Trump's candidates celebrate after Arizona primary, but some Republicans are worried
Kari Lake and more took a victory lap -- even, in Lake's case, without a result.
PHOENIX -- While ABC News and others haven't made projections in her still too-close-to-call contest, former TV reporter Kari Lake, Donald Trump's pick in Arizona's GOP gubernatorial primary, went ahead and claimed victory in Phoenix on Wednesday as other state candidates backed by the former president also celebrated wins down the ballot.
Lake -- echoing Trump -- described herself as triumphing over unsubstantiated wrongdoing that was sometimes based only on what she said she was told by others.
"We outvoted the fraud," she insisted. "The MAGA movement voted like their lives depended on it."
Asked whether she should be declaring victory before the race has been officially called -- in an election she's already suggested needs to be investigated -- a smiling Lake said her team was projecting a wide lead to come, so she was confident in calling the race for herself.
"And, frankly, I'm gonna be having dinner with my husband tonight, and I don't want anybody to call me and ask me for a comment," said Lake, a longtime local news anchor in Phoenix who left her job in 2021 to run for office. "So we're doing this a little bit early because I actually want to take one night off. I haven't had a night off for a long time."
But while eager to claim and celebrate her victory, despite votes still coming in, Lake also continued to allege irregularities in the primary process -- citing the shortage of paper ballots in Pinal County, which officials there said was due to an "unprecedented demand for in-person ballots" in certain precincts.
"I am not satisfied with how the election was run. We had major issues," Lake said, not providing evidence to the press but maintaining that's what the people of Arizona were telling her. "We have a lot of evidence of irregularities and problems, and we're going to address those."
Lake also said that in the lead-up to the general election in November, she would continue talking about the widely disproven claim that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.
"Because I won doesn't mean I'm going to now pivot and try to become a Democrat. Absolutely not," she said -- though, notably, she has acknowledged on the campaign trail that she did support Democratic causes in the past before converting to Trump's GOP. "We will continue to talk about the election because we want to make sure we shore up those election laws."
In what might be a messy preview of the general election against Democratic nominee Katie Hobbs if Lake is, in fact, ultimately found to have won the Republican nomination -- when asked what her reaction would be if the Associated Press called the race for her opponent Karrin Taylor Robson and Taylor Robson declared victory, Lake made clear she intended to try and grab the win based on her belief about the outcome.
"Well, let's remember they called the election for Joe Biden, so we know that AP is part of the problem. We're going with the votes, and we're going with what the people who really understand what's happening this election now," she said.
Taylor Robson, endorsed by Trump's former Vice President Mike Pence, told ABC News at a rally on the eve of the primary that Lake already priming her supporters with the false idea that any loss was due to fraud was "wrong" and “should disqualify her from being the governor of this great state.”
At a watch party Tuesday night, Lake took to the stage at a Doubletree in Scottsdale three times as votes trickled in -- at one point wielding a sledgehammer she said was intended for electronic voting machines and the Democratic nominee for governor -- to tell hundreds of supporters that she won.
"There is no path to victory for my opponent, and we won this race. Period," she said at her first appearance, when vote totals had Taylor Robson in the lead. "I don't want any of you not to believe that."
"And I want to thank President Donald J. Trump," she added to the energized crowd decked out in Lake gear and "not my president" shirts. "He's the one that got this whole thing going."
Taylor Robson, for her part, had projected confidence in brief remarks on Tuesday from the Astoria Biltmore luxury resort, as the first batches of results put her ahead in the race. Widely seen as the establishment candidate -- and echoing general GOP concerns about election integrity -- Taylor Robson also outspent Lake.
It was a subdued atmosphere for much of the night but turned energetic when Taylor Robson approached the stage and spoke -- with loud boos at the mention of Lake’s accusations of voter fraud
"Don’t let her get you down. Remember, talk is cheap," Taylor Robson said. "She has no veto process over the votes being carried out in the process being carried out now, nor over the will of Arizona voters.”
Arizona sees MAGA primary sweep
Down the ballot, Trump's other endorsees rose to victory in Arizona in Tuesday's primaries, signaling the state Republican Party might be moving on from its maverick tradition to its "ultra-MAGA" era.
Not long ago, the late John McCain and the retired Jeff Flake were the state's two Republican senators. But with those seats flipping blue under Trump and Joe Biden's subsequent presidential win -- the first by a Democrat in Arizona in almost three decades -- Trump's candidates winning in congressional and statewide races serves as a measure of how the party has shifted ahead of a true bellwether for the country in the November midterms.
Brian Seitchik, a GOP strategist in Arizona, said the primary proved to be a "complete and total victory for Trump" with his base.
"The president's always had a love affair with Arizona, and that was simply reaffirmed again last night," Seitchik told ABC News Wednesday. "This is still very much Trump country."
In the Senate race, Blake Masters, a 35-year-old venture capitalist who pushed false claims about the 2020 election during his primary campaign and got Trump's endorsement in the crowded race in June, will face Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly, a former astronaut and Navy captain, in November. At a rally with Trump in July, Masters attacked Kelly for his Democratic record and said he would try to impeach Biden, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Dr. Anthony Fauci.
For Arizona's secretary of state, Trump backed Mark Finchem, a far-right state lawmaker who has previously identified as an Oath Keeper, a militia group with other members who have faced charges for alleged involvement in the U.S. Capitol attack on Jan. 6. Finchem was in Washington on Jan. 6, though he has repeatedly said he did not enter the Capitol, and was among 30 GOP lawmakers in Arizona who signed a resolution calling on Congress to accept an "alternate" slate of electoral votes.
Finchem beat out Gov. Doug Ducey's pick, advertising executive Beau Lane, who has acknowledged Biden's victory and defended Arizona's early voting system, a popular method in the state that the state Republican Party, post-2020, contends is unconstitutional.
If elected secretary of state in November, Finchem would have broad powers over the management of the state's elections. He has said he would not have certified Biden's win and wants to ban early voting and restrict mail-in ballot options.
Abe Hamadeh, a former prosecutor in Maricopa County and an Army intelligence officer, won the state attorney general nomination by pitching himself as an “Arizona first conservative,” earning Trump’s coveted endorsement in June after supporting the GOP-backed audit of the vote in Maricopa, which the current Republican attorney general said this week had allegations of dead voters his office could not substantiate.
Like most of Trump's picks, Hamadeh has called election integrity and border security his top campaign issues.
"MAGA had its best night since Nov. 8, 2016," Arizona Republican strategist Barrett Marson, who supported Taylor Robson, told ABC News.
"There's no doubt the Trump endorsement was worth a significant boost to those campaigns," Marson said. "If Donald Trump anointed you in Arizona, there was a really good chance you're moving onto November."
Trump even waded into the state legislature, somewhat rare for a former president, targeting House Speaker Rusty Bowers, who testified at a House Jan. 6 hearing on the pressure he faced to interfere with the 2020 election. Bowers lost his state Senate race to Trump-endorsed David Farnsworth, a former member of the Arizona State Senate who has alleged that the 2020 election was stolen and “headed by the Devil himself.”
While the candidates are celebrating their wins, some Arizona Republicans say they are concerned Trump's influence will make it harder for the GOP nominees to beat Democrats in November.
"As far as Kari Lake goes, I loved Trump's policies, but I'm afraid that there's a lot of people that are going to vote against her just because Trump is supporting her," Arizonan Anastasia Keller, who was undecided until she entered the voting booth Tuesday, told ABC News. "I want somebody that can beat the Democrats, as divided as people are over Trump."
As Marson, the pro-Taylor Robson strategist, put it: "It'll be up to them [the Trump candidates] to moderate, or to at least start to appeal to the broader audience. I just don't get telling your voters that there's fraud in the election that you want and then expect them to continue to come out and vote for you."
"Because Lake, Finchem, Master and Hamadeh are attacking so far to the right with election denialism, they're opening up the races to be more competitive," Marson said, arguing Taylor Robson and other candidates would have had more appeal to moderates and independents who lean Republican in a general election.
Pinal County presents issues
In a significant move on a primary day, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel joined Republican Party of Arizona Chairwoman Kelli Ward in calling for Pinal County Elections Director David Frisk to resign after the county ran out of paper ballots hours before polls closed. The issue arose weeks after thousands of mail-in ballots were sent out with incorrect local races printed on them in the state's third largest county, which Republican candidates blasted on social media ahead of the election.
“This is a comprehensive failure that disenfranchises Arizonans and exemplifies why Republican-led efforts for transparency at the ballot box are so important. Pinal County Elections Director David Frisk should resign immediately," McDaniel and Ward's joint statement read. (Frisk declined through his office to comment to ABC News.)
Pinal county election officials said the ballot shortage was due to an "unprecedented demand for in-person ballots" in certain precincts. Additional ballots were distributed to roughly 20 affected polling places, officials said, and as long as voters were in line at 7 p.m. local time Tuesday, they were allowed to cast a ballot.
Still, Seitchik, the consultant in Republican races, said, "It shakes confidence in the system."
"I don't think it's going to have any impact on the statewide races. It doesn't seem like any of these races are so close that you can point to that, but it does matter -- and it fuels the frustration and the suspicion as we head into the general election," he said.
Meanwhile, Hobbs, the Democratic nominee for governor, is currently serving as Arizona's secretary of state, which raises questions of whether she would recuse herself from any potential litigation brought by Republicans in Pinal County.
"In the event of an investigation or litigation into Pinal County's election, we will assess our office's involvement on a case-by-case basis," said Sophia Solis, a spokeswoman for the secretary of state's office.
Georgia presented a similar situation in 2018.
Brian Kemp also ran for governor while he was secretary of state at the time and said ahead of his contest with Democrat Stacey Abrams that he would not recuse himself as Georgia’s chief elections officer if the race went to a recount.
Ultimately, Kemp declared victory and resigned from his post in November after a lawsuit was filed in the race.
"We've won, and now I've got to move on, but the process is true and has been for many, many years in Georgia," Kemp said at the time. "That's another reason we're going to have a new SOS that certifies elections to make that clear to Georgians that I understand that, so that they have confidence in the process."
ABC News' Will McDuffie contributed to this report.
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