NEW YORK – Before winning Donald Trump's coveted endorsement in his race to become Arizona's top election official, Mark Finchem received several calls from people close to the former president making clear they approved of the work he was doing to challenge the results of the 2020 election.
“They said I had been noticed,” said Finchem, a state representative who was outside the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection and has been a key proponent of a widely panned partisan ballot review in Arizona. In subsequent conversations, he said, Trump praised his work and expressed hope he would continue.
As Trump considers another presidential run in 2024, he has taken similar interest in important but relatively obscure races in other critical battlegrounds. He's throwing his support behind candidates who have not only perpetuated the lie that the 2020 election was stolen, but in some cases also actively tried to overturn the results. The moves reflect Trump's desire to exert influence on all levels of the Republican Party and install allies into critical roles in the states that may be more amenable to helping him subvert future election results.
“President Trump’s failed attempts to overturn the results and the will of the people were really just the beginning,” said Jena Griswold, the Colorado secretary of state, who serves as chair of the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State, a group dedicated to electing Democrats to the positions.
While the races for secretary of state and attorney general have historically been overshadowed by higher-profile contests, the offices hold significant power. Attorneys general are their states' top law enforcement officers, while secretaries of state serve as chief election officers, overseeing efforts like voter registration and mail-in ballot distribution, depending on the state.
Rick Pildes, a constitutional law professor at New York University School of Law, said Trump's attention on the positions had changed the kinds of candidates they were attracting, with “much more partisan activists" taking interest.
“It’s an extraordinary thing for a former president who may very well be looking to run again to weigh in on secretary of state offices. I don’t know if we’ve ever seen that before," Pildes said.
Despite a lack of credible evidence to support Trump's allegations of mass voter fraud, the former president has continued to push the “big lie,” turning it into a litmus test for GOP candidates. Trump remains deeply popular with Republican voters, a majority of whom continue to believe the election was stolen, despite dozens of state and local elections officials, numerous judges and Trump's own attorney general saying President Joe Biden won fairly.
Underscoring that power, one of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump for inciting the Capitol insurrection announced last week that he would be retiring rather than having to face what was expected to be a bruising primary against a Trump-endorsed challenger.
“1 down, 9 to go!” Trump crowed.
Trump is now pushing his way down the ballot and has so far endorsed three candidates running for secretary of state, all in states that could play major roles in determining the outcome of the 2024 presidential election and where officials rebuffed his efforts to overturn the results last year.
His aides are open about the strategy.
“Our top priority is endorsing strong fighters who care about election integrity,” said Trump spokesperson Liz Harrington. “He notices when people are fighting for the truth about the November election results.”
In Arizona, which became a key front in Republicans' disinformation war, Trump last week backed Finchem, a vocal proponent of the state’s partisan review of the 2020 vote count in Maricopa County. Election experts have cited numerous flaws with the review, from biased and inexperienced contractors to conspiracy-chasing funders and bizarre, unreliable methods.
Finchem believes the results in the state should be decertified, and he has played a key role in efforts to undermine confidence in the vote, including by bringing Rudy Giuliani and other Trump attorneys to Phoenix to air bogus allegations of fraud.
Democrats pushed unsuccessfully to expel Finchem from the Arizona House after he was photographed outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, when Trump supporters stormed the building, trying to halt certification of Biden's victory. Finchem has said he was in the area to speak at a permitted rally and didn’t know the Capitol had been breached until hours later.
In Michigan's secretary of state race, Trump endorsed Kristina Karamo, who had backed an unsuccessful lawsuit from Texas that had tried to prevent Michigan and three other states from casting their electoral votes for Biden. For Georgia secretary of state, Trump endorsed U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, a loyalist who voted against certifying the election results and who is running to unseat Republican incumbent Brad Raffensperger, who stood by Georgia's election results and rejected Trump's entreaties to “find” more votes, enraging the former president.
Trump on Friday sent a letter to Raffensperger requesting he “start the process of decertifying the Election, or whatever the correct remedy is, and announce the true winner.”
In addition to the secretary of state races, Trump last week endorsed Matt DePerno, a Michigan lawyer who is running for state attorney general and who made debunked claims about vote-counting machines in Michigan's 2020 election. A report from the Republican-controlled Michigan Senate found no evidence of the fraud that DePerno alleged and recommended the current attorney general investigate those profiting off election misinformation.
DePerno has since boasted of raising more than $400,000 to help fund his lawsuit and separately paying $280,000 to fund the election review in Arizona.
Griswold, the Democratic secretary of state in Colorado, said the stakes in 2022 were high, with elections coming up in five swing states — Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Michigan and Georgia — along with countless county-level races.
“Democracy will be on the ballot in 2022,” said Griswold, who is seeking reelection. “We need to see people who believe in democracy and the will of the people in these roles."
Trey Grayson, a Republican who served as Kentucky secretary of state from 2004 to 2011, said that Trump's endorsement would likely be a powerful force in the races, but that choosing candidates based on loyalty and adherence to the “big lie” was “probably not the best way to win general elections and get good people into the office.”
And he bemoaned the message it might send if, for instance, Raffensperger ended up losing in Georgia.
“The message it sends is if you do the right thing, you're going to be punished," he said. "And that bothers me — it really bothers me — as someone who cares a great deal about democracy and someone who cares a great deal about the Republican Party."
Pildes said that, when it comes to election administration, even the perception of partisan intervention can be damaging.
“The concern is heightened if those elected officials feel that they owe their political success to a particular candidate,” Pildes said.
Finchem, for his part, said Trump had made no mention of 2024 in their calls.
“As far as the president's plans and his strategy, that’s way above my pay grade ... and, frankly, I don’t want to know. Once a secretary of state is elected, once that choice is made," he said, "you really have the responsibility to be nonpartisan as much as you can be.”
Associated Press writer Nicholas Riccardi in Denver contributed to this report.