The Bannon Strategy
Fringe candidates promising to stop the steal, like Mark Finchem in Arizona, might just have their year.
You’d think that by now, Mark Finchem would be tired of subverting American democracy. For nearly two years, the Arizona state lawmaker has pushed Donald Trump’s stolen-election lies everywhere he possibly can—QAnon talk shows, Steve Bannon’s podcast, outside the U.S. Capitol building on January 6—and all with the dutiful enthusiasm of a Boy Scout. Despite the lack of any evidence, Finchem has continued to assert that Trump, not Joe Biden, won the 2020 election. This claim has been the bedrock of Finchem’s campaign for Arizona secretary of state.
Finchem, who wears a cowboy hat and bolo tie despite having spent most of his life in Michigan, is not destined to win. He leads the Republican primary, but the party’s voters are still mostly undecided, and he could be a tough sell for independents in a general election. Still, Finchem’s candidacy is one to watch. He and the dozens of other election-denying candidates running across the country are the electoral legacy of January 6 in America. They present the most significant threat to American democracy in decades. And despite the expected electoral hurdles, this might just be their year.
If you’re a hard-right Republican, now “is the time to be running,” the Arizona pollster Mike Noble told me. Biden’s poll ratings, even among Democrats, are plummeting, and the president’s party typically loses ground in midterm elections. “The red wave’s a-comin’—and a lot of people will be able to surf in [to office] who are typically on the fringe,” Noble said. Which means that Finchem, the man who brought the “Stop the Steal” movement to Arizona, might soon be in charge of this swing state’s elections.
After working for 21 years in the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety, Finchem moved to Arizona, where he was elected in 2014 to the state’s House of Representatives to represent a rural district north of Tucson. In his adopted state, Finchem is well known for his distinct home-on-the-range vibes: thick mustache, conservative policy views, and an abiding distrust of the federal government. For a while, he was the Arizona coordinator for the Coalition of Western States, a group that supported the armed occupation of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016, and he’s identified himself as a member of the Oath Keepers, a far-right militia group. But what has earned the lawmaker statewide name recognition—and the attention of the broader MAGA movement—has been his dedication to the Stop the Steal cause. (Finchem did not respond to requests for comment.)
Finchem was present for the attempted insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6. He tweeted that the riot was “what happens when the People feel ignored, and Congress refuses to acknowledge rampant fraud.” Although Finchem has denied being closer than 500 yards to the Capitol building that day, photos appear to show him standing in the crowd just outside its east steps right after Trump supporters had stormed it. Ali Alexander, the founder of the Stop the Steal campaign, has credited Finchem for single-handedly bringing the antidemocratic movement to Arizona. After the state certified Biden’s win over Trump in 2020, and after subsequent official audits confirmed that result, Finchem and other local Trump allies insisted that there was—there had to be—evidence of widespread fraud. He held firm, even after the partisan review he’d supported turned up nothing. He started posting his theories on MAGA social-media sites such as Gab, where he goes by the username @AZHoneyBadger. He appeared on a number of far-right programs, including more than 80 times on Bannon’s War Room podcast alone, to warn of election-fraud bombshells that never seem to actually explode. Bannon, a former Trump adviser, credits his show with Finchem’s rise: “He was almost like a contributor to War Room for a moment,” Bannon told me. “War Room made him a thing.”
Unsurprisingly, Finchem has secured Trump’s endorsement. During his campaign for secretary of state, Finchem has continued to call for the 2020 election to be decertified, and has advocated for laws that he says would make future elections more secure, co-sponsoring legislation that would allow lawmakers to reject election results, and that would restrict early and mail-in voting. (Finchem opposes early voting, despite having voted early in almost every election since 2004, according to The Arizona Republic.) He also recently filed a lawsuit with the gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake—also endorsed by Trump—to ban the use of electronic voting machines and require that all ballots be counted by hand.
“If we don’t get to the bottom of the fraud that was committed in 2020, it will be pervasive in ’22, ’24, [and] ’26,” Finchem told an interviewer from a right-wing website last month, during an unofficial hearing about the thousands of supposed “counterfeit ballots” submitted in 2020. Americans believe “that we have compromised elections in every state and every county,” Finchem said.
Hundreds of people have emerged from the proverbial political woodwork since 2020 to attach themselves to the fever dreams of a sore loser. Arizona has a passel of these Stop the Steal candidates and politicians, including Lake, who has called Biden an “illegitimate president”; State Senator Wendy Rogers, who encouraged people to “buy more ammo” as Arizona electors were casting their ballots in 2020; and state GOP leader Kelli Ward, who was recently subpoenaed as part of a federal investigation into fake slates of electors convened by the Trump campaign in 2020. But the trend is hardly limited to the Grand Canyon State. Finchem is part of the America First Secretary of State Coalition, a group of election deniers running for the job in a dozen states. Four members of that slate have earned their party’s nomination this year, including Kristina Karamo in Michigan, whom I wrote about last month. Doug Mastriano, who is also part of the coalition, won the GOP’s nomination for governor this year in Pennsylvania and can appoint the secretary of state once in office.
Finchem’s is one among many once-minor (or at least less partisan, less politicized, and less well-financed) state races that have become the target of Trump allies nationwide. And the effort extends to far more junior positions too. Election deniers across America are running to be poll workers and precinct officers and county clerks, positions that have never before received so much attention. “We’re going to take this back village by village … precinct by precinct,” Bannon announced on his podcast last year.
The goal, broadly speaking, is to continue investigating the 2020 election and, in some cases, even to attempt to “decertify” 2020 state results, a move that has no legal basis. What’s the harm in asking questions? candidates like Finchem and the others argue when criticized. We’re protecting future elections! But their investigations only serve to breathe more and more oxygen into conspiracy theories that undermine confidence in American democracy. “There is harm,” Tammy Patrick, a senior adviser at the Democracy Fund, a private foundation working to improve the democratic process in the U.S., told me, “if they refuse to accept the answer.”
Finchem is up against three other primary candidates, and although he has a small lead in recent polling, most Arizona voters are still undecided. (Early voting began in Arizona last week.) Winning a general election would be tough. Even if he does end up in office, some Republicans argue that he wouldn’t pose a risk to democracy. As secretary of state, “he’d follow the law. He may want the law to be different, but he’d follow it,” Chuck Warren, a state GOP strategist, told me. Despite his reputation as a fringy kook, Finchem has integrity, some of his allies told me. He “has dedicated a good part of his life to protecting and serving the public,” says Teresa Martinez, a colleague of Finchem’s in the state House.
But Finchem has spent two solid years trafficking in lies. He’s demonstrated that, through ignorance or cynicism, he is not willing to prioritize the truth over the wild claims of a man desperate for power. Again and again—and mostly on the condition of anonymity—other state Republican advisers and strategists told me that they dread the idea of Finchem in an election-oversight role. In a tight vote, “I would absolutely expect Finchem to both bend the meaning of laws and throw up roadblocks to the normal election procedures,” Barrett Marson, an Arizona GOP consultant, told me.
A nightmare scenario in 2024 isn’t hard to conjure: As secretary of state, Finchem could try to muddy the waters after an election outcome that he or Trump didn’t like by delaying or undermining the election-certification process. If the governor or attorney general shared his desire, they could decide not to certify the election. Arizona on its own might not be enough to tip a general election—Biden would still have won if this scenario had played out in 2020—but if leaders in other states, say Michigan and Pennsylvania, do the same, the election outcome could be subverted.
The midterms will be the first major elections held since Trump lost in 2020. They will test how Americans feel about the sore losers who have spent almost two years crying conspiracy and fraud—and whether this precinct strategy to undermine the country’s democratic system was worth the effort. Will November’s results signal a return to simpler times, when candidates with fewer votes accepted defeat? Or will the midterms confirm that we have entered a new era of postelection doubt-casting and lie-peddling?
Americans’ freedom begins with secretaries of state, Finchem said during the interview at the hearing last month. “This has been the most overlooked office for years, but that’s how they got away with it,” he told the interviewer. “It was supposed to be boring—vanilla. Not so much so anymore.”