The battle over ‘the big lie’

This November, voters will decide the future of American elections. Arizona is ground zero

Rusty Bowers is a worried man.

Retreating to a dark room within his suite at Arizona’s sun-baked capitol complex, he sinks into a couch, tall and slender in a purple dress shirt. With a prominent mole above his left brow, the speaker of the state’s house looks you in the eye as he talks — until the conversation turns to the subject of his fears. Then his gaze drifts and he stares into the distance, speaking of the “world of hurt” he believes his political rivals will unleash should they prevail in the midterm elections this November.

Remarkably, those rivals are from his own party. 

Rusty Bowers, Arizona House Speaker, testifies during the fourth hearing on the January 6th investigation in the Cannon House Office Building on June 21, 2022 in Washington, DC. The bipartisan committee, which has been gathering evidence for almost a year related to the January 6 attack at the U.S. Capitol, is presenting its findings in a series of televised hearings. On January 6, 2021, supporters of former President Donald Trump attacked the U.S. Capitol Building during an attempt to disrupt a congressional vote to confirm the electoral college win for President Joe Biden. | Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images

Bowers is a lifelong Republican and a staunch conservative who regularly votes along party lines on issues like taxes and abortion. He holds a 92 percent rating from the NRA, a 20 percent rating from Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona and abysmal reviews from environmental organizations like the Sierra Club. Unlike some prominent members of the GOP, he supported former President Donald Trump throughout his term in office, though it ended on a sour note. “He did some good for this country, for which I’m grateful,” Bowers says, “but he’s unfit to serve as our president.”

Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election results in Arizona — one of several swing states that sealed his loss — forced Bowers to choose between loyalty to his party and fundamental principles like honesty and respect for the rule of law. Appearing before the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th attack on the United States Capitol in June, Bowers testified that Trump’s legal team, led by Rudy Giuliani, pressured him to allow a committee to hear unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud with the goal of persuading legislators to replace Biden’s electors with Trump loyalists. When they offered no evidence to support the maneuver, Bowers refused, even after Giuliani cajoled him, asking, “Aren’t we all Republicans here?”

Bowers stood on principle and paid for it, becoming a target for Trump backers on every level. Protesters harassed him for two years, gathering outside his home, making vile and unfounded accusations. Trump campaigned against him in the race for state senate, calling him a “Republican in Name Only.” About a month after his testimony, Bowers lost the primary to David Farnsworth. Both men are members of the same party and religion. But one publicly supported Trump’s election claims and the other did not. Bowers wasn’t alone. Most of the state’s mainstream GOP fell to a slate of like-minded individuals — including a former TV news anchor who became the party’s gubernatorial candidate in her first-ever run for office — in a stunning rebuke to those who chose country over party, which could well end Bowers’ political career.

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Still, his worries aren’t personal. Bowers’ defeat was part of a nationwide battle for the soul of the Republican party, widely seen as a proxy contest between Trump and his former Vice President Mike Pence. The Trump wing leveraged the unfounded claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen to argue that democracy can only be saved if their faction takes over the machinery of elections themselves — especially in swing states. The mainstream continues to trust the nation’s electoral infrastructure and wants to get back to winning elections the old-fashioned way. Now, the general ballot in November could reshape the future of American elections.

“We haven’t had to worry that administrators might try to subvert the results to benefit one side or another. But that’s now a real threat.” —Rick Hasen, director of UCLA’s Safeguarding Democracy Project

Some call it “the steal,” others “the big lie.” Facing unfavorable polls in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, Trump started to claim the voting was already rigged. He kept it up on Election Day and throughout the aftermath as votes were being counted, revealing that he had lost. But the willingness to back or even expand on his increasingly wild claims — that dead people and noncitizens voted against him; that poll workers stashed crates full of ballots; that hardware manufactured in China was hacked to turn voting machines against him — soon became a loyalty test for Republicans to stay on his side and hold onto his potent endorsement. 

Arizona was one of several swing states that tilted the election in favor of Joe Biden, who took the state by just over 10,000 votes. It subsequently became one of the states where Trump and his legal team took their allegations of fraud to court — where they consistently lost — and leaned on different levers of power within the state trying to manufacture a more favorable outcome. That effort failed in the short term but spawned a new strategy to put allies in charge of those levers. This November, Arizona is one of five states with election deniers running for all three statewide posts that oversee or influence elections. 

In Michigan, for example, the Republican nominee for secretary of state is a former community college professor who was launched to prominence by going on Fox News after working as a poll watcher in Detroit during the 2020 elections, alleging a litany of hijinks that no one has been able to verify. In Pennsylvania, the Republican gubernatorial nominee is campaigning on overturning election results and trying to ban ballot drop boxes. And in Nevada, the Republican secretary of state nominee wants to throw out electronic balloting machines, claiming they don’t record the will of voters. “Your vote hasn’t counted for decades,” Jim Marchant told supporters earlier this year. “The people that are in office have been selected. You haven’t had a choice.”

It can be difficult to discern whether candidates are sincere in their belief that elections have become corrupt or are cynically leveraging a position that can help them to win office — as some still hope. Either way, the idea of taking over the process itself is not entirely original. 

Political machines of the past have dominated elections in certain American cities for periods of time, doling out patronage and making local deals to hold onto the levers of power; think Tammany Hall in 19th century New York or the Chicago Democratic machine for most of the 1900s. But today’s movement to seize control of national elections is unprecedented in scope, and perhaps more reminiscent of the maneuvers used by democratically elected strongmen in countries like Hungary, whose authoritarian president, Viktor Orban, headlined the recent CPAC conference.

“We haven’t had to worry before, at least in modern American history, that election administrators might not run elections fairly, and might try to subvert the results to benefit one side or another,” says Rick Hasen, director of UCLA’s Safeguarding Democracy Project and one of the country’s foremost experts on election law. “But that’s now a real threat that’s on the table. And we’re gonna have to figure out how to address it.” 

At the very least, this faction is promoting a new vision for American democracy, one that rests on controlling elections themselves to ensure preferred outcomes. 

The strategy is reshaping state and local campaigns in curious ways. Beyond prominent offices like governors and legislators — whose influence is a little more obvious — certain down-ballot races are drawing a higher profile than ever, precisely because they play a role in election integrity. And because the emphasis is on loyalty to the former president, some candidates have resumes that might seem surprising. 

A campaign ad for the Republican candidate for Arizona secretary of state offers an interesting case study. On screen, he slides on a white cowboy hat — posturing as a man of action — over wire-framed glasses and a bushy mustache. Ads are rare this far down the ballot, but this man is lucky enough to let a former president speak for him. “He is tough as hell,” Trump says. “Mark Finchem had the courage to hold the hearings that led to the Arizona audit,” a voiceover artist adds. “Mark Finchem is the election integrity fighter we need, now.” 

A member of the Arizona House since 2015, Finchem is also a member of Oath Keepers, a nationwide militia. As of this writing, that group’s leader and seven other members were awaiting trial in federal court on seditious conspiracy charges, among others, for their alleged role in the insurrection of January 6, 2021. At least three more had already pleaded guilty. Prosecutors say the group kept a “death list” of officials who oversaw the Georgia elections in 2020, which Trump lost, and brought explosives to Washington, D.C., for potential use during the uprising. Finchem was there, too, photographed among the mob at the Capitol steps and tweeting a photo of his own. That same month, he posted a “treason watch list” on his Pinterest account featuring Barack Obama, Janet Napolitano and other prominent Democrats. On his website, a banner declares: “Sign the petition to decertify and set aside AZ electors.” 

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In the past, that history might have locked Finchem into an obscure corner, with perhaps enough votes to win a seat but lacking the support to make an impact. That was the case in January, when he co-sponsored a bill that would have allowed Arizona state legislators to reject election results; the bill stalled within days. But his stance on elections and unwavering support for Trump have earned him the party’s backing in what has become a key campaign.

In most states, the secretary of state administers and oversees elections. Finchem is a founding member of the America First Secretary of State Coalition, which seeks to install Trump loyalists as election administrators across the country. The group’s website offers a detailed, six-point plan for coalition candidates who take office: Voter ID; paper ballots; eliminate mail-in ballots while keeping traditional absentee ballots; single-day voting; unfettered poll watch reforms; and aggressive voter roll cleanup. In theory, none of these measures seem particularly outlandish, but the coalition makes it clear these efforts come with partisan intent. 

“Many others may talk the talk, but we are actually walking the walk by declaring ourselves to stand and fight in the public arena for conservative principles and solutions to the corrupt election process nationwide,” the website reads. “Please join with us on this exciting, determined, Never-Give-Up journey to Take Our Country Back!” 

Attorney general is another key position, charged with defending a state’s election results in court — or declining to do so. Arizona candidate Abraham Hamadeh says that his goal is to “prioritize the Election Integrity Unit and increase the number of prosecutors and investigators in order to be prepared and protect the 2024 election.” From whom, exactly, is not clear. 

Beyond prominent state offices like governors and legislators, certain down-ballot races are drawing a higher profile than ever, precisely because they play a role in election integrity. 

The hallway to Bowers’ office passes a display case full of small statues, each representing a figure from Arizona history, from lawmen to Apache leaders. Bowers, who studied art at Brigham Young University, carved them himself. His aesthetic is reflected in many busts and paintings along the outer walls and inside the legislative chamber, where he lobbied to surround the floor with giant panels depicting the Grand Canyon. Inside, his desk is bare, save for a book about procedure, a cactus-print mouse pad and a small, fake crow — a gift from Albert Hale, a former President of the Navajo Nation and a Democratic state representative from 2011 to 2017. Hale nicknamed Bowers the “Gáagii nez” — “the tall crow,” in Diné — and gave him that little crow to keep watch. 

Perhaps Bowers could have saved some pride by ceding the primary, but he refused to quit, even as attacks mounted, as demonstrators outside his home chanted over loudspeakers and handed out fliers calling him a pedophile. “The whole mentality of this constant barrage of anger and malice and name calling — I wasn’t gonna be bullied to leave,” he says, sitting among some of his own sculptures and paintings. “So he might beat me, but he’s not gonna bully me.”

That defiance served him well in the aftermath of the 2020 election. One thing that the tense weeks and months between that November and the inauguration of President Joe Biden made clear is how much American democracy relies on the character of the individuals like him who serve in public office, whether large or small in scope. When history thrusts them into a difficult position, our system depends on them to stand up and do the right thing. Across the country, we’ve seen examples of Republicans who refused to bend the law to give their party a win. Arizona is no different.

On the other side of the aisle, Arizona Democrats will leverage a slate of Trump-backed candidates to argue that without people like Bowers, on the right or the left, there will be little firewall. “The messages that they’re going to put forward in the general election are that this is all about preserving democracy,” says Julie Erfle, an Arizona-based consultant with knowledge of Democratic campaign plans. “This is about not letting legislators choose the next president, or who our electors are.” That starts at the top with Katie Hobbs, the gubernatorial candidate who is now finishing her four-year term as secretary of state. “I don’t think this is even a choice about Democrats or Republicans; it’s a choice between sanity and chaos,” she says. “It is not hyperbolic to say that democracy is on the ballot in 2022, and that the outcome of these elections will determine the future of free and fair elections in our country.” 

GOP strategist Chuck Coughlin approves. “If I’m the Democrats, I’m running on that,” he says. “I’m gonna say, ‘You can’t elect a fascist.’ I’m having (Democratic secretary of state nominee) Adrian Fontes warm up every one of my crowds. I’d have him on a ticket with me, talking about the integrity of the election, and talking about protecting people’s right to vote.” 

Bowers didn’t stand alone. On the same day as the capitol insurrection, another group of protestors gathered in Arizona. Outside the state capitol, they set up a guillotine intended for Maricopa County Supervisor Bill Gates, another lifelong Republican, and his colleagues. He, too, fears for the future after enduring nearly two years of harassment and watching extremists take the primary. “There’s a reason that Donald Trump has selected these people and gotten behind them,” he says. “This isn’t about some broader goal for democracy. This is about putting key people in place in the swing states where he thinks they will put the finger on the scales. I can’t say it any clearer than that.”

Looking ahead to November, the outcome is still where it belongs — in the hands of voters.

At least for now.   

This story appears in the October issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe