With election denier on the ballot, Arizona debate is bigger than secretary of state race

Arizona's secretary of state races are typically sleepy campaigns, but this year's contest will seize the national spotlight when the two major party contenders clash in their first debate on Thursday.

That's because Republican candidate Mark Finchem is one of the most prominent election deniers on the ballot this fall, who has long engaged in conspiracy theories to promote former President Donald Trump's false claims about the 2020 election.

Finchem easily won the crowded GOP primary in August as part of a Trump-backed coalition of secretary of state candidates who've spread the former president's election lies while running to oversee elections in vital swing states.

But now Finchem is facing Democrat Adrian Fontes, who hasn't shied away from calling out his GOP opponent's past comments and actions.

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In Fontes's first general election ad, which dropped last Friday, he referred to Finchem as a "dangerous extremist" who would "overturn legitimate election results."

The debate Thursday offers up the first major debate event of the general election to feature an election denier in a year where Democrats and Republicans have clashed over voting rights; election rule changes; and the Jan. 6, 2021 riot hearings that dominated the summer.

Here's what to know.

How to watch the Arizona secretary of state debate

Finchem and Fontes are scheduled to participate in a discussion hosted by the PBS affiliate in Arizona and the Citizens Clean Elections Commission.

The debate is set for 8 p.m. ET and can be watched here or on C-SPAN.

Why does Arizona's secretary of state election matter?

Arizona is one of a handful of critical swing states that could determine the outcome of the next presidential election.

After the 2020 contest the state endured a 10-month saga of hand recounts and audits that cost taxpayers millions due to the demands of election conspiracists loyal to Trump, who personally applied pressure in an attempt to flip the results, Republican Rusty Bowers, the Arizona House speaker, testified to a congressional committee.

The final report of Maricopa County votes, however, found no evidence of widespread or significant fraud. In fact, once the audit was complete, it found Trump received fewer votes than were originally counted.

But that hasn't stopped election deniers running on the GOP side from espousing those views.

Arizona, which carries 11 electoral votes, has multiple candidates running for critical offices, including governor and the U.S. Senate, who have previously denied the last presidential election's results.

What has Finchem said about the 2020 presidential election?

Finchem, a state legislator from Oro Valley, just north of Tucson, maintains that the 2020 contest was "stolen" from Trump through fraud.

Two years ago, for instance, he signed a resolution to Congress that sought to install a group of fraudulent electors who would have cast their Electoral College ballots for Trump.

Arizona Rep. Mark Finchem, the leading Republican candidate to be the next secretary of state, is supported by former President Donald Trump.
Arizona Rep. Mark Finchem, the leading Republican candidate to be the next secretary of state, is supported by former President Donald Trump.

In February, Finchem continued to beat the drum that Joe Biden didn't win Arizona when he proposed legislation to decertify the president's victory.

What makes this so important for future elections is that under Arizona law, the secretary of state is one of three public officials who has to sign off on certifying any statewide election results.

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On top of that the secretary of state in Arizona issues an election rulebook every two years on voting policies and procedures that carries the weight of law.

And if Finchem wins, he would be first in the line of succession if the Arizona governor were to resign or die in office, given the state has no lieutenant governor position.

What to look for in the Arizona debate

The Fontes campaign has leaned heavily into the 2022 midterms being a referendum on the health of U.S. democracy.

It is something Democrats and other election experts say is necessary to combat the lingering impact Trump and his allies' false claims have had on the country's election process.

"My opponent is too unstable and his views are too radical," Fontes said in a Sept. 20 tweet ahead of this week's debate.

Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes speaks during a news conference in Phoenix on Sept. 12, 2018.
Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes speaks during a news conference in Phoenix on Sept. 12, 2018.

In the 30-second campaign spot, Fontes mentions his background as a Marine while using footage of rioters overpowering law enforcement at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

The 52-year-old Democrat then slams Finchem for wanting to eliminate vote-by-mail, which is among one of many areas on voting rights, election rules and policies where the two part.

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Unlike other midterm races, which will likely center on anxieties about the economy and inflation, or tackle how states should handle abortion rights, secretaries of state races will be dominated by voting rights and election denial concerns.

Finchem isn't backing down from his claims or his efforts to install more election rules.

"I am running to secure our elections, just follow the law, and prosecute the law breakers," he said in a Sept. 20 tweet.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Arizona secretary of state debate is first of election denier debates