Idaho's GOP secretary of state nominee stands out for an unusual reason: rejecting false election fraud claims

IDAHO FALLS – Smoke wafted from a sizzling grill behind Republican secretary of state candidate Phil McGrane as he talked Idaho politics and election reform, hardly missing a beat as he sliced and seasoned 100 pounds of tri-tip steak ahead of a May 4 fundraiser at an Idaho Falls farm.

"This is the fun part of the campaign,” he said, before joking that some politicians kiss babies, but he doles out steak. "Want a bite?”

McGrane and his father-in-law have competed in barbecue contests nationwide, claiming third in the nation for pulled pork at Sam's Club National BBQ Tour in 2013. He has used his barbecue expertise in his secretary of state bid, too, luring supporters to events with his award-winning meat and selling bottles of “Phil’s Original Secretary of Steak Rub” to raise campaign funds.

Secretary of State candidate Phil McGrane laughs as he talks with an attendee during the Republican Party primary celebration at the Hilton Garden Inn hotel in Boise, Idaho, Tuesday, May 17, 2022.
Secretary of State candidate Phil McGrane laughs as he talks with an attendee during the Republican Party primary celebration at the Hilton Garden Inn hotel in Boise, Idaho, Tuesday, May 17, 2022.

The competitive barbecuer-turned-county-clerk’s neighborly campaign style, combined with his elections expertise, proved to be a winning recipe. Two weeks after the fundraiser, McGrane won the Republican primary for secretary of state.

And while he may have been the only candidate known for his cooking skills, McGrane stood out from his opponents in a more radical way.

He rejected former President Donald Trump's pervasive - and baseless - claims of a stolen election in 2020.

Fact check: Joe Biden legally won presidential election, despite persistent contrary claims

His opponents in the primary, state Rep. Dorothy Moon and state Sen. Mary Souza, both floated Trump’s false claim that the results of the 2020 presidential election were tainted by sweeping voter fraud.

McGrane, however, is confident of the integrity of Idaho’s elections because he spent the last 17 years administering them.

He got his start as an election specialist in the wake of the Bush-Gore recount of 2000, training poll workers, finding polling locations and counting ballots. As Ada County clerk, he implements Idaho election laws and practices. While his bid for secretary of state failed in 2014, McGrane’s 2022 campaign has garnered the support of all five living Idaho governors.

“Because I've been at the ground level, I've seen what opportunities there are to improve this system,” McGrane said.

'Rig the system': GOP candidates for secretary of state run on Trump's election denial platform

The primary results

Pre-2020, McGrane's combined establishment support and background as an election official may have made him a clear front-runner in this year’s primary. Instead McGrane captured the nomination with just over 43% of the vote – a winner only because Moon and Souza appeared to split the Trump vote.

More than 40,000 of the 114,000 votes for McGrane came from voters in Ada County, his home base. However, Moon got more votes in the rest of the state. Without Ada, which is the state’s most populous county and includes the capital city of Boise, Moon garnered 54.3% of the vote, while McGrane secured only 45.7%.

The news comes to you: Sign up for the USA TODAY OnPolitics newsletter here. 

If he wins in November, which is likely in GOP-heavy Idaho, McGrane said he would strengthen cybersecurity precautions in elections, create a system for voter information guides and continue the collaborative work among counties that he began in his current role as Ada County clerk.

“I have worked for years trying to make sure Idaho's elections are successful,” he said at the barbecue fundraiser.

To McGrane, this means creating more opportunities for Idahoans to vote, such as via early in-person voting, which he said also bolsters election security.

“Early voting is the most secure form of voting because of the technology and tools that we're able to apply to both make sure we can check somebody and check their information,” McGrane said.

While McGrane was county clerk, Ada became the first county in Idaho to print on-demand ballots. With on-demand ballots, election officials enter a voter’s name into a computer, which then verifies them with the statewide voter registration database, selects the correct ballot and prints it. It also enables the county to offer early voting from additional polling places.

“My hope someday is to see that same technology used on Election Day because I think there really are some tools that afford us opportunities to make elections even better,” McGrane added.

USA TODAY politics reporters want to talk to you – the voters – about what you really need to know about the upcoming election. Join us for breaking political updates.

And it's not just McGrane's refusal to embrace the Trump claims of a stolen election that makes him stand out from other Republicans. He also advocates for expanded voter access compared to GOP candidates in other states who have pledged to end mail-in ballots in an effort to return to a system that revolves around casting ballots in person on Election Day.

Across the country, many Republican secretary of state candidates have spread debunked, false claims about election fraud in 2020. Several of those Republican candidates have won their primaries.

Idahoans largely opted for moderates on election day

Mainstream Republicans like McGrane emerged victorious over firebrand far-right challengers in nearly every statewide Idaho GOP primary race this year.

Gov. Brad Little trounced his Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, who was endorsed by former President Donald Trump, by more than 20 percentage points. The Little-endorsed candidate for lieutenant governor, Scott Bedke, won by more than nine percentage points. And on a more local level, incumbent state Rep. Chad Christensen — a member of the anti-government Oath Keepers militia — lost to the more moderate Republican, Josh Wheeler.

Idaho Gov. Brad Little defeated his challenger on the right in his party's primary.
Idaho Gov. Brad Little defeated his challenger on the right in his party's primary.

There was one prominent victor representing the pro-Trump extreme right of the party: former U.S. Rep. Raúl Labrador, who defeated five-term Attorney General Lawrence Wasden. Labrador campaigned by criticizing Wasden for not joining 17 other Republican state attorneys general who asked the Supreme Court to throw out the 2020 presidential election results in the four key swing states of Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

McGrane and the rest of the Republican slate of statewide nominees are all but guaranteed to win in the general election in November. Idaho voters have opted for Republican governors, secretaries of state and attorneys general for more than 25 years straight.

Nonetheless, McGrane is still campaigning — and still barbecuing.

He’s hosting an “All-American BBQ” Wednesday, where he will once again cook and talk elections with anyone who will listen.

His message: it’s crucial to fight against the false claims of election fraud spread by some in his party.

Midterms: A new 'Big Lie' battleground in secretary of state elections

“The secretary of state's office is just like the county clerk's office — you shouldn't really know these offices are there,” McGrane said.

“But in this environment, with everything that's going on, it is so important that voters, when they head to the polls, have confidence that their vote counts and that at the end of the night the results reflect the will of the community.” he added.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Idaho GOP selections candidate Phil McGrane rejects Trump fraud claims