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Primaries in key swing states test enduring appeal of Trump’s false 2020 claims

All eyes are on Arizona Tuesday as Republican primaries up and down the ballot test former President Donald Trump’s continued sway over the GOP.

On a busy primary day, where voters in Michigan, Missouri, Washington and Kansas determine marquee statewide contests and general election match-ups critical to control of Congress, the presidential swing state that delivered President Joe Biden his slimmest margin of victory in 2020 has emerged as a headliner.

Aug. 2, 202204:24

Leading candidates in the Arizona GOP contests for Senate, governor, secretary of state and attorney general have nearly universally echoed Trump’s lies about a stolen election, earning his endorsement. In particular, the close, contentious primary for governor offers one of the purest tests yet of how highly GOP voters prize fealty to Trump and allegiance to his false claims about the election.

Kari Lake, a longtime local news anchor backed by Trump and a number of MAGA influencers, has called Biden “illegitimate,” bashed Republican Gov. Doug Ducey as “do nothing Ducey” and suggested she won’t accept the results of her election should her opponent prevail.

Karrin Taylor Robson, a real estate developer who worked in the Reagan White House and is backed by Ducey, former Vice President Mike Pence and other GOP officials, has called the 2020 election “unfair” but refrained from saying it was stolen and has refused to commit to certifying the next presidential election. (Ducey, who is term limited from running again, earned Trump’s ire when he certified Biden’s victory.)

There is no evidence that the 2020 vote in Arizona, or any other state, did not reflect the will of voters. In Arizona, ballot reviews, including a partisan undertaking blessed by the GOP-led state Senate, only affirmed Biden’s win. Earlier this year, Arizona’s Republican attorney general released a report finding no mass fraud in Maricopa County, where Trump and allies focused their efforts and allegations.

On Monday, GOP Attorney General Mark Brnovich said his office had looked into claims that 282 dead voters had cast ballots in Maricopa County and found that just one of those voters was actually dead at the time of the 2020 election. Those allegations stemmed from the conspiracy-laden, partisan review of Maricopa County ballots led by the now-shuttered company Cyber Ninjas.

“Our agents investigated all individuals that Cyber Ninjas reported as dead, and many were very surprised to learn they were allegedly deceased,” Brnovich, who is running in the Senate primary, wrote in a letter to state Senate President Karen Fann, who signed off on the unorthodox Cyber Ninjas review.

Arizona Democratic candidate for governor Katie Hobbs speaks to the media before dropping off her primary election ballot in Scottsdale on July 21.Ross D. Franklin / AP file

On the Democratic side, Secretary of State Katie Hobbs is expected to easily win her party’s primary for governor. As the state’s top elections official, she has been a target of stolen election conspiracy theories and was harassed and threatened for her work and defense of the state’s system in 2020.

Recent polling has suggested an extremely tight race between the Lake and Taylor Robson, well within the margin of error. Surveys have found Lake leading among younger Republicans while Taylor Robson has done better with older voters.

Both candidates have also focused intensely on the influx of migrants crossing the southern border.

“Ducey laid down like a doormat to the cartels,” Lake said at a Tucson rally last month. “I’m tired of having a doormat running the show in Arizona.”

In an interview with NBC News after a campaign event in Queen Creek in July, Taylor Robson predicted she would win because “Arizona is looking forward” and Lake is “really focused in the rearview mirror and unfocused on the windshield.”

Taylor Robson compared Lake to Evan Mecham, a former Republican governor of Arizona who in the late 1980s simultaneously faced impeachment, a recall election and a felony indictment.

Mecham’s tenure “led to … years and years of difficulty for the state of Arizona, our reputation and everything else,” she said. “And Kari Lake will be Evan Mecham on steroids. I believe she will be a disaster for this state.”

The Lake-Taylor Robson clash won’t be the only one in the state drawing national attention. In the state’s GOP Senate primary, Trump’s preferred candidate, Blake Masters, a protege of tech billionaire and Republican megadonor Peter Thiel, looks likely to prevail over a field that includes businessman Jim Lamon and Brnovich. The winner will take on Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly this fall.

In the battle for secretary of state, state Rep. Mark Finchem, a close ally of former Trump adviser Steve Bannon and an early adopter of election lies, appears well positioned to pull out a victory, though Ducey has endorsed his chief rival, businessman Beau Lane, who has not said the last election was stolen.

Then there’s the race for attorney general, where Abe Hamadeh, a former Maricopa County prosecutor with Trump’s endorsement, is taking on a large field of opponents. Hamadeh has boosted Trump’s stolen election rhetoric.

Democracy advocates have for months zeroed in on the Arizona races as critical for the future of honest elections. Finchem, for example, co-sponsored a bill in the state House that would have given the Legislature the ability to overturn election results.

Like Lake, he, too. has suggested he won’t accept the results should he lose.

There are several high-profile races elsewhere. In Michigan’s Republican primary for governor, Tudor Dixon, a former conservative commentator and actor, has benefited from chaos-inducing stumbles by her rivals while earning the endorsement of both Trump and former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ family, one of the most powerful in Michigan GOP politics.

Still, she faces a crowded field of opponents for the chance to challenge Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer that includes Kevin Rinke, a self-funding former car dealer whose name is familiar to Detroit-area voters; Garrett Soldano, a chiropractor who gained a grassroots following on the right by protesting Whitmer’s Covid policies; and Ryan Kelley, a real estate broker who has pleaded not guilty to federal charges that he was part of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters aiming to stop the certification of the 2020 election.

In Missouri, Republicans will decide a bitterly contested Senate primary between Attorney General Eric Schmitt, disgraced former Gov. Eric Greitens, and Reps. Vicky Hartzler and Billy Long. On Monday, Trump said in a statement he endorsed “ERIC,” opting not to make a pick between Schmitt and Greitens. (There’s a third Eric in the race, too — the little-known Eric McElroy.)

Meanwhile, a trio of House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump last year are facing primary voters — Reps. Peter Meijer of Michigan, Jaime Herrera Beutler and Dan Newhouse, both of Washington.

Democrats have few contested primaries of note on Tuesday. In Michigan, Reps. Andy Levin and Haley Stevens face off in an incumbent vs. incumbent primary in the Detroit suburbs, the result of a redistricting process that drew them into the same boundaries. And in Missouri, Lucas Kunce, a self-proclaimed “populist,” faces off against Anheuser-Busch heir Trudy Busch Valentine and others for the state’s Democratic Senate nomination.

In Kansas, voters will determine the fate of abortion rights in the state by voting on a ballot measure that would, if successful, strip language protecting abortion rights from the state’s Constitution and hand power to the GOP-controlled Legislature to decide the issue.

It will be the first time since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade that U.S. voters cast ballots on abortion.

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