Of the roughly three dozen states that have held primary elections this year, Arizona is where Donald Trump’s conspiratorial fantasies about the 2020 election seem to have gained the most purchase.
This week, Arizona Republicans nominated candidates up and down the ballot who focused their campaigns on stoking baseless conspiracy theories about 2020, when Democrats won the state’s presidential election for only the second time since the 1940s.
Joe Biden defeated Trump in Arizona by fewer than 11,000 votes — a whisker-thin margin that has spawned unending efforts to scrutinize and overturn the results, despite election officials’ repeated and emphatic insistence that very little fraud was committed.
They are joined by Blake Masters, a hard-edged venture capitalist who is running to oust Senator Mark Kelly, the soft-spoken former astronaut who entered politics after his wife, former Representative Gabby Giffords, was seriously wounded by a gunman in 2011.
There’s also Abraham Hamadeh, the Republican nominee for attorney general, along with several candidates for the State Legislature who are all but certain to win their races. It’s pretty much election deniers all the way down.
Another notable primary result this week: Rusty Bowers, the former speaker of the Arizona House, who offered emotional congressional testimony in June about the pressure he faced to overturn the election, was easily defeated in his bid for a State Senate seat.
To make sense of it all, I spoke with Jennifer Medina, a California-based politics reporter for The New York Times who covers Arizona and has deep expertise on many of the policy issues that drive elections in the state. Our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, is below.
You’ve been reporting on Arizona for years. Why are many democracy watchers so alarmed about the primary election results there?
It’s pretty simple: If these candidates win in November, they have promised to do things like ban the use of electronic voting machines and get rid of the state’s hugely popular and long-established vote-by-mail system.
It’s also easy to imagine a similar scenario to the 2020 presidential election but with vastly different results. Both Lake and Finchem have repeatedly said they would not have certified Biden’s victory.
Some might say this is all just partisan politics or posturing — that Finchem, Lake and Masters just said what they think they needed to say to win the primary. What does your reporting show? Is their election denial merely loose talk, or are there indications that they truly believe what they are saying?
There’s no reason to think these candidates won’t at the very least try to put in place the kinds of plans they have promoted.
Undoubtedly, they would face legal challenges from Democrats and from nonpartisan watchdog groups.
But it’s worth remembering that despite losing battle after battle in the courts over the last two years, these Republicans are still pushing the same election-denial theories. And they’ve stoked those false beliefs among huge numbers of voters, who helped power their victories on Tuesday.
We saw evidence of that this week with the surge of Republicans going to the polls in person on Election Day instead of voting by mail, as they had for years, after repeatedly hearing baseless claims that mailed-in ballots are rife with fraud. This was especially true of Lake backers.
There’s no way to know what these candidates truly believe in their hearts, but they have left no room for doubting their intentions.
What’s your sense of whether these Republicans are capable of pivoting to the center for the general election? And what might happen if they did?
We haven’t seen much, if any, evidence that these candidates have plans to pivot to the center, aside from minor tweaks to some of the language in Masters’s TV ads.
They have spent months denouncing people in the party they see as RINOs (“Republicans in name only,” in case you’ve forgotten). In Arizona, that list has included Gov. Doug Ducey, who refused to overturn the 2020 presidential election results, as Trump demanded, and the now-deceased Senator John McCain, who angered many conservatives and Trump supporters by voting against repealing the Affordable Care Act.
So even if these candidates do try to tack toward the center, expect their Democratic opponents to point to those statements and other past comments to portray them as extremists on the right.
I do wonder how much the Republicans will continue to focus on the 2020 election in the final stretch of this year’s campaign. More moderate Republican officials and strategists I’ve spoken to in Arizona have repeatedly said they worry that doing so will weaken the party’s chances in the state, where independent voters make up roughly a third of the electorate.
Do Katie Hobbs, the secretary of state who won the Democratic nomination for governor, and Senator Mark Kelly, the Democrat who is up for re-election in the fall, talk much about election denial or Jan. 6 when they’re out with voters?
Hobbs rose to widespread prominence in the days after the 2020 election when she appeared on national television at all hours of the day and night assuring voters that all ballots would be counted fairly and accurately, no matter how long that took. So it’s not an exaggeration to say that her own fate is deeply tied to the rise of election denial.
But even as her closest supporters have promoted Hobbs as a guardian of democracy — and she has benefited from that in her fund-raising — it is not a central piece of her day-to-day campaigning. Many Democratic strategists in the state say they believe she would be better off by focusing on issues like the economy, health care and abortion.
And that line of thinking is even more true in the Kelly camp, where many believe the incumbent senator is best served by focusing on his image as an independent who is willing to buck other members of his party.
In March, for instance, Kelly referred to the rise in asylum seekers crossing the border as a “crisis,” language Biden has resisted. Kelly has also supported some portion of a border wall, a position that most Democrats adamantly oppose.
As a political issue, how does election denial play with voters versus, say, jobs or the price of gas and groceries?
We don’t know the answer yet, but whether voters view candidates who deny the 2020 election as disqualifying is one of the most important and interesting questions this fall.
I’ve spoken to dozens of people in Arizona in the last several months — Democrats, Republicans and independents — and few are single-issue voters. They are all worried about things like jobs and gas prices and inflation and abortion, but they are also very concerned about democracy and what many Republicans refer to as “election integrity.” But their understanding of what those terms mean is very different depending on their political outlook.
Is there any aspect of these candidates’ appeal that people outside Arizona might be missing?
Each of the winning Republican candidates we’ve discussed has also focused on cracking down on immigration and militarizing the border, which could prove popular in Arizona. It’s a border state with a long history of anti-immigration policies.
Two demographic groups are widely credited with helping tilt the state toward Democrats in the last two elections: white women in the suburbs and young Latinos. As the state has trended more purple, the Republican Party is moving further to the right. Now, whether those voters show up in force for the party this year will help determine the future of many elections to come.
What to read this weekend about democracy
postcard FROM DALLAS
Seven hours at CPAC
Is there such a thing as a heat index in Texas? Outside the Hilton Anatole hotel in Dallas, it felt like 105 degrees on Thursday.
But inside the cavernous hotel, the air conditioning was cranked up full blast as Mike Lindell, the election-denying pillow mogul who has branched out into coffee and slippers, was moving through the media row at a gathering at the Conservative Political Action Conference. A swarm of Republicans approached, angling for selfies and handshakes while they voiced their approval of his efforts and spending to overturn the 2020 presidential election.
Beyond the conservative media booths, each resembling a Fox News set, I wandered through an emporium of “Trump won” and “Make America Pro-Life Again” merchandise. My N95 mask made me conspicuous, but each person I asked for an interview obliged.
There was Jeffrey Lord, who was fired by CNN in 2017 for evoking — mockingly, he said at the time — a Nazi slogan in a convoluted Twitter exchange. He told me that he had just attended a private gathering with Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister revered by many American conservatives. Orban is misunderstood, Lord told me, noting that Ronald Reagan was once accused of being a warmonger. I asked whether conservatives like Lord would put Orban in a similar category as Reagan.
“In terms of freedom, and all of that, I do,” he said. “It’s a theme with President Trump.”
In the media area inside the hotel’s main ballroom, right-wing news outlets had medallion status. A prime seat in the front row was reserved for One America News, the pro-Trump network. Two seats to my right, a woman with a media credential was eating pork rinds from a Ziploc bag.
Seven hours later, I emerged from the hotel, doffing my N95, which left an imprint on my face. It was only 99 degrees.
Thanks for reading. We’ll see you next week.
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