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Analysis

Arizona Primary Shows How Election Deniers Win Where Their Party Pushes the Big Lie

Support for election denial by a state’s Republican leaders seems to be influencing primary outcomes in key battleground races.

Last Updated: August 5, 2022
Published: August 4, 2022
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Christian Petersen/Getty
View the entire Tracking Races for Election Administration Positions series

On Tues­day, Repub­lican primary voters in Arizona chose elec­tion deniers as their nomin­ees for governor, attor­ney general, and secret­ary of state. The results make Arizona the only battle­ground state so far to nomin­ate for all three top statewide offices proponents of the false claim that the 2020 elec­tion was some­how “stolen” from Donald Trump.

What made so many Arizona voters support elec­tion denial, while in other states elec­tion deni­al­ists have had mixed success? No doubt there were many factors at play, but in all like­li­hood the vocal endorse­ment of elec­tion false­hoods by many of the state’s polit­ical lead­ers played a key role.

Arizona has been a hotbed of elec­tion denial since before the polls closed. False claims that Sharpie pens were inval­id­at­ing ballots went viral the day after the elec­tion. Protest­ers chanted “stop the steal” outside the Mari­copa County Elec­tions Depart­ment as work­ers tallied ballots. It seems the disbe­lief by some in the state’s 2020 elec­tion results hasn’t left the head­lines in the two years since. Just this week, Attor­ney General Mark Brnovich announced that a compre­hens­ive invest­ig­a­tion disproved claims that offi­cials coun­ted hundreds of votes from dead people.

But this is no spon­tan­eous contro­versy. The fire was stoked by Repub­lican lead­ers in the state. Among the flurry of lawsuits chal­len­ging the result in Arizona was a suit filed in Novem­ber 2020 by the chair of the state Repub­lican Party, Kelli Ward, who asked the court to decer­tify Biden’s win and contin­ued to spread false­hoods after losing the case. Rep. Paul Gosar (R) made claims of voter fraud and opposed the certi­fic­a­tion of Arizon­a’s elect­oral votes in Congress. The state senate judi­ciary commit­tee held a six-hour hear­ing ques­tion­ing Mari­copa County offi­cials about the elec­tion. The senate subpoenaed county ballots, voting machines, and other records and hired Cyber Ninjas, a company owned by a pusher of pro-Trump elec­tion false­hoods, to conduct the review. Arizona Senate Pres­id­ent Karen Fann, State Sen. Wendy Rogers, and other Repub­lican legis­lat­ors publicly promoted the review and alleged “irreg­u­lar­it­ies” through­out 2021.

Arizon­a’s statewide contests are all open-seat races, so there were no incum­bent Repub­lican candid­ates forced to defend their own conduct in admin­is­ter­ing the 2020 elec­tion. Gov. Doug Ducey, a term-limited Repub­lican, acknow­ledged Biden won in Novem­ber 2020. Although he was attacked for certi­fy­ing the result, Ducey stayed relat­ively quiet about the elec­tion contro­versy and the Cyber Ninjas review. And Secret­ary of State Katie Hobbs (D), who is running for governor, defen­ded the secur­ity and accur­acy of the elec­tion she over­saw.

The elec­tion results in Geor­gia, another purple state won by Biden, provide a help­ful contrast. Geor­gi­a’s statewide GOP elec­ted offi­cials pushed back against elec­tion denial — despite the circu­la­tion of conspir­acy theor­ies about, for example, suit­cases of ballots appear­ing during the count in Fulton County. Gov. Brian Kemp and Secret­ary of State Brad Raffen­sper­ger both defen­ded the 2020 elec­tion and their roles in certi­fy­ing the result, and they each easily won their GOP primary with a major­ity of the vote, defeat­ing well-funded elec­tion deniers. Although elec­tion fraud narrat­ives fueled voter suppres­sion legis­la­tion in Geor­gia, legis­lat­ive lead­ers also acknow­ledged that Biden won and called for Repub­lic­ans to move on from claim­ing fraud in 2020.

Pennsylvania, like Arizona, does not have Repub­lican incum­bents running for reelec­tion in statewide offices. Many GOP lead­ers in Pennsylvania rejec­ted claims of wide­spread fraud, although they voiced doubt about 2020 in multiple ways. Recent legis­la­tion that had expan­ded mail voting became a focus of skep­ti­cism about the 2020 elec­tion. Some legis­lat­ors who voted for the bill in 2019 chal­lenged it in court as uncon­sti­tu­tional — a case they lost in the state supreme court this week. Repub­lic­ans criti­cized decisions made by the secret­ary of state, a Demo­crat, lead­ing up to the vote. Legis­lat­ors called for an audit in the days after the 2020 elec­tion, and legis­lat­ive lead­ers signed a letter asking Pennsylvani­a’s congres­sional deleg­a­tion to object to elect­ors for Biden.

Against this back­drop, an elec­tion denier won the Pennsylvania Repub­lican gubernat­orial primary, although he did not gain a major­ity of the vote. The candid­ate in second place was also an elec­tion denier. Both were massively outspent by candid­ates who fared worse with voters.

The Big Lie that the elec­tion was stolen from Trump has been pushed by power­ful politi­cians, start­ing with Trump himself. But it may be lead­ers closer to home who have the greatest abil­ity to affect the popular­ity of elec­tion denial among the people of their state.