Arizona Republicans are on the verge of nominating two of America’s most prominent election deniers for governor and secretary of state, the latest in a series of primary contests with serious consequences for America’s democracy.
Kari Lake, a former news anchor, and Mark Finchem, a state lawmaker, are running for governor and secretary of state, respectively. Both have built their campaigns around the lie that the 2020 election was stolen. Both are frontrunners in their races and if elected, they would take over roles with considerable power over how elections are run and certified in a key battleground state.
The Arizona primary on Tuesday is the latest in a series of contests where candidates who have questioned the election results stand a strong chance of winning the GOP nomination for statewide office. It’s a trend that is deeply alarming, experts say, and could pave the way for Republicans to reject the result of a future election.
“It’s a dangerous time for elections because you have a couple of people who are relying on people to vote for them but then will turn around and say the election system is rigged despite the lack of any evidence as such. There’s no talk of policy or anything. It’s all looking backward to 2020,” said Barrett Marson, a Republican consultant in the state. “This issue has staying power, much to my chagrin and a lot of other people.”
Even in an era when denying election results has become Republican orthodoxy, Lake and Finchem stand out.
Lake has said she would not have certified the 2020 presidential race in Arizona, falsely claimed Joe Biden lost the state (he carried it by more than 10,000 votes), and called the election “corrupt” and “rotten”. During a rally earlier this year, she claimed nearly a dozen times in the span of an hour that the election was stolen. She has called for the imprisonment of Arizona’s top election official for her handling of the 2020 race and jailing journalists. Lake wants to end mail-in voting, widely used in Arizona, and she and Finchem have both joined a lawsuit, supported by MyPillow chief executive Mike Lindell to end the use of electronic voting equipment in Arizona.
Both Mike Pence and Arizona Governor Doug Ducey have endorsed Karrin Taylor Robson, a wealthy real-estate developer, who is Lake’s most significant challenger in the polls for the nomination. In recent days, Lake has begun suggesting there is fraud underfoot to steal the election from her, but has offered no evidence to support her claim.
“We’re already detecting some fraud. I know none of you are shocked,” she said, according to the Washington Post. “We’re already detecting fraud, and believe me, we’ve got cyber folks working with us, we’ve got lots of attorneys. And I’m hoping that we have the sheriffs that will do something about it. We’ll keep you posted.” She has, however, recently encouraged her supporters to cast their votes by mail.
Taylor Robson has said the 2020 election wasn’t fair, but has stopped short of saying it was stolen. Lorna Romero, a Republican operative in the state who has worked for former Governor Jan Brewer and for John McCain, predicted that the winning candidate in the primary would be whoever could spread their message the most. About a third of voters in Arizona are not affiliated with a party and can choose to vote in either the Democratic or Republican nominating contests.
“This is populism. This is just pure populism for populism’s sake, and her desire to be popular,” said Chuck Coughlin, a Republican consultant in the state. “You have a referendum, if you will, in the governor’s race, on which part of the party are you supporting. The pragmatic, want-to-govern conservative – or Trump. You have a significant war going on there.”
Finchem is the frontrunner for the secretary of state nomination, a position from which he would oversee elections in Arizona.
Finchem was a close ally of Trump in the former president’s bid to overturn the 2020 race. Ali Alexander, a leader of the Stop the Steal movement, has credited Finchem with bringing the push to Arizona. “Arizona started with one man: State Representative Mark Finchem,” Alexander said last year.
Earlier this year, Finchem introduced a resolution to decertify the election, which is not legally possible. I have signed a joint resolution of the Arizona legislature asking Congress to accept a fake slate of electors from Arizona (a plan currently under investigation by the Justice Department). He hosted Rudy Giuliani at a Phoenix hotel after the election for an event at which the president’s lawyer lied and said Biden won the election because he received votes from undocumented people.
Finchem is also a member of the Oath Keepers, a far-right militia group, and was at the capitol on January 6. He has been subpoenaed by the committee investigating the capitol attack. He is a member of a network of candidates who don’t believe the results of the 2020 election seeking to be the chief election official in their state.
“Am I’m surprised that somebody who questions the 2020 election would want to run for secretary of state? No, not really,” Romero said. “His whole standpoint from him is he wants to eliminate the fraud from the system, and it’s a good talking point for him for those who believe the 2020 election was stolen.”
Secretary of state primaries are usually “sleeper” contests that few people pay attention to, Romero said. That means Trump’s endorsement is likely to be a major boost for Finchem in the race. Still, Romero said she was “disappointed” by the emphasis on a stolen election, because Republicans have a significant opportunity to appeal to voters on issues like the economy this year.
The secretary of state in Arizona is responsible for canvassing official statewide election results. Coughlin said he had little doubt Finchem would hold up certification of a race.
“He would not fall in line. He would follow the Donald Trump script of doing everything possible to be a disrupter if the election outcome is anything but what he wanted. I don’t see any go-along-to-get-along in Mark Finchem,” he said.
Until 2020, Finchem did not have much of an interest in Arizona’s election laws, and was known mostly for representing the issues of his rural district in southern Arizona. “His reputation of him was n’t great. People didn’t much like working with him,” Marson said. “He was a back-bencher is probably the best way to describe it.”
The political potency of election denialism was on display earlier this month at a rally in Arizona’s rural Prescott Valley, where Donald Trump came to stump for Lake.
Shawn Callaway, 34, a Republican party committee worker in Surprise, a small city near Phoenix, is supporting both Lake and Finchem. He supports Lake, he said, because of her efforts to halt the use of electronic voting equipment.
“It means a lot to me that she’s willing to fight against election fraud, because if our elections aren’t safe we don’t have anything,” said Callaway, who bagged front row seats with his wife and parents to see Trump.
Callaway, who plans to cast his vote in person, also said he was unfazed by Finchem’s connection to the extremist Oath Keepers. “The Founding Fathers wanted us to have militia groups – it’s what keeps us free. As long as they are law-abiding, I’m fine with that,” he said.
Kelly Ciccone, 58, who moved to Maricopa county from Florida a decade ago, also said she plans to support Finchem and Lake. “It’s a plus that he’s an Oath Keeper – self-defense is everything. Guns aren’t bad: crazy people with guns are the problem,” said Ciccone, who also attended the Trump rally. “Kari Lake is pure fire. She’s a dragon, just like Trump.”
The race underscores how Arizona continues to be a hotbed of conspiracy theories about the 2020 race.
Last year, the state legislature authorized an unprecedented partisan review of the 2020 race, championed by Finchem, of the 2020 race in Maricopa county, the largest county in the state. Even though the audit affirmed Biden’s win, Lake, Finchem, and other conspiracy theorists continue to insist that something was amiss. The state Republican party recently censured Rusty Bowers, the Republican House speaker Rusty Bowers after he testified to the January 6 committee about Trump’s efforts to pressure him to overturn the election.
The Guardian also observed a focus group with five Arizona Republicans who voted for Trump in 2020, conducted as part of a series by the prominent anti-Trump Republican strategist, Sarah Longwell. The hour-long session offered a glimpse into how views of the candidates varied widely.
One woman who considers herself a moderate said she was inclined to support Lake because she grew up watching her deliver the news on TV. But for the other self-identified moderate in the group, Lake’s public persona gave her pause. Noting that Trump was also a media figure before turning to politics, she said: “I’m not certain I want to see Arizona go down that road.”
All were aware that Trump had endorsed Lake, but that wasn’t enough for some.
“I love Trump’s policies but not his rhetoric, and think Kari Lake would also be divisive when we need to come together,” said 81-year-old Arlene Bright, who attended the Trump rally in the Prescott Valley.
“We need to move on from the last election.”