The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Arizona’s GOP primaries went full MAGA. Now, Democrats think they have a shot.

Kari Lake, a Republican gubernatorial candidate in Arizona, speaks at a campaign rally in Phoenix on Aug. 1. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

Rachel Leingang is co-founder of the politics and government newsletter the Arizona Agenda.

There might have been a path to victory in the Republican primary in Arizona on Tuesday for statewide candidates who vigorously defended the 2020 election results and made support for the democratic process a cornerstone of their campaigns.

But no one tried to chart it.

Instead, candidates in crowded primaries for governor, U.S. Senate, attorney general and secretary of state almost uniformly sought former president Donald Trump’s approval and support from his base by aligning themselves with the contention that the 2020 election was stolen. For those who got the endorsement, it proved critical.

In the governor’s race, former TV news anchor Kari Lake is leading wealthy self-funder Karrin Taylor Robson, despite Robson’s support from Gov. Doug Ducey and former vice president Mike Pence. The $15 million Robson invested in her own campaign took her from zero name recognition to neck-and-neck with Lake. But that likely won’t be enough to beat the sledgehammer-toting Lake, whose frequent election denialism snagged her Trump’s early and enthusiastic support.

The Trump endorsement reliably netted at least one-third of primary voters. And for crowded races, that was enough.

Mark Finchem, a fringe state lawmaker who has built a national reputation while trying to overturn the 2020 election, will be the GOP’s nominee for secretary of state, which oversees elections. Abe Hamadeh, who said he wouldn’t have signed off on the 2020 election and shared claims that it could still be overturned, won the primary for attorney general. Both were endorsed by Trump, netting them at least a third of the primary electorate in four- and six-way races, respectively.

Blake Masters, a beneficiary of billionaire Peter Thiel’s largesse, needed the Trump endorsement to break away in the five-way race for U.S. Senate. It quickly rocketed his campaign to the top, allowing him to beat self-funder Jim Lamon.

While a few of the candidates — Robson, secretary of state candidate Beau Lane, attorney general candidate Lacy Cooper — said they wouldn’t have attempted to overturn the 2020 election results, they sidestepped reporters’ questions asking whether they thought the election was free and fair.

Of those who fell short in the primaries, Republican pollster and strategist in Arizona Paul Bentz, said, “One of the mistakes that some of these candidates made is that they felt obligated to stick closer to the playbook.” Bentz said that a strong, well-funded candidate who campaigned on supporting democracy might have been able to break through the cacophony of candidates all spouting similar election-denial messages.

Still, one of most ardent defenders of the state’s 2020 presidential election results got pummeled. Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers, running for a seat in the state Senate, lost by a wide margin to fellow Republican David Farnsworth in their deep-red district in the Phoenix suburb of Mesa.

Bowers was recently censured by the Arizona Republican Party. And he faced near-daily tweets from the party’s chair, Kelli Ward, boosting his opponent, who had Trump’s endorsement and said that the 2020 election was stolen, and that “the devil” was the one who stole it.

Further down the ballot, Tom Galvin, a Republican appointee running to win his seat on the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, a body controlled by Republicans who have beat back 2020 conspiracies nonstop, won his race over candidates who made denying the previous election a cornerstone of their run. But he seems to be the exception to the overarching election denialism theme this year.

The state party “definitely put their finger on the scale for a lot of candidates,” Republican consultant Lisa James said. The party itself didn’t endorse, and Ward didn’t use the word endorse in her public statements, but her steady support for the MAGA slate over establishment Republicans was hard to miss.

And in helping to boost Trump-aligned candidates in a state that Trump lost in 2020 — no matter what they claim — the Arizona Republican Party may have damaged its chances of sweeping the state in what should be a banner year for Republicans nationwide.

Arizona Democrats quietly celebrated the Trump slate’s victories, believing they now have a solid shot in November.

A flood of money from outside groups will bombard Arizona voters from both sides. Democrats will paint their opponents as extremists, pointing to their election denialism and antiabortion laws. Republicans, if they’re smart, will try to tie their opponents to Biden administration policies and emphasize kitchen-table issues such as inflation.

But a GOP message centered largely around 2020 and its fallout might not bring in enough independents and moderate Democrats to win statewide.

So far, Lake and other GOP winners on Tuesday are showing no signs of moderating their positions or their tone. That could well be to their own detriment come November.

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