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How Arizona Became an Abyss of Election Conspiracy Theories

Of the roughly three dozen states that have held primaries this year, Donald Trump’s conspiracy fantasies about the 2020 Arizona election appear to be the most asset.

This week, Arizona Republicans up and down nominated candidates who focused their campaigns on fueling baseless conspiracy theories about 2020, when Democrats won the state’s presidential election for the second time since the 1940s.

Joe Biden defeated Trump in Arizona by less than 11,000 votes — a wafer-thin margin that has led to endless efforts to verify and nullify the results, despite election officials’ repeated and emphatic insistence that very little fraud was committed.

They are joined by Blake Masters, a hard-hearted venture capitalist on the run to oust Senator Mark Kelly, the mild-mannered former astronaut who entered politics after his wife, former Representative Gabby Giffords, was seriously injured by a gunman in 2011.

There is also Abraham Hamadeh, the Republican nominee for attorney general, along with several candidates for the state legislature who will almost certainly win their races. It’s pretty much election deniers all the way down.

Another notable primary result this week: Rusty Bowers, the former Speaker of the Arizona House, who gave emotional testimony to Congress in June about the pressure he was under to undo the election, was easily defeated in his bid to secure an election. to get a seat in the state Senate.

To understand it all, I spoke with Jennifer Medina, a California-based political reporter for The New York Times who covers Arizona and has deep expertise on many of the policy issues driving elections in the state. Our conversation, slightly edited for length and clarity, is below.

You’ve been reporting on Arizona for years. Why are many democracy watchers so alarmed about the primary election results there?

It’s pretty simple: if these candidates win in November, they’ve pledged to ban the use of electronic voting machines and abolish the hugely popular and long-standing postal voting system.

It’s also easy to imagine a similar scenario to the 2020 presidential election, but with very different results. Both Lake and Finchem have repeatedly said they would not have confirmed Biden’s win.

Some might say this is all just partisan politics or pretension – that Finchem, Lake and Masters just said what they think they need to say to win the primaries. What does your report show? Is their election denial just loose talk, or is there evidence that they really believe what they say?

There is no reason to believe that these candidates will not at least try to carry out the kind of plans they have promoted.

No doubt they would face legal challenges from Democrats and impartial watchdog groups.

But it’s worth remembering that, despite losing battle after battle in the courts for the past two years, these Republicans are still pushing the same election denial theories. And they have fueled those false beliefs among huge numbers of voters, who helped drive their victories on Tuesday.

We’ve seen evidence of that this week with the wave of Republicans going to the polls in person on Election Day instead of voting by mail, as they had for years, after hearing repeatedly unfounded claims that ballot submissions are full of fraud. This was especially true for Lake backers.

There is no way of knowing what these candidates really believe in their hearts, but they have left no room to doubt their intentions.

How do you feel about whether these Republicans are able to run to the center for the general election? And what could happen if they did?

We haven’t seen much, if any, evidence that these candidates have plans to turn downtown, other than minor tweaks to some of the language in Masters’ TV ads.

They’ve spent months denouncing people in the party they see as RINOs (“Republicans in name only,” in case you forgot). In Arizona, that list included Governor Doug Ducey, who refused to reverse the results of the 2020 presidential election as Trump demanded, and the late Senator John McCain, who angered many conservatives and Trump supporters by opposing repealing the Affordable Care. Act to vote.

So even as these candidates try to move toward the center, expect their Democratic opponents to point to those statements and other past comments to portray them as extremists on the right.

I do wonder how much Republicans will continue to focus on the 2020 election in the latter part of this year’s campaign. More moderate Republican officials and strategists I spoke to in Arizona have repeatedly said they are concerned. that this will weaken the party’s chances in the state, where independent voters make up about a third of the electorate.

Do Katie Hobbs, the Secretary of State who won the Democratic nomination for governor, and Senator Mark Kelly, the Democrat who will be re-elected in the fall, talk much about election denial or January 6 when they’re out with voters?

Hobbs gained widespread notoriety in the days following the 2020 election when she appeared on national television night and day, assuring voters that all ballots would be counted fairly and accurately, no matter how long that took. So it’s no exaggeration to say that her own fate is closely tied to the rise of election denial.

But even though her closest supporters have promoted Hobbs as a guardian of democracy – and she has taken advantage of it in her fundraising – this is not a central part of her day-to-day campaigns. Many Democratic strategists in the state say they think she would be better off focusing on things like economics, health care and abortion.

And that line of thinking is even more true in the Kelly camp, where many believe the incumbent senator is best served by focusing on his image as an independent willing to antagonize other members of his party.

In March, for example, Kelly called the surge in asylum seekers crossing the border a “crisis,” language Biden has resisted. Kelly has also supported part of a border wall, a position most Democrats adamantly oppose.

How does election denial play as a political issue with voters versus, say, jobs or the price of gas and groceries?

We don’t know the answer yet, but whether voters view candidates who deny the 2020 election as disqualifying is one of the most important and interesting questions this fall.

I’ve talked to dozens of people in Arizona over the past few months — Democrats, Republicans, and independents — and few are single-issue voters. They’re all worried about things like jobs and gas prices and inflation and abortion, but they’re also deeply concerned about democracy and what many Republicans call “election integrity.” But their understanding of what those terms mean is very different depending on their political vision.

Is there an aspect of the appeal of these candidates that people outside of Arizona might miss?

Each of the winning Republican candidates we discussed has also focused on tackling immigration and militarizing the border, which could be popular in Arizona. It is a border state with a long history of anti-immigration policies.

Two demographics are widely credited with helping tilt the state toward Democrats in the last two elections: suburban white women and young Latinos. As the state has gone purple, the Republican Party moves further to the right. Now, whether those voters appear before the party in power this year will help determine the future of many upcoming elections.

postcard FROM DALLAS

Is there such a thing as a heat index in Texas? It felt like 105 degrees outside the Hilton Anatole hotel in Dallas on Thursday.

But in the cavernous hotel, the air conditioning was on full blast as Mike Lindell, the election-denying pillow tycoon who has branched out into coffee and slippers, moved through the media during a meeting at the Conservative Political Action Conference. A swarm of Republicans approached, angling for selfies and handshakes as they expressed their approval of his efforts and spending to undo the 2020 presidential election.

Beyond the conservative media booths, each of which resembled a Fox News set, I wandered through an empire of “Trump won” and “Make America Pro-Life Again” merchandise. My N95 mask made me stand out, but every person I asked for an interview was obliged.

There was Jeffrey Lord, who was fired by CNN in 2017 for – mockingly, he said at the time – invoking a Nazi slogan in a convoluted Twitter exchange. He told me that he had just attended a private meeting with Viktor Orban, the Hungarian Prime Minister revered by many American conservatives. Orban is misunderstood, Lord told me, noting that Ronald Reagan was once accused of being a warmonger. I asked if conservatives like Lord Orban would put them in a similar category to Reagan.

“In terms of freedom, and all that, I do that,” he said. “It’s a theme with President Trump.”

In the media room in the hotel’s grand ballroom, right-wing newscasts had medallion status. A front row seat was reserved for One America News, the pro-Trump network. Two seats to my right, a woman with a media degree was eating pork rinds from a Ziploc bag.

Seven hours later I got out of the hotel and took off my N95, which left a mark on my face. It was only 99 degrees.

Thank you for reading. We’ll see you next week.

— Blake

Is there anything you think we’re missing? Something you want to see more of? We would love to hear from you. Email us at onpolitics@nytimes.com.

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