The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Arizona Republican slate packed with Trump-backed election deniers

Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake holds up a sledgehammer while speaking to supporters during her primary election night gathering Aug. 3 in Scottsdale, Ariz. She is in a tight race with challenger Karrin Taylor Robson for the GOP nomination. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
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PHOENIX — Arizona Republican voters embraced the baseless conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential election in Tuesday’s primary and nominated a secretary of state candidate who wants to decertify the 2020 election results; a U.S. Senate candidate who said in an ad, “I think Trump won”; and at least seven U.S. House candidates who have spread falsehoods about the election.

And while it was too early to call the Republican gubernatorial primary on Wednesday evening, the leading candidate is running as a full-throated election denier intent on validating former president Donald Trump’s phony claims that widespread voter fraud cost him the election. The Associated Press estimated Wednesday that about one-fifth of primary ballots had yet to be counted.

Dozens of candidates who refuse to acknowledge President Biden as the legitimate winner in 2020 have won GOP primaries across the country this year, leading GOP tickets in key swing states from Pennsylvania to Nevada. Next week, several more are on the Republican primary ballot in Wisconsin. Denying the election results has become the defining litmus test for Trump and his supporters and, among Republican voters in many states, a winning strategy.

But the Arizona outcome is especially consequential given the huge role the state played in the 2020 election and its aftermath. Voters narrowly chose Biden over Trump — the first time since 1996 a Democrat won the state — making it ripe for attempts to litigate and overturn the results. If the Arizona Republican nominees win those top jobs this year, they could wield tremendous power over the outcome of the 2024 presidential election.

More than 100 GOP primary winners back Trump’s false fraud claims

“To the extent that happens, Arizona really is ground zero for the threat to American democracy,” said Larry J. Sabato, a longtime political scientist who directs the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

One of those candidates: Mark Finchem — a state lawmaker who was outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, before rioters stormed the building in a deadly attack and who has self-identified with the Oath Keepers, a far-right extremist group and self-styled militia — has said he would decertify Arizona’s 2020 election results if he had the power to do so. Now, he’s one election away from overseeing voting in Arizona as the GOP nominee for secretary of state, a position that would make him the state’s top elections official. He said Tuesday that a top priority, if he wins, would be purging voter rolls and eliminating early voting.

For the U.S. Senate, Arizona Republicans chose Blake Masters, a young venture capitalist who mimics Trump’s baseless election claims and traffics in the culture wars that have become central in the far-right discourse. Masters will face incumbent Sen. Mark Kelly (D) in one of the handful of races that could determine the balance of partisan power in the U.S. Senate.

Arizona Senate candidate embraces Trump’s extreme style

Ahead in the race for governor is Kari Lake, a former local TV news anchor turned Trump booster, who has said she would try to replace vote-counting machines with workers and end the state’s vote-by-mail option.

Even as Lake held the edge Wednesday afternoon by two percentage points over Karrin Taylor Robson in their primary, she suggested the election had “a lot of issues, irregularities and problems, so we’re going to address them.” Lake said she would continue to run on the election integrity platform she espoused during the primary, including her focus on the 2020 election.

“We outvoted the fraud. We didn’t listen to what the fake news had to say. The MAGA movement rose up,” she said during a news conference Wednesday afternoon.

Kari Lake wants to upend how Arizonans vote, how their votes are counted

Lake, Masters and Finchem all have Trump’s endorsement.

Some Republicans in the state warn that nominating far-right candidates aligned with Trump may turn off independent and swing voters in November in a state once known for mavericks such as the late senator John McCain and former senator Jeff Flake, who were politically conservative but disavowed Trump’s takeover of the GOP.

“I don’t think a winning strategy is to focus on the past,” said Ben Quayle, an Arizona GOP consultant and son of former GOP vice president Dan Quayle. “Focus on where we can go as a state and a country, but I think focusing on 2020 is a losing message and it’s just not the right message either, because Trump lost.”

Paul Bentz, an Arizona GOP consultant and pollster, said most primary-voting Republicans here tend to believe there was widespread fraud that affected the results of the 2020 election and that running on an election-denying platform was an effective primary strategy. But he agreed that it’s not a winning general-election message.

“They’re going to be significantly challenged to win the general election, because you can see that there are portions of their party who don’t believe in this and then we know significant portions of independents don’t believe, either,” he said.

Election deniers have lost voters such as Maria Kupillas, an independent from Scottsdale, who considers herself a moderate and stopped identifying as a Republican after Trump became the party’s presidential nominee in 2016.

“The choices were bad to worse, so it didn’t give me a lot of hope for who’s actually going to be elected in November,” said Kupillas, a trial attorney, after voting on the GOP ballot on Tuesday.

“I used to be a Republican, but I’m not a far right-wing Republican,” she said. “I feel like Arizona, sadly, is going in the far-right direction … When I moved here I thought Arizona was purple and moderate and John McCain, Sandra Day O’Connor. And we’re actually not that; we’re Paul Gosar and that ilk. It’s a little depressing.”

Longtime Republican voter Linda Swenson, 72, said she likes Lake’s “new blood” and fresh perspectives and wants her to turn around the economy, crack down on illegal immigration and overhaul the state’s elections.

“I voted all my life — for 50 years — and you never had these things, corruption and stealing votes, all the way back to the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s,” she said. “And suddenly now we have it. I cannot grasp it.”

Swenson, of Sun City, thinks Trump won the 2020 election but doesn’t think Lake can do much about that now. She does want her to do whatever she can to ensure everyone’s votes are counted moving forward. There is no evidence that people’s votes weren’t counted.

Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) represents the extreme wing of the party and has been at the forefront of spreading false claims about election fraud in 2020. He was censured by the U.S. House last year after posting on social media a violent anime video that depicted him attacking Biden and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). Gosar won his primary on Tuesday night.

Election deniers also won down-ballot in Arizona. Trump-backed Abe Hamadeh locked down the GOP nomination for state attorney general, a position crucial to certifying elections and representing the state on election-related legal issues. Hamadeh has claimed, without evidence, that the U.S. elections “have been hijacked.”

Rusty Bowers, the Republican speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives, paid a price for resisting efforts by Trump and his allies to undo the state’s election results in 2020. In June, he told his story to the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Rusty Bowers testified in D.C. Now he might lose his primary in Arizona.

Bowers, who was term-limited in his current position, lost an election for the state Senate to former state senator David Farnsworth (R), a Trump-endorsed election-denier who wanted Congress to accept alternate pro-Trump electors for Arizona.

“There is a residual pain at the bottom, but more, I feel bad that across the state this is happening as far as the Republican Party,” Bowers told The Washington Post on Wednesday. “They’ve made their choice, but I think the state of Arizona will have different thoughts” in November, he said.

Several GOP candidates for the Arizona state legislature who have spent the past two years spreading election lies also won their primaries, setting the stage for a state House and Senate that is even further to the right next year.

They include former state lawmaker Anthony Kern, who declared himself an alternate elector and was in D.C. on Jan. 6, 2021, and state Sen. Wendy Rogers, a far-right conspiracy theorist who was censured by her chamber for her discriminatory comments at a white-nationalist conference and used her extreme rhetoric to raise money. State Rep. Jake Hoffman (R), another alternate elector, won his race for the state Senate unchallenged. He does not face a general-election opponent.

Itkowitz reported from Washington.

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