There seem to be an endless number of Republican primary races in Arizona that all hinge on two things: The legitimacy of the 2020 election, which was challenged more dramatically in Arizona than any other state, and fealty to Donald Trump.
State House Speaker Rusty Bowers, who testified to the January 6 committee about pressure he faced from Trump associates to unwind the 2020 election, has a serious primary challenge. The race to challenge Sen. Mark Kelly (D) features five Republicans — including state Attorney General Mark Brnovich, whom Trump supporters are still hounding to challenge election matters, and the Trump-backed election denier Blake Masters.
And Kari Lake and Mark Finchem have made Trump’s election lies a centerpiece of their campaigns for governor and secretary of state, respectively, the two offices that have the most direct influence on elections. They’ve formed something like an unofficial ticket, which has gotten a hearty boost from Trump himself.
Lake’s chief GOP primary opponent, Karrin Taylor Robson, has used an influx of her own money and endorsements from more establishment GOP figures like Arizona Republican Gov. Doug Ducey and former Vice President Mike Pence to make the race competitive in the home stretch. Finchem has three challengers, including some who aren’t election deniers, but he remains the frontrunner for the GOP nomination. The winners will face Democratic nominees for open seats in the competitive purple state.
To understand how those races are shaping up — and what’s at stake in them — I spoke to two Arizona Republic reporters: Mary Jo Pitzl is a senior reporter covering the secretary of state’s race, and Stacey Barchenger is a state politics reporter focused on the gubernatorial election. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Looking from the outside, it seems like what happened in Arizona in 2020 and the aftermath of it — particularly the Maricopa County ballot review sanctioned by the state Senate — is still at the heart of these races. Am I missing anything?
Mary Jo Pitzl
2022 is about three-quarters about 2020. We are still relitigating the 2020 election in the campaigns and we’ve got some legal actions moving. Candidates Lake and Finchem are in federal court trying to ban the use of any kind of electronic machines in election tabulation. It’s all carryover from 2020.
Could you two give me an overview of the primaries? Let’s start with the GOP governor’s race.
So there are four candidates still in the race, and there are two tiers. Lake’s a former television news anchor for the Fox affiliate here in Phoenix. She was there for 22 years. Early last year, she renounced journalism. She said she didn’t believe in it anymore. A couple of months later, [she] announced she was running for governor. I think Trump and Lake have a chemistry unlike what I’ve seen between him and other candidates in other states. She has the sort of populist appeal that I think he had, and really used to speak to voters.
Also in the top tier, you have Taylor Robson, who comes from a political family. She has not run for statewide office before. Her career is in law and development and the real estate world. She was on the board of regents, which oversees our three public universities in Arizona. She recently has been gathering endorsements and support from traditional Republicans. Mike Pence and Donald Trump held rallies last Friday in Arizona — dueling rallies that were very much seen as competing for the future of Arizona and the future of the state Republican Party.
When I first got here last year, political analysts said that this was Lake’s race to lose. She was so far ahead. But that is not the case anymore. Taylor Robson has narrowed the gap. I think it’s within reach for either of them, which has made the last couple of weeks so contentious.
What about the secretary of state race?
Mary Jo Pitzl
On the Republican side, for secretary of state we’ve got four candidates. The most prominent is Finchem. He’s currently a state lawmaker. He was the first Trump-endorsed candidate in Arizona this cycle. He was present near the Capitol on January 6. He was out there to give a speech, he said, at one of the rallies. That didn’t happen because of scheduling problems, but he did join the crowd that marched to the Capitol. He says he did not go inside. He has been subpoenaed for some of his records involving that.
He has been a very loud and consistent election denier, maintaining that Trump lost the election, that he was cheated out of it. He helped host two different forums in Arizona, supposedly bringing forward evidence of problems with the 2020 election. He has made it very clear that if he sees a scintilla of impropriety in the upcoming elections, he will demand a hand recount. He is a big proponent of no machines, and thinks that all votes should be cast on a ballot in person on Election Day, and hand-tabulated.
Also running is state Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, who sponsored [an election reform bill after 2020] widening the margin that was needed to demand a recount to 0.5 percent. [State Rep. Shawnna] Bolick, another state lawmaker and candidate, also introduced election-related bills that would allow the legislature to reject the electors chosen by the voters and have the legislature replace them with electors of their own choosing. That legislation didn’t even get a hearing, but it got a lot of attention.
Lastly, we have the outsider candidate, advertising executive Beau Lane. He has drawn the support of the Republican establishment. Ducey endorsed him late in the cycle. He’s pulled in lots of money — almost as much as Finchem. We’re talking above the $1 million mark, which is unheard of for secretary of state races. He is seen as the biggest threat to Finchem for the Republican nomination.
Let’s step back for some context. Can you tell me exactly what the state secretary of state’s role is in Arizona’s elections?
Mary Jo Pitzl
The thing that’s most relevant is that the secretary of state is charged with certifying the election results, which [current secretary of state and Democratic gubernatorial candidate] Katie Hobbs did in late 2020. I might add that she did it in an undisclosed location because of all the threats that were out there.
Finchem, the leading Republican candidate, has indicated that he would not automatically certify the results. … Bolick has also said she would not immediately rush to certify the results, even though the law says you’ve got to do it.
Elections are run by the 16 county recorders. The secretary of state has a coordinating role, and can certainly have a lot to do with certifying the accuracy of the machines that are used to tabulate votes, and set out the procedures by which elections are conducted through the elections procedure manual, which has been another big fight that is extending into the courts.
And what is the governor’s role in the election process?
The governor is involved in the certification process and signs off on the results.
If you recall back to 2020, Gov. Doug Ducey was in a ceremony to certify Joe Biden’s win in Arizona when his cellphone goes off and it’s “Hail to the Chief.” That was his ringtone for Donald Trump. He silenced the call, forever putting himself in Trump’s bad graces.
Mary Jo Pitzl
I would add that especially the governor, but also the secretary of state — they have big bully pulpits to talk about these things. Some of our candidates, I have no doubt, would use that bully pulpit to maximum effectiveness.
What is the market in Arizona for a less extreme Republican candidate? Is there enough of one that any of these candidates who aren’t Trump-aligned could win in a Republican primary?
Mary Jo Pitzl
You do have your conservative, traditional Republicans, many of whom are women, who aren’t going to go for the real far-right candidates. In the secretary of state’s race, where there are four candidates, it could split the votes. Finchem is probably going to have that very strong Trump base, and that’s basically all he needs to win.
I think this race is one of the first clear tests we’ll have of which faction of the Republican Party dominates in Arizona. It comes after 2020, and after our ballot review, which was expensive and kept Arizona in the national headlines for so long. There is a segment of the Republican Party that is tired of that. With Taylor Robson being very willing to campaign hard and spend so much of her own money, it puts within reach and gives us a chance to see if a more traditional Republican can win.
Ducey has weighed in and endorsed Lane and Taylor Robson. But does he maintain much influence with the Republicans who are going to be voting next week?
Ducey is complicated. His endorsement risks alienating any Trump supporters since the former president has taken multiple shots at Ducey. They’re not friends anymore. Then again, Lake has locked down the Trump base in Arizona, so I’m not so sure that Ducey really had much room to alienate anybody.
He certainly is still very powerful, nationally, through his chairmanship of the Republican Governors Association. He’s very well liked in the business community, so his endorsement certainly tells that community where they should land.
So the election issue is going to certainly animate part of the Republican base. How do you feel like that is going to play in a general election? Are Arizona voters going to be really put off by a candidate who won on election denialism, or are other things going to be front of mind?
One of the unique things about Arizona is about a third of our registered voters are independents. They are who you need in the general to win. And they have handed victories to Doug Ducey, and they’ve handed victories to Mark Kelly, Kyrsten Sinema, and Joe Biden.
The general election is going to involve some references to 2020, but it’s to be determined how much. People are really worried about inflation. Phoenix has crazy-high housing prices, and inflation is worse here than in a lot of other places. I suspect we’ll see candidates in the general talk more about that than 2020. This answer comes with a huge caveat that it depends who the nominee on the Republican side is.
Mary Jo Pitzl
When it comes to the general, we’re likely to have a couple of initiatives on the ballot that could draw out more centrist and left-leaning voters, such as a ban on dark money and a whole raft of election reform measures.
For the secretary of state’s race, it’s all going to be played up as a fight to preserve democracy. Do you want to have the election denier and Mark Finchem assuming he wins? On the Democratic side, they will be fierce advocates for protecting the way we have been running elections.
I see Democrats are now weighing in as they have in other races, spending with ads meant to boost Lake, pointing out her extremism. They’d rather run against her than Taylor Robson.
They think Lake might be easier to beat because she has so closely adhered to the false claims of election fraud. If Lake is the nominee and Hobbs, the current secretary of state, is the Democratic nominee, our general is probably going to focus pretty heavily on 2020 because you have the chief defender and the chief denier in Arizona going head-to-head.
What about in the Senate primary? Are the dynamics any different than in these races?
I mean, there’s no Democratic challenger to Mark Kelly. He’s raising a ton and spending a ton already. The GOP side is more interesting. Our current attorney general, Brnovich, also has some bad blood with Donald Trump, but he was at one point seen as a frontrunner. But recently, the talk has really focused on Blake Masters. He got Trump’s endorsement and has basked in that glow. With Trump weighing in on so many of our races here in the primary, that’s really the storyline that we are watching on Election Day: How powerful is his grip on Arizona Republican voters, still?
Mary Jo Pitzl
There are five Republicans in that race. So it doesn’t take a big percentage of the vote to win.
What else should we be focused on as we watch next Tuesday?
Mary Jo Pitzl
There’s a really tight race for secretary of state on the Democratic side; there’s more happening publicly on that than on the Republican side.
Democrats have a former Maricopa County recorder, Adrian Fontes, who is in charge of elections there, running against a state lawmaker, Reginald Bolding, who is the leader of the Democrats in the House. The race has recently gotten a lot more attention because Bolding is associated with a number of nonprofits, one of which is putting a lot of money, like close to $1 million, into his campaign. That raises questions about conflict of interest and violations of some campaign election laws because it involves dark money.
Bolding says, look, I’ve put up a firewall, I’m not involved with the decisions that my PAC makes. But all of their money is flowing into his campaign, and the Fontes campaign is trying to capitalize off of that. The few polls that I’ve seen are mixed. Some internal polling shows that the two candidates are pretty close.
Does baggage like that present an opportunity for the Republican nominee, even if it’s Finchem?
Mary Jo Pitzl
If the Democratic secretary of state nominee has a cloud of suspicion surrounding him — there were complaints filed with state offices, the FEC, and the IRS — it would certainly give Finchem a lot to attack with. That said, if Adrian Fontes wins, he has a less-than-pristine record, but it doesn’t involve ongoing administrative complaints.
I don’t know that a wounded Democratic nominee would drive voters to Finchem’s column. More likely, it could dampen enthusiasm and voters might take a pass on the secretary of state race.
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