Trump-backed conspiracy theorist vies to take over Arizona elections

PHOENIX — This spring, Mark Finchem traveled to Mar-a-Lago in Florida for the premiere of a documentary advancing the specious notion that the 2020 presidential election had been stolen from President Donald Trump by an army of leftists stuffing drop boxes with absentee ballots. As a state representative and candidate for secretary of state in Arizona, Finchem was a minnow among the assembled MAGA stars, the likes of Rudy Giuliani and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia.

But he still got his face time.

“President Trump took 20 minutes with me,” Finchem later recounted during a campaign stop. “And he said: ‘I want you to understand something. The Arizona secretary of state race is the most important race in the United States.’”

Arizona, of course, occupies a special place on Trump’s map of election indignities — as the onetime Republican stronghold where President Joe Biden’s narrow and crucial victory was first called by, of all networks, Fox News. Should Trump run again in 2024, a friendly secretary of state, as administrator of the state’s elections, could be in a position to help him avoid a repeat.

Now, as Arizona prepares for its primaries Tuesday, Finchem is the candidate of a Trump-backed America First coalition of more than a dozen 2020 election deniers who have sought once-obscure secretary of state posts across the country. While most of them have been considered extremist long shots, a recent poll gave Finchem an edge in Arizona’s four-way Republican race, although a significant majority of voters are undecided.

Finchem’s campaign pronouncements are testament to the evolution of the “Stop the Steal” movement: It is as much about influencing future elections as it is about what happened in 2020.

To that end, Finchem, who has identified himself as a member of the Oath Keepers militia in the past, may be the perfectly subversive candidate. Like his America First compatriots, he seeks, quite simply, to upend voting.

He wants to ban early voting and sharply restrict mail-in ballots, even though the latter were widely popular in Arizona long before the pandemic. He is already suing to suspend the use of all electronic vote-counting machines in Arizona, in litigation bankrolled by conspiracy theorist and pillow tycoon Mike Lindell. And he has co-sponsored a bill that would give the state’s Republican-led Legislature authority to overturn election results.

If he loses his own race, Finchem told a June fundraiser, “ain’t gonna be no concession speech coming from this guy.”

Finchem did not respond to requests for comment for this article, and one of his lawyers declined to comment. But in a May email he assured Republican supporters that if he had been in office in 2020, “we would have won. Plain and simple.” In the days after the election, he was co-host of an unofficial hearing at a downtown Phoenix hotel where Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, aired bogus stolen-elections claims. He was instrumental in trying to advance a slate of fake Trump electors in Arizona — part of a scheme to overturn the elections in a number of states that is being investigated by the Justice Department — and he is helping gather signatures to petition to decertify the state’s election results, even though that is not legally possible.

Finchem also marched to the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. He has said he did not come closer than 500 yards, but photos have surfaced showing him near the Capitol steps. He is not among the Oath Keepers who have been criminally charged, although he has been subpoenaed by the House committee investigating the attack.

Trump called him “the kind of fighter we need” in his endorsement and invited him to speak at his recent rally in Arizona. In the meantime, the other three Republican candidates for secretary of state, who in Arizona also serves as lieutenant governor, have staked out a range of positions on the 2020 election.

State Rep. Shawnna Bolick says she would not have certified Biden’s 2020 victory, even though it was legally required: “That would’ve been fine,” she said during a debate. “I would have been breaking the law.” The other two candidates — state Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita and Beau Lane, an advertising executive — say they would have followed the law and certified the election.

“I don’t think he’s helping build faith in elections, I think he’s sowing doubt in elections, and that’s not what the secretary of state needs to do,” Lane said of Finchem in an interview.

“I do not accept that the election was rigged,” Lane said, adding that while there were “instances of fraud” that should be prosecuted, he had not seen “evidence of widespread organized fraud that would have changed the outcome.”

A Michigan transplant, Finchem, 65, has spent more than seven years as a lawmaker from a district outside Tucson, which during a recent visit was a boiling 115-degree valley set amid mountains and cactuses. He has embraced a sun-baked sheriff aesthetic, favoring large cowboy hats that belie his Detroit birthplace, and was the Arizona coordinator for the Coalition of Western States, a group that once supported the armed occupation of federal land in Oregon.

He speaks in sober and serious tones and presents himself as a common-sense family man. When asked about his family life by one interviewer, he said his “kids are all grown and gone” and added that nowadays, “I’m thinking about my grandkids” in battles he takes on.

But his family life has been rocky. He has been married four times and estranged for more than two decades from two adult children, and he does not know their children, family members said. (He also has two stepchildren.)

He talks frequently about his experience as a police officer and firefighter in Kalamazoo, Michigan. But personnel records obtained from that city’s Department of Public Safety, which he left in 1999, include this note in his file: “Retired, poor rating, would not rehire.” A department spokesperson declined to comment.

Finchem has raised more than $1.2 million, a considerable amount for a campaign for secretary of state. (Lane has raised about $1.1 million, while the other two candidates trail significantly behind.) Much of the money has come from out of state — seven of the eight donors who were listed as having donated the $5,300 maximum in his last two campaign filings were from elsewhere. Major donors include Brian T. Kennedy, a past president of the right-wing Claremont Institute, and Michael Marsicano, a former mayor of Hazleton, Pennsylvania, who recently lost a Republican congressional primary.

For all that, he has few visible signs of a staff or campaign office. About three-quarters of his expenditures, more than $750,000, have flowed to a Florida political consulting firm run by Spence Rogers, the nephew of Wendy Rogers, an Arizona lawmaker with ties to white nationalists, campaign filings show. A further $53,000, or nearly 5% of his total expenditures, have gone to payments to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort. (Many other Trump-backed candidates have done likewise, including Kari Lake, Trump’s favored candidate for Arizona governor, whose campaign has spent more than $100,000 at Mar-a-Lago.)

Finchem’s handling of donor money has attracted scrutiny. Last year, he sought contributions to a political action committee to help pay for an election hearing. But he directed supporters to send money “to his personal Venmo and PayPal accounts,” rather than to the PAC itself, according to a complaint from a nonprofit group, Campaign for Accountability. State law bars the commingling of political and personal funds. The current secretary of state, Katie Hobbs, a Democrat running for governor, referred the case to Attorney General Mark Brnovich, a Republican, who did not pursue it further; his office said insufficient cause had been established.

Finchem limits his media appearances largely to right-wing talk shows; he is a frequent guest on the podcast of former Trump adviser Steve Bannon. His embrace of conspiracy theories is expansive. He argues that Marxists conspired to manipulate the 2020 election, that people voted with “software that flips votes,” that Biden is “a fraudulent president.” The Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol “was a setup,” he said. “The whole thing was a setup.”

Finchem has also said that Hezbollah is operating camps in Mexico in league with drug cartels and that the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, “has Deep State PSYOP written all over it.” He has embraced QAnon theories, saying that “a whole lot of elected officials” are involved in a pedophile network. He espouses a version of the so-called great replacement theory, saying that “Democrats are trying to import voters” and “want to flood the zone with people who have no right to be here.”

His ceaselessly conspiratorial bent has its fans — but has also opened him up to ridicule. As one trolling commenter on Finchem’s Facebook page put it: “Mark Finchem KNOWS that each voting machine has a little illegal immigrant inside, and whenever you vote for our precious Eternal President Lord Donald Trump, that illegal immigrant changes your vote to a vote for HUGO CHAVEZ!”

Reginald Bolding, the minority leader of the statehouse and one of two Democratic primary candidates for secretary of state, said a Finchem victory would “signal that our elections would not be safe and secure and “would be manipulated by party affiliation and outcomes that he wants.”

“I don’t know if Mark Finchem actually believes the things that he says, but they’re not based in reality,” he added.

Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, has endorsed Lane, as have many in the business community. Finchem sees in his competitor yet another conspiracy: “Beau Lane is a Democrat Plant,” he recently tweeted. Lane, for his part, called Finchem’s plan to stop using vote-counting machines fanciful.

“It’s something that’s logistically impossible in Arizona,” he said. “Maybe you could pull that off in Wyoming or South Dakota or Delaware. But Arizona is one of the top 15 most populous states. And it just makes no sense.”

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