uncommon.

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Former colleagues and classmates described a gifted, ambitious, but self-interested attorney willing to attach herself to whatever cause might propel her career. The possible explanations they can find for the transition stem from her multiple marriages, the frustrations of a lost election and her husband’s white collar conviction.

In 2021, she told an Oklahoma newspaper that her ideological transition was a “thoughtful process” that involved reading and studying the perils of big government.

Regardless of why that shift happened, it led to one of the most prominent figures on the right pushing the narrative that voter fraud stole the 2020 election from Trump and could do it again this year.

She’s always had a very acidic tongue and was very gifted at using it’

Born Cleta Deatherage in Oklahoma City in 1950, Mitchell attended Oklahoma University as an undergraduate and a law student, where she was well known in student politics.

“At that time she was quite liberal and very articulate,” said classmate David Walters, who would go on to serve as governor of Oklahoma from 1991 to 1995.

Joe Lunn, who beat Mitchell in a race for student president and is now a history professor at University of Michigan, described her as bright, ambitious, political and “an opportunist”. Not many women considered running for student president at the time, making her a pioneer. But Lunn remembers that while they were campaigning, he and Mitchell spoke to the Black student union “and she made a pretty serious slip”.

“She got flustered and started talking about ‘you people’ and the African American students kind of went ballistic,” he said. “I think in that context, certainly at that time she was a subconscious (if that’s possible) racist like many [white] Oklahomans at that time.”

While at Oklahoma University, she married classmate and former student president Duane Draper, a fellow liberal who would go on to run for city council in Norman, Oklahoma.

Shortly after completing law school in 1976, when she was 26, Mitchell was elected to the Oklahoma legislature where she quickly earned a reputation for her support of women’s rights and progressive education policy. “She was a force to be reckoned with,” Walters said. Gene Rainbolt, a prominent figure in the Oklahoma banking industry, called her “the most liberal person there”. She chaired the house appropriations and budget committee – the first woman to do that in any state – and led the effort in Oklahoma to push for the Equal Rights amendment, a proposed constitutional amendment that would have prohibited sex discrimination. Oklahoma was ultimately one of 15 states that failed to ratify the amendment, contributing to its failure nationally.

“She was the smartest person in the room, whether it was the house floor or the appropriations committee,” said Cal Hobson, who served with Mitchell in the legislature. “She was very intense and determined to pass the Equal Rights amendment. I would say that was her number one priority.” In 1984, at the age of 33, she was named a promising Democratic woman by Time magazine.

During her time in the house, Mitchell and Draper divorced, according to the Atlantic. Draper later came out as gay, although it’s unclear if his sexuality was a reason for the divorce. He would go on to become director of the Massachusetts AIDS policy office and later died of Aids in 1991. The Atlantic noted the irony that Mitchell would go on to become an anti-gay mouthpiece at the American Conservative Union.

Mitchell served four terms, leaving the legislature to become a vice-president at Citizens National Bank in Oklahoma City, a bank run by Dale Mitchell, the son of a well-known professional baseball player, who she married in 1984. Former classmates and colleagues of Cleta say Dale was more conservative and likely contributed to his wife moving to the right, as did the wealth they accumulated.

Two years later in 1986, she ran for lieutenant governor, losing in the Democratic primary to Robert Kerr III, the grandson of US Senator Robert S Kerr. Kerr remembers Mitchell as intelligent, but with flaws.

“Cleta is a very gifted woman,” he said. “Very intelligent. Very knowledgeable. I try not to judge people, but Cleta has always been, in my opinion, my experience, first foremost and always for whatever is best for what she perceived to be best for herself.”

Kerr remembers that Spencer Bernard, the incumbent lieutenant governor who also ran in the primary, got into a car accident about a week before election day. Mitchell accused him, without evidence, of driving drunk, Kerr said. “Without any facts backing it up, she just tore into old Spencer like a hurricane. She’s always had a very acidic tongue and was very gifted at using it.”

Mitchell herself recognized her brand of dirty politics at the time, telling the Oklahoman in August 1986: “It knots my stomach up. It looks easy for me to sit up there and say those things about somebody, but it knots me up to attack somebody. But it has to be done, because there’s no way to get the message out.”

Those tactics didn’t do Mitchell any favors in the race, Kerr said. “The electorate wasn’t interested in personal attack politics.”

Mitchell ended up losing the race by a significant margin. “My impression was she was shocked that she was beaten by this guy whom she did not consider to be her equal,” Walters said. “Just an old name got him elected and her talents were set aside. My sense is that precipitated a real turn on her part.”

A few years later, in the early 1990s, Dale Mitchell was convicted of felony bank fraud, ordered to pay $3m in restitution and sentenced to five years probation. Cleta has said that investigation and conviction helped convince her that big government is problematic and furthered her move to the right. She told the New Yorker in 1996 that “overreaching government regulation is one of the great scandals of our times”.

Hobson remembers that at some point in the 1990s, Mitchell returned to the University of Oklahoma campus to speak. “She just gleefully told all these ladies that had supported her and the Equal Rights amendment how happy she was that it had failed and that she was wrong back then.”

“I never have understood, quite frankly, this transition that she’s made,” he added.

Mitchell declined an interview, saying: “I don’t talk to the Guardian because there has not been a fair article written by anyone at the Guardian about me in years.”

She’s armed and zealous’

After working in private law practice in Oklahoma, Mitchell moved to Washington DC in 1991 to become executive director and general counsel of the Term Limits Legal Institute, an issue that conservative firebrand Newt Gingrich was pushing at the time as part of his Contract with America. This role earned her a reputation as a conservative lawyer, which would eventually lead her to Trump’s side.

Over the next few years, she would change her party affiliation to independent, and then later Republican, according to the Atlantic.

In DC, she became a prominent Republican attorney, joining major law firm Foley & Lardner in 2001 and becoming a hugely influential force for conservative causes. According to the Republican National Lawyers Association (where she served as president at one point), she has represented numerous Republican candidates, campaigns and members of Congress, including senators Elizabeth Dole, Marco Rubio and Jim Inhofe.

“I think you could argue she is the most important Washington conservative not in public office,” conservative commentator George Will, a friend of Mitchell’s, told the Wall Street Journal in 2010. “She’s armed and zealous.”

She also represented Republican groups including the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Rifle Association in a supreme court case involving federal campaign finance law.

In 2011, Trump hired Mitchell to represent him against accusations that he violated federal campaign finance laws.

It’s unclear when Trump brought her back into his orbit, but the January 6 commission revealed the critical role she played in trying to stop Georgia from certifying the 2020 election. Former friends and colleagues were shocked to hear her voice on the infamous call in which Trump tried to convince Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s secretary of state, to help him steal the election.

After that call became public, Mitchell left Foley & Lardner. In an email to her clients and friends when she resigned, Mitchell blamed her departure on a pressure campaign by “leftist” groups, but said that a large national firm is no longer the place for her work.

“Election integrity is something I have been quite passionate about for many, many years,” she said. “That was and remains my goal in trying to get to the truth about the Georgia election results. Those who deny the existence of voter and election fraud are not in touch with facts and reality.”

Her star only rose in the rightwing election space. The Libertarian organization, FreedomWorks, tapped her to spearhead a $10m drive in seven key states to amend voting laws. The Trump-allied Conservative Partnership Institute also recruited her as a senior fellow to do election-related work. Around that time, she told the AP that she and Trump were in contact “fairly frequently”.

Despite a grand jury’s recommendation that she be charged, the sweeping indictment in Fulton county against Trump and 18 of his allies and co-conspirators did not include Mitchell, and she has not been charged with a crime related to the effort to steal the 2020 election.

‘A true believer and very committed

Mitchell is now one of the most influential Republicans working to shape election law and policy ahead of the 2024 presidential election. She leads the Election Integrity Network, a project of the Conservative Partnership Institute, and is on the board at the Bradley Foundation, a rightwing group that has doled out money to election deniers. She also chairs the Public Interest Legal Foundation, a rightwing legal group that files lawsuits against states it claims isn’t updating voter lists.

Most recently, Mitchell has become one of the leading figures in the Republican party’s push to elevate the threat of non-citizen voting, which conservatives are using to lay the groundwork to cast doubt on election results after November. She leads the Only Citizens Vote Coalition, a group of more than 70 organizations that has aligned itself with nativist, anti-immigrant groups to promote “citizen voting”. She joins weekly zoom calls with grassroots activists hoping to help the coalition root out potential fraud and clean voter rolls.

She was also on the Capitol steps when Mike Johnson, the House speaker, announced the Save Act, a bill to require documentary proof of citizenship to register to vote for federal elections.

“It’s still striking to me that someone who was recommended for criminal indictment for having tried to overturn an election is now standing on the Capitol steps with the House speaker and being treated as a credible player in the elections space,” said Brendan Fischer, deputy executive director of democracy watchdog group Documented.

The legislation is unlikely to be successful this year, but Republicans could take control of both chambers of Congress next year and, given that Trump has refused to commit to accept the results of the 2024 election if he loses, could push it as part of an anti-voting agenda.

If alleged voter fraud continues to be a major talking point on the right, Mitchell’s profile is likely to only rise.

To those who knew her earlier in her career, her embrace of “election integrity” is opportunistic, driven by the chance for prominence in Trump’s world and potentially by the rightwing donors who are pouring money into the issue. Even so, she seems to have fully embraced her new role.

“She’s seemingly a true believer and very committed to it, which shocks all of us because she was such a progressive on all these issues, so it just doesn’t make sense to us,” Walters said. “She seemed to be, at least at times in her life, a person of principle so I just didn’t quite understand how she could make such a 180 degree turn.”

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