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The Arizona Republican Party’s Anti-Democracy Experiment

At the event held in Prescott by the Lions of Liberty, I asked Rose Sperry, the G.O.P. state committeewoman, which information outlet she most trusted. She immediately replied, “OAN” — One America News, the Trump-touting network that provided daily coverage of “America’s Audit” in Arizona even as one of its show hosts, Christina Bobb, was helping to raise funds for and directly coordinate the operation between the Trump team and state officials.

One guest on OAN’s heavy rotation over the past year has been the secretary of state candidate Mark Finchem, who appeared on a broadcast last September to discuss the State Senate audit of the 2020 election, accompanied by a chyron that read, “Exposing the Crime of the Century.” In July, I drove to Fountain Hills, where Finchem was speaking at a candidate forum hosted by the Republican Women of the Hills. Finchem sidled up to the microphone with a pistol conspicuously strapped to his right hip. After describing his work history in law enforcement, the private sector and Arizona politics, he then offered a different sort of qualification. With a grin, Finchem said, “The Atlantic put out a piece yesterday: I’m the most dangerous person to democracy in America.”

The article Finchem was referring to did not designate him “the most dangerous person” — but rather as one of “dozens” of election-denying candidates who “present the most significant threat to American democracy in decades.” Regardless, the notion of Arizona’s G.O.P. secretary of state front-runner as a threat to democracy was received rapturously. Several women in the audience yelled out “Whooo!” and applauded.

Throughout Arizona’s 2022 political season, the proactive denigration of democracy among Republicans became a chorus that was impossible to ignore in meetings, speeches and rallies across the state. “By the way,” Charlie Kirk made a point of saying at the fund-raiser in Goodyear, “we don’t have a democracy. OK? Just to fact check. We’re a republic.” At a gathering in Mesa that I attended in July, held by the conservative group United Patriots AZ, the evening’s host, Jeffrey Crane, asked the audience, “Are we a democracy?” They responded loudly: “Nooooo! Republic!”

In each case, the very notion of democracy was raised not so much to win a scholarly point but rather to shine a spotlight on it as an offending object. When I mentioned this emerging antagonism to McCain’s longtime state director, Bettina Nava, she was genuinely stunned. Reflecting on her former boss’s brand of conservatism, Nava told me: “At the root of it all was his deep belief in the experiment of democracy. When I was his state director, we met with everybody. And there were times when it was perfectly friendly and others where it was contentious. But he never shied away from it, because disagreement didn’t equal hate.” Nava feared for the Republican Party she once served. “In my lifetime, I never imagined this attack on democracy,” she said. “I’ve been asking myself: Will this movement die out with Trump? Or are we the ones that will die out? Are we the Whigs?”

Nava was describing a democracy reliant on a notion of comity that was no longer in evidence. As McCain’s grip on Arizona waned, Arizona conservatives began gradually to part ways with his beloved democratic experiment. That experiment had worked in the past, so long as the democratic principles in question redounded to the benefit of the state’s ruling conservative base. Arizona Republican legislators led the way three decades ago in championing early voting, and Republican voters overwhelmingly chose to cast their ballots by mail, at least until the 2020 election. But by Primary Day in August, many Arizona Republicans had come to view such conveniences, against all evidence, as a trap laid by a wily leftist conspiracy bent on engineering Democratic victories.

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