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Election denier Mark Finchem’s sleeper campaign closes in on MAGA prize

The Oath Keeper hoping to run Arizona’s elections is getting outspent 40 to 1 and makes few press or campaign appearances. He still might pull it off.

Mark Finchem, Republican candidate for Arizona secretary of state, speaks at a campaign event in Phoenix in October. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)

PHOENIX — On the night Mark Finchem won the Republican nomination for Arizona’s secretary of state, he didn’t have a victory party. Instead, he showed up at the party for GOP gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake.

A few weeks after the primary, Finchem drove up alone outside a meeting of hundreds of party activists, dropped off some gear, and left without speaking.

In October, Finchem crashed a get-out-the-vote rally in Glendale with Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, at which he hadn’t been invited to speak. “I expected to be a spectator, not on the stage,” Finchem said in remarks that lasted less than a minute.

Finchem is running a virtually nonexistent campaign for statewide office, with little paid advertising, scant public events and even rarer media interviews. In his bid for a position that hasn’t historically been especially prominent, Finchem — frequently donning a cowboy hat and a “Sunday go-to-meeting tie” — appears to be betting that he can ride the coattails of flashier Republicans on the ballot, notably Lake and Senate candidate Blake Masters.

It’s a gamble that might pay off. A CNN poll conducted Sept. 26 through Oct. 2 found 49 percent of likely voters supported Finchem and 45 percent supported Democrat Adrian Fontes, within the poll’s margin of sampling error.

The stakes are enormous, as it would elevate Finchem to second in line of succession for governor and hand him the power to upend how elections are run in a key swing state that decided the 2020 election and could tip the electoral college again in 2024. Finchem, who has repeatedly denied the legitimacy of the 2020 election results, has already said he would not have certified Biden’s win in 2020 and suggested he might use his power to reject Democratic victories in the future.

As secretary of state, Finchem could refuse to certify vote counting machines in use across the state, forcing counties to conduct hand counts that experts say would take longer and be less accurate. He also could rewrite the guidelines on where to place voting locations, side with litigants trying to restrict ballot access and work with allies in the state legislature to curtail early voting and voting by mail.

“These proposals that he has run on would lead to a system that is less efficient, more costly and less accurate — there’s a real danger that all those things could happen,” said Bill Gates, chairman of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors. “It is certainly my hope that if he were elected, once he got into the system, he would understand that the things he is suggesting are not feasible and could actually damage the electoral system.”

Since Donald Trump first suggested the 2020 election might be stolen, Republicans have latched onto the claim. Here’s how it became a litmus test for the party. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Finchem’s campaign got a lift on Monday night from new Twitter owner Elon Musk, who responded to a complaint that Finchem had allegedly been banned from the platform. “Looking into it,” Musk responded. Less than an hour later, Finchem said he had been reinstated.

On Wednesday, Finchem spoke out in defense of people, sometimes wearing masks and tactical gear, who have been camped out near ballot drop boxes. Gates and other local law-enforcement officials have warned the self-appointed monitors against intimidating voters, and three voting rights groups have sought court orders against them. A Trump-appointed judge said Friday the watchers could continue; the groups have appealed.

“It’s not illegal to stand in a parking lot,” Finchem said in a live-streamed interview with Arizona GOP Chair Kelli Ward. “We are a constitutional carry state, so if people are made uncomfortable by somebody protecting themselves by carrying a firearm, an open carry—”

“Move to California,” Ward interjected.

Finchem further encouraged people to take photos or videos, including of voters’ license plates, and Ward said the party has attorneys ready to use the documentation in lawsuits.

Finchem, who did not respond to requests for comment for this article, has also suggested he won’t accept the results of his own race if he loses and will demand a hand recount.

“I’m not trying to re-litigate 2020,” Finchem said at a September campaign stop at an IHOP in Phoenix, addressing a tea party meeting of 17 people. “I’m trying to avoid the train wreck that 2020 was in 2024.”

Finchem belongs to a nationwide cohort of election deniers running to take power over election administration in pivotal states. The America First Secretary of State Coalition is chaired by Jim Marchant, the GOP secretary of state candidate in Nevada. At a rally in his state earlier this month featuring former president Donald Trump, Marchant was unambiguous about the group’s ultimate goal.

“When my coalition of secretary of state candidates around the country get elected,” Marchant said, “we’re going to fix the whole country and President Trump is going to be president again in 2024.”

Finchem’s ghost campaign resembles those of other far-right election deniers who won GOP primaries this year and have shown no signs of moderating in the general election. Pennsylvania gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano and Michigan secretary of state candidate Kristina Karamo are also running campaigns that have struggled to raise money and reach out beyond their base. But while Mastriano and Karamo have consistently trailed in public surveys, Finchem remains in close contention.

“When the wave hits, it sweeps up a lot,” said a Republican strategist working on the midterms who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about the party’s prospects. “Institutional Republicans have largely stayed away from Finchem, but some of them still think he’s going to win. It’s the best of both worlds.”

A state lawmaker from southern Arizona, Finchem took extraordinary steps to try to overturn Trump’s narrow loss in 2020. After House Speaker Rusty Bowers (R-Mesa) refused his repeated requests to convene a special session of the state legislature to consider reversing Trump’s loss, Finchem held his own meeting in downtown Phoenix with Trump’s attorney, Rudy Giuliani, and dozens of Trump allies.

Shortly before Congress was due to certify the electoral college votes on Jan. 6, 2021, Finchem asked Republican leaders of the state legislature to join him in submitting a formal complaint about voting machines to Trump, according to emails obtained through the state’s open records law. Finchem urged then-state Sen. Eddie Farnsworth (R-Mesa) and Senate President Karen Fann (R-Prescott) to sign a draft letter, which has not been previously reported, asking Trump to “immediately send an outside team of cyber experts to investigate potential hacking and other irregularities.”

Fann did not sign on to the letter. Farnsworth did not respond to requests for comment. But Fann did commission a “forensic” review, as Finchem was demanding, which ultimately concluded Biden won the state.

Finchem traveled to Washington for the Jan. 6 rally, saying he was hoping to hand-deliver to Vice President Mike Pence evidence of fraud in Arizona to urge him to reject the state’s electoral votes. Finchem was photographed in the mob outside the Capitol but said he was not involved in the violence.

Finchem’s communications with Fann and Farnsworth were among the records sought in grand-jury subpoenas issued in June, and Finchem has acknowledged being interviewed by investigators. The Justice Department has been investigating efforts by Trump allies in Arizona and other states to submit phony slates of electors claiming Trump won.

In addition to campaign contributions, Finchem has been soliciting online donations for his legal defense, using a website known for hosting right-wing figures. Finchem has continued to argue that the 2020 election results can still be overturned. Earlier this year, Finchem introduced legislation that aimed to reverse the 2020 election results in three Arizona counties, an effort also pushed by former Trump adviser Boris Epshteyn. Finchem unsuccessfully tried to advance his idea by drawing on the work of John Eastman, a lawyer central to the phony electors effort.

He also joined Lake in a lawsuit seeking to inspect the computer code of voting machines in use in this election or else block their use. A federal judge threw out the case in August.

Finchem regularly appears at election-denier conferences, including one Saturday in Florida, and on far-right podcasts such as former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon’s “War Room.” He also attended a fundraiser with Bannon in California that reportedly included a live performance of a song dedicated to the QAnon conspiracy theory.

In a rare local radio interview, Finchem was confronted with his own past use of mail-in voting, which he now assails. “I did vote by mail, but that’s before I realized that it’s not secure,” he said in the Oct. 6 interview on KTAR’s Gaydos and Chad Show. Finchem grew agitated with the questioning and scoffed, “You guys are a joke.”

The campaign has only one paid aide. It reported raising $1.8 million as of the end of September, and more than half went to pay Go Right Strategies, a Florida consulting company run by the nephew of Wendy Rogers, an election-denying Arizona state senator who was censured in March after calling for public executions in a speech to a white nationalist convention. The consultant, Spence Rogers, did not respond to a request for comment.

Finchem has booked less than $400,000 of advertising in the general election, mostly on the radio. His TV ad attacks Fontes’ management of past elections as the Maricopa County recorder. One slide shows Fontes surrounded, with no explanation, by images of a Soviet flag, communist revolutionary Che Guevara and late Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chávez.

Fontes and Democratic groups, in turn, have spent more than $15.5 million painting Finchem as a “conspiracy theorist” and “member of an extremist militia,” a reference to the Oath Keepers militia group. Finchem threatened to sue stations that aired the ad, saying it mischaracterized his role in the Jan. 6 rally, which turned into a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol. The letter says Finchem “was not involved with the organization of the January 6 protest.”

Other pro-Fontes ads feature former U.S. attorney Paul K. Charlton, who was nominated by President George W. Bush, and retired Navajo County sheriff K.C. Clark speaking against Finchem. Fontes has also collected endorsements from Republicans including state representative Joel John and Mesa mayor John Giles.

“A malignant secretary of state could completely eviscerate the efficiencies and the accountability in Arizona’s election system,” Fontes said in an interview. “It would be an abject disaster.”

Finchem’s ads and speeches portray him as a lawman, using the slogan, “Follow the law.” Finchem retired in 1999 as a public safety officer in Kalamazoo, Mich.; his personnel file included a note that said, “Poor rating, would not rehire.” One GOP operative noted that Finchem’s slogan conveys a safe, anti-crime messaging favorable for Republicans.

At a Trump rally in Mesa on Oct. 9, Finchem took the stage to the tune of the whistle theme from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” lifting his white cowboy hat to the cheering crowd. He said they were in “a fight that was prophesied” against the Democrats, whom he called “godless” and “satanic.”

When Trump took the stage, he recognized Finchem by calling him a “warrior.”

“I hear you’re doing great,” Trump said. “So bring it home, Mark.”

The 2022 Midterm Elections

Georgia runoff election: Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) won re-election in the Georgia Senate runoff, defeating Republican challenger Herschel Walker and giving Democrats a 51st seat in the Senate for the 118th Congress. Get live updates here and runoff results by county.

Divided government: Republicans narrowly won back control of the House, while Democrats will keep control of the Senate, creating a split Congress.

What the results mean for 2024: A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign shortly after the midterms. Here are the top 10 2024 presidential candidates for the Republicans and Democrats.

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