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

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WASHINGTON – Colorado Republican secretary of state candidate Tina Peters champions former President Donald Trump's unfounded claim that the 2020 election results were fraudulent even though he hasn't endorsed her in the state’s GOP primary. Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, who won the GOP nomination for a second term, has Trump's endorsement despite being more cautious in criticizing the 2020 election results.

There are various shades of Trump support among Republicans running for their party’s primary nomination for the 27 secretary of state seats up for grabs this year.

Trump has endorsed four GOP secretary of state candidates – in Ohio, Georgia, Michigan and Arizona – as well as Pennsylvania’s GOP gubernatorial winner Doug Mastriano, who has the authority to appoint his state’s top election official. Trump’s secretary picks won in Ohio but lost in Georgia, and his Michigan hopeful has been unofficially named the GOP candidate. The Arizona race is Aug. 2.

The Trump-endorsed candidates, except for Ohio’s LaRose, are among the 13 secretary of state hopefuls in the new America First coalition, “constitutional conservatives” either supporting false claims of election fraud or pushing for what they call “Patriot” objectives like the elimination of mail-in ballots. Gubernatorial candidate Mastriano is also a coalition member.

State Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, a Republican candidate for governor of Pennsylvania, speaks at a primary night election gathering in Chambersburg, Pa., May 17.
State Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, a Republican candidate for governor of Pennsylvania, speaks at a primary night election gathering in Chambersburg, Pa., May 17.

America First candidates won the GOP nomination in New Mexico and Nevada. But America First candidates lost primaries in Nebraska, Idaho, Georgia, California and South Carolina. The primaries for the other six have not yet been held.

Though Trump has endorsed just four secretary of state candidates, many more tout Trump’s baseless and false claims about the 2020 election.

In addition, the former president has endorsed nearly 200 candidates running for the U.S. Senate and House as well as governor and down-ballot offices. With polls showing Trump's continued popularity among Republican voters, the 2022 midterm elections will likely test how pervasive Trump’s unfounded election claims have become and whether they will leech into the general elections in November when GOP-nominated candidates will go head-to-head with Democratic nominees.

More: In 2022 midterms, a new 'Big Lie' battleground: secretary of state elections

When that happens, it may be difficult for Democrats to face the energized voter bases of their Republican opponents, said Anne Nelson, an adjunct research scholar of international and public affairs at Columbia University. “There's some time to pass before we go to the midterms, but if they were held today, I don't think it would look very good for the Democrats."

If enough supporters of Trump’s election fraud claims win these seats – especially the secretary of state positions critical to voting infrastructure – some experts are worried they might alter results to ensure a Trump victory if he runs for president in 2024.

Vincent Hutchings, a political science professor at the University of Michigan, said Trump is trying to clear a path to the presidency by helping his allies snag offices that could enable them to manipulate votes in his favor.

“The point of installing these individuals across various states around the country is not to validate a particular message or to propagate Republican philosophy,” Hutchings said. “It’s to rig the system so that an individual named Donald Trump can win the election, no matter how people vote.”

A win for Trump's candidate in Michigan

In Michigan, Trump-backed secretary of state candidate Kristina Karamo, a Black Christian political newcomer, captured the former president’s attention after she falsely alleged widespread voter fraud in her state and echoed his baseless claim that the 2020 election was stolen from him – the centerpiece of Trump’s re-election strategy, Hutchings said.

Trump's candidate: Michigan secretary of state candidate Kristina Karamo: I'm a little MAGA warrior

After gaining prominence as an outspoken 2020 poll challenger in Detroit, Karamo earned Trump’s endorsement in September and secured the unofficial Republican party nomination at the April 23 Michigan GOP endorsement convention in Grand Rapids. In so doing, she became the first GOP nominee for secretary of state who refuses to acknowledge Joe Biden's win in 2020.

Following a formal party vote in the Aug. 2 primary, Karamo is expected to face incumbent Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson in the November general election. Although a Karamo victory appears unlikely, Hutchings said her campaign will be a good measure of the mainstream appeal of Trump’s far-right ideas and apply pressure to the elections system in a battleground state.

Colorado stands as the next test on the former president's false claims

In Colorado, Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters, a proponent of Trump’s election conspiracies, has been indicted for seven felony charges and three misdemeanors related to election fraud.

The state GOP has called for her to suspend her campaign, and a judge has barred her from overseeing the 2022 elections. At the end of May, Peters was arrested for resisting a search warrant, and multiple state and federal investigations into her election involvement are underway.

Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters, center, reads the results from the first round of ballots for the 2020 presidential primary elections at the Mesa County election office in Grand Junction, Colo., on March 3, 2020. The county’s election equipment has been decertified and will have to be replaced following a security breach allegedly aided by Peters.
Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters, center, reads the results from the first round of ballots for the 2020 presidential primary elections at the Mesa County election office in Grand Junction, Colo., on March 3, 2020. The county’s election equipment has been decertified and will have to be replaced following a security breach allegedly aided by Peters.

Though Trump has not endorsed Peters, her campaign spending records show she visited his Mar-a-Lago resort, a popular venue for those seeking the former president’s support – though Peters maintains the visits were for a film viewing and a fundraiser for Adam Finchem, an election denier running for secretary of state in Arizona.

In the state’s June 28 Republican primary, Peters will face moderate Republican Pam Anderson, a longtime elections official who rejects election fraud lies and says she will not be seeking any out-of-state endorsements.

'Muddy the results' in Arizona

In Arizona, some Republican candidates are avoiding talking about Trump.

But Trump-endorsed Finchem, a state representative and election denier who has been linked to QAnon conspiracy theorists, has outraised all his competitors. He has raised more than $900,000 in campaign contributions as of March 31, according to campaign finance reports.

Finchem will face moderate Beau Lane, a businessman and political newcomer, and two other state legislators in the Aug. 2 GOP primary.

More: Among some in Arizona GOP, siege of the US Capitol was everyone's fault except Trump

“They're there so that even if (Trump) runs, and even if he loses, and loses the popular vote by 6 or 8 million instead of 3 million this time, that they'll rig the election around so that he's a winner,” Norman Ornstein, a senior fellow emeritus at theWashington-based think tank American Enterprise Institute, said of Trump-endorsed secretary of state candidates.

“They can ignore what the popular vote says … or at least muddy the results,” he added.

In Idaho, a win for clerk who affirmed Biden’s election win

In Idaho’s May 17 Republican primaries, state senator Mary Souza and state representative Dorothy Moon both rejected the results of the 2020 election, while county clerk Phil McGrane affirmed President Joe Biden’s win.

McGrane won with 43% of the vote; the remaining 56.9% of Republicans backed one of the candidates espousing Trump’s false election fraud claims, Moon and Souza, in the primaries.

Mainstream Republicans like McGrane also won in Idaho’s governor and lieutenant governor races while the Trump-endorsed candidate for governor lost by 20 points. The state’s primaries overall raise questions about the potency of a Trump endorsement and the persuasiveness of a campaign promoting false claims of election fraud.

Georgia’s Raffensperger, top Trump target, wins his primary

Incumbent Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger prevailed in the May 24 Republican primary over Trump-endorsed U.S. Rep. Jody Hice – one of 147 Republican lawmakers who voted against certifying the 2020 election results hours after the Jan. 6 insurrection.

More: Trump called Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp a 'turncoat' and fought to defeat him. Here's why he won anyway.

Raffensperger became a household name after he publicly rejected Trump’s calls to “find” additional votes in Trump’s favor during the 2020 presidential election.

Republican Brad Raffensperger is the Georgia secretary of state.
Republican Brad Raffensperger is the Georgia secretary of state.

In Nevada Trump ally wins the nomination for secretary of state

Seven candidates were in the ring for the GOP secretary of state nomination in Nevada’s June 14 Republican primary, vying to replace current Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, who could not seek reelection due to term limits.

The winner was America First candidate and former state assemblyman Jim Marchant, with 38% of the vote.

The second-place candidate was the race’s top fundraiser, former state senator Jesse Haw, who got 20% of the vote.

More: Election skeptic wins 2022 Nevada Republican primary election for secretary of state

Though he hasn’t secured a Trump endorsement, Marchant was backed by MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, a pro-Trump donor who’s financially backed a number of these state races. Lindell said he sent $800,000 to Colorado candidate Peters for her defense fund as she combats election fraud charges.

Cristobella Durette and Julia Shapero contributed

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump election fraud claims fuel GOP secretary of state campaigns