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.