Trump-backed election deniers poised to sweep top Arizona primaries. Can they win in November?

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Three ultra-MAGA candidates endorsed by former President Donald Trump and largely opposed by establishment Republicans are poised to sweep Tuesday’s marquee GOP primary contests in Arizona, setting up general-election showdowns with more traditional Democratic rivals that will test whether the way to win a key swing state in 2022 is by channeling the animosities of the far right — or by trying to appeal to a broader coalition.

Shortly after midnight, the Associated Press called the GOP Senate primary for Blake Masters, an “anti-progressive” venture capitalist who was propelled to the front of a crowded field by at least $15 million in super-PAC funding from powerful Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, his longtime boss and mentor. On Election Day, Masters will face off against incumbent Democrat Mark Kelly in a race that will help determine control of the closely divided Senate.

Blake Masters speaks into a microphone while standing in front of an American flag.
Republican Senate candidate Blake Masters at a campaign event in Tucson, Ariz., on Sunday. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

The AP also called the GOP secretary of state primary for Mark Finchem, a state representative who was present at the U.S. Capitol during the attack on Jan. 6, 2021, and has previously identified himself as a member of the Oath Keepers militia.

In the Republican primary for governor, a third MAGA candidate, former Phoenix news anchor Kari Lake, was leading real estate developer Karrin Taylor Robson by more than 11,000 votes with 80% of precincts reporting.

“We won today 7 out of 10 Election Day votes,” Lake told her supporters Tuesday night, claiming — prematurely — that “there is no path to victory for my opponent and we won this race. Period.”

Kari Lake holds a microphone to her mouth.
GOP gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake at a campaign event in Tucson on Sunday. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

Both Lake and Finchem have parroted Trump’s lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him — and vowed to do whatever it takes to prevent another Trump loss in the future. Masters has also declared that “Trump won in 2020.”

For all three election deniers, these displays of fealty were sufficient to snag Trump’s sought-after support, which he bestowed in person at a July 22 rally in Prescott Valley.

On the same day, Trump’s former vice president, Mike Pence, campaigned across the state for Robson, who has refused to say the 2020 election was rigged. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey — another prominent Republican who, like Pence, resisted Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 result — also endorsed Robson, along with Finchem’s main rival, Beau Lane.

But the establishment lost Tuesday night in Arizona — and Trump seems headed for a hat trick. If Lake ultimately joins Finchem and Masters on the winner’s podium, they would cement a Trump sweep in the Grand Canyon State — and combine to form perhaps the most pro-MAGA slate of candidates anywhere in America.

There’s a problem for Republicans, however: Arizona is hardly America’s most pro-MAGA state.

“With the national mood turning so strongly against the Biden administration and Democratic control of Congress, Republican candidates should have a relatively easy time recapturing seats in Arizona this cycle,” says Robert Robb, a longtime columnist for the Arizona Republic and a former GOP political consultant. “But these candidates are weak candidates. Whatever this ‘new right’ thing is, I don’t think that it necessarily fits Arizona.”

Mark Finchem, wearing a patterned button-down shirt and large belt buckle, stands in front of a blue curtain and waves with his hat.
Mark Finchem, a Republican candidate for Arizona secretary of state, at a rally in Prescott Valley, Ariz., on July 22. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)

From Pennsylvania to Georgia to Nevada, GOP primary voters have repeatedly rankled Republican strategists and delighted their Democratic counterparts this year by nominating candidates who could prove too extreme to be electable — and who risk blowing otherwise very winnable midterm contests because of it.

Arizona is now ground zero for this phenomenon.

In the wake of the 2020 election, Arizona’s far-right Republican activists and legislators pushed hard to reverse Trump’s 10,457-vote loss — the narrowest margin of any state in the country. But multiple audits — including a private count funded by Trump supporters — found zero evidence of fraud. In fact, the partisan GOP audit actually widened Joe Biden’s margin of victory by 360 votes.

Regardless, right-wing resentments over Arizona’s razor-thin 2020 result curdled into 2022 primaries largely defined by the “big lie” itself.

And so in November, Arizonans will have to decide whether they want their top election official to be the Democratic nominee (likely former Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes)  or Finchem, who argues that Marxists conspired to manipulate the 2020 election, that people cast ballots with “software that flips votes” and that Biden is “a fraudulent president.”

If elected, Finchem — who is already suing to suspend the use of all electronic vote-counting machines in Arizona — has said he would ban early voting, sharply restrict mail-in ballots and throw his weight behind efforts to empower the state’s Republican-led Legislature to overturn election results. In May, Finchem assured his GOP supporters that if he had been secretary of state last time around, “we would have won. Plain and simple.”

By the same token, Arizonans will also decide in November whether they want their governor to be Democrat Katie Hobbs — the sitting secretary of state who defended the integrity of the 2020 election — or (most likely) Lake, who has said she would not have fulfilled her legal duty to certify Arizona’s election results if she had been governor at the time (and who plans to push the same voting restrictions as Finchem). Lake once went so far as to say that Hobbs should be imprisoned for her role in 2020.

A former Barack Obama supporter who in 2017 shared a meme on Facebook ​​declaring Trump’s inauguration a “national day of mourning and protest,” Lake was reportedly radicalized during the COVID-19 pandemic. She now refuses to get vaccinated, encourages students to defy their school mask policies, appears with QAnon-linked activists at campaign events, vows to deport undocumented immigrants without federal approval and accuses Biden and the Democrats of harboring a “demonic agenda.”

“I believe she’s an opportunist,” Robson told Fox News shortly before Tuesday’s election. “She’s actually a fraud, a fake. She’s not who she says she is. She’s a fabulous actress.”

Masters’s MAGA transformation has been even more aggressive. Before 2016, he was a purist libertarian who persuaded friends to become pro-abortion-rights, described the borders between countries as just “line[s] in the sand” and favored “unrestricted” immigration. At 19, he wrote an essay that approvingly quoted Nazi leader Hermann Göring to argue that the “U.S. hasn’t been involved in a just war in over 140 years.” (Responding to a recent Jewish Insider story about that essay, written in opposition to the Iraq War and published on the website of radical libertarian Lew Rockwell, Masters admitted he “went too far.”)

At Stanford Law School, Masters took a course on startups taught by Thiel, then a libertarian himself — and a Silicon Valley outlier. Galvanized by Thiel’s contrarian thinking, Masters posted his detailed class notes on Tumblr; David Brooks wrote an entire New York Times column about them. Then Thiel and Masters spun those same notes into a book called “Zero to One.” Masters spent the next eight years serving in top positions at Thiel’s foundation and venture capital firm. In 2016, Thiel backed Trump, and Masters followed him to Trump Tower to help with the transition after the election.

The key lesson of Thiel’s course — “Instead of being slightly better than everybody else in a crowded and established field,” as Brooks put it, “it’s often more valuable to create a new market and totally dominate it” — appears to be the strategy behind Masters’s campaign as well.

“I definitely approach politics with an entrepreneurial lens,” Masters told the Stanford Review last September. “President Trump showed me that new things are possible in politics. You can think of his administration as a start-up of sorts. It was disruptive. … I think sounding different and looking different is how you break through.”

Donald Trump, wearing a navy suit with red tie and American flag lapel pin, speaks into a microphone.
Former President Donald Trump at the America First Agenda Summit in Washington, D.C., on July 26. (Kyle Mazza/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

To that end — breaking through by sounding “different” — Masters has cradled a short-barreled rifle in one ad while declaring that it “wasn’t designed for hunting.” “This,” he said, “is designed to kill people.”

He has characterized the Democrats who are “running the country” — “Biden, [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi, [Sen. Chuck] Schumer, Mark Kelly” — as “psychopaths.” He has embraced a national abortion ban. He has touted the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, as a “subversive thinker [who is] underrated.” He has said he wants to slash legal immigration in half because “we do not need hundreds of thousands of people from India and China to come in every year to take coding jobs.” He has promoted the conspiracy theory that Democrats are plotting to win elections by “importing” immigrants to replace native-born voters. He has called Jan. 6 a “false flag operation,” claiming that “one-third of the people outside of the Capitol complex on January 6 were actual FBI agents hanging out.” And he has blamed “Black people, frankly” for America’s “gun violence problem.”

The question now is whether this MAGA-centric strategy will work as well in Arizona’s general election as it worked in the GOP primary. So far, general-election polling is scant — but Kelly tends to lead Masters by double-digit margins in the most recent soundings, and Hobbs is ahead of Lake as well.

The irony, says Robb, is that the thing that has so radicalized Arizona Republicans is the very thing that could doom them in November: the closeness of the state’s elections.

One-third of Arizona voters are Latino; one-third are independents. In the Trump era, those dynamics seem to have pushed the onetime Republican stronghold away from Trumpism, not toward it.

“Arizona rejected Trump and Trumpism — big time,” explains Robb. “From 2008 until 2018, Arizona had not elected a single Democrat to statewide office. In 2018, we elected a Democratic U.S. senator, two Democratic statewide officers [including Hobbs], and Republicans lost their advantage in the Legislature. They now have the thinnest margin that they’ve had during that entire period. And of course Trump himself barely won in 2016 before losing in 2020.

“There’s a model of what would make this election a slam dunk for Republicans — which is, you don’t run against Trump, but you run independent of Trump,” he continues. “But Republicans are not doing that. They’re embracing Trump and Trumpism, comprehensively. Biden and his administration should be on the ballot this election cycle. But these candidates are putting Trump on the ballot — and he does not play well in Arizona.”