How Democrats Beat Arizona’s Extremist Republicans

How Democrats Beat Arizona’s Extremist Republicans

How Democrats Beat Arizona’s Extremist Republicans

Had the likes of Kari Lake taken office, it would have presented one of the greatest challenges to American democracy in modern times.

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The date was October 22, 2022, two and a half weeks before the pivotal midterm elections. In northeastern Arizona, a windstorm was kicking up fine particles of sand from the desert ground, filling the air with an unpleasant mustard-colored fog. Out on a few scrubby acres of land north of the remote town of Cameron, at the western edge of the Navajo Nation, a lunch held to honor local Navajo community activists and Democratic Party organizers had almost been upended by the winds. The stakes supporting the canopies that provided shade for the tables had to be held down by guests, and the paper plates and bowls meant for the soups, fry bread, and chilis that had been cooked up in large metal vats atop giant propane burners blew east across the land, bounding over the asphalt of Highway 89 toward the deep-orange rock formations that locals called simply “the Navajo.”

The property belonged to Mae Peshlakai, an elder with a weathered face and a melodic voice in which she speaks both Navajo and English. Her eldest daughter, Jamescita, once served as a state senator for the region. Now Mae herself was a member of the state Assembly, and she was hoping to use the luncheon to gird organizers for the final stretch of an election in which, it was clear, the outcomes of many races would come down to which side could more effectively mobilize turnout. The attendees were fairly confident that US Senator Mark Kelly would win reelection; the onetime astronaut had a reputation, after all, as an independent voice on Capitol Hill, a sort of Democratic version of John McCain and Jeff Flake before him, and his Donald Trump–backed opponent, Blake Masters, had never taken off in the polls. But they were far less certain about the other big races for statewide office and for the state Legislature (where Republicans were defending two-seat majorities in both houses). Since September and the supposed end of the post-Dobbs Democratic bump, the polls hadn’t been looking good for Democrats in the state.

True, in the run-up to the election, polls did show that more than 60 percent of Arizonans agreed that abortion should be kept legal, and independents favored protecting abortion rights by a three-to-one ratio. Pollsters were divided, however, on whether those numbers would translate to electoral success for Democrats in a state that by most measures still trended vaguely red—especially in midterm elections, which, historically, Democrats and young voters don’t turn out for in particularly large numbers. In September, Mike Noble of OH Predictive Insights, one of the state’s most respected polling organizations, surveyed likely voters and found that inflation was a more important issue than abortion for every demographic except Democrats age 55 and older. Around Phoenix, residents could be seen wearing pro-Trump T-shirts reading “I’ll take mean tweets and low gas prices any day.”

“The Dobbs decision breathed life back into the Democratic Party these midterms, followed up by student loan cancellation, DACA renewal, and a few other stuff,” said Sam Almy, a Democratic strategist and data analyst. “That’s energized the crowd here.” Over late spring and summer, Almy had charted a significant increase in the number of women registering to vote. But he wasn’t convinced that would boost voter turnout enough to help the Democrats. “Typically, in midterms, Democrats have a turnout drop-off that’s even more significant than for Republicans,” Almy noted. In the 2014 midterms, turnout was an anemic 47.5 percent. In 2018, it increased to 65 percent. This time around, Almy’s modeling suggested it would be 59 to 62 percent. That meant, he feared, that too many Democratic-leaning voters were planning to sit out the elections.

Paul Bentz, a longtime pollster with Highground, a company that has worked with many GOP campaigns in Arizona, agreed. His projection, based on historical trends around midterm elections, was that Republicans would turn out at an 8 percent higher rate than Democrats. Moreover, his numbers suggested a gloomy temperament among voters that, conventional wisdom held, would translate into votes against the party in control of the White House and Congress. “Pessimism is at an all-time high. Only 25.4 percent think the state is heading in the right direction, and 51.8 percent in the wrong direction,” Bentz said. “It’s the negativity Republicans have brought, the abortion decision, the uncertainty of the economy.” But, he acknowledged, it was an unusual election cycle. On balance, he felt that there could be an abnormally high level of ticket-splitting, with Kelly running up enough votes in Maricopa and Pima counties to win reelection to the US Senate, but with the extremist Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake—and, on her coattails, many election-denying down-ballot GOP candidates—also possibly winning.

In the end, of course, that didn’t happen. Had Lake and her fellow extremists won, the result would have presented one of the greatest challenges to American democracy in modern times, with the political apparatus of a major swing state now dedicated to perpetuating Trump’s Big Lie and the corrosive, authoritarian politics that follows in its wake. Fortunately, enough independent voters shunned the GOP to head the extremists off at the pass.

In the impoverished and medically underserved multiracial neighborhood of Christown, sandwiched between Central Avenue and the I-17 freeway in Phoenix, Dr. Deshawn Taylor, an ob-gyn with training in complex family planning, runs the Desert Star Family Planning center. For 21 years, she has provided her patients with birth control, evaluation of gynecological issues, gender-affirming hormone therapy, miscarriage management, and abortions. Now, with abortions on hold in the state as the courts wrestle with the constitutionality of an abortion ban that dates back to the mid-19th century, the clinic’s revenue streams are drying up, and Taylor has had to limit the number of days each week that its doors are open. Given the scarcity of medical facilities in the neighborhood and the fact that Desert Star is the only clinic near public transportation in that part of Phoenix offering ob-gyn services, Taylor worries about what will happen to her mainly low-income patients if she can’t afford to keep her offices open.

In the year leading up to Dobbs, 13,000 abortions had been performed in Arizona. But in the wake of the Supreme Court decision, the state attorney general secured a ruling from the Pima County Superior Court allowing him to enforce a territorial-era law from 1864 that banned abortion entirely. With the courts allowing those restrictions to be activated, patients have had to cross state lines to California, Nevada, and New Mexico to get reproductive health care.

“My clinic is really embedded in the community,” Taylor said. “My goal is to keep the clinic open.” It isn’t going to be easy. Locals have resorted to throwing fundraising parties for Desert Star, and some nearby businesses were donating a day’s proceeds to the clinic. The Keep Our Clinics fund, which is managed by the Abortion Care Network, stepped in with grants that covered salaries for the clinic’s staff through much of the summer. By the end of October, though, Taylor was worried that her practice would once again be running low on cash. Still, she was buoyed by a sense that her neighbors were horrified by the changes being foisted on the state—despite the poll numbers coming out in the weeks leading up to the election.

“I hope the outrage at least turns into people voting,” Taylor said. “We have to change who runs the state so we can legislate the services. People in Arizona were comfortable allowing the people who run the state to chip away at the right to abortion, and now they’ve taken it away.”

For organizers like 32-year-old Alexis Charley, who is raising eight children, that was what the election was all about. “We should be able to decide on our body,” she said. “We shouldn’t be punished for it. To tell ladies, ‘You’re going to jail for abortion or miscarriage’—why do that?” Charley had driven across the Navajo Nation from her home near the Utah border to attend the event at Peshlakai’s home. She was more than familiar with all the arguments Republicans were making—and many of her neighbors were discussing—about inflation and gas prices (she had to drive 45 miles, along rutted, potholed roads, just to get to a gas station), but at the end of the day, high prices didn’t beat out abortion as her No. 1 issue. “Why elect someone who will put women in jail, put people in jail, for no reason?” she asked.

Despite the signs around the country that rage was bubbling up over abortion restrictions and the increasingly violent, overtly antidemocratic rhetoric coming from the MAGA camp, Arizona remained on a political knife-edge; even seasoned local political observers struggled, in the final weeks of the campaign season, to interpret the data they were receiving. “To tell you the truth, I’m completely perplexed, nervous about it,” said Brendan Walsh, the executive director of the Phoenix-based organization Worker Power, in late October. An outgrowth of Unite Here Local 11, the union that had played such a key role in flipping Arizona for Joe Biden and capturing two US Senate seats for Democrats in 2020, Worker Power had been on the ground canvassing and talking with working-class voters for months. “I feel good about Mark Kelly winning,” Walsh said, but then sounded a note of caution: “There’s no reason to think it will all go one way. It can be all over the place. The polling is very close in all of them.”

In 2020, Arizona went for Biden by a 10,000-vote margin. The result sent Trump and his acolytes into paroxysms of rage and ultimately led to the much-derided Maricopa County “audit.” Two years later, with the state’s GOP primary voters having plunged the party into the realm of QAnon madness, none of the wounds of 2020 have fully scabbed over. The trio of candidates for top statewide offices—Lake, the charismatic onetime Fox News anchor, for governor; Abe Hamadeh for attorney general; and Mark Finchem for secretary of state—were all election deniers who’d pledged to use the power of their office to ensure Republican victories in closely contested races. “The GOP governor’s candidate is talking about nothing but the supposedly stolen election and culture war issues,” said Tom Prezelski, who served as a Democratic state House member from 2003 to ‘09 and is now an author and political analyst. “The Democratic candidate is talking about water issues and people’s actual problems and governing, whereas Kari Lake is mostly about grievances.” Meanwhile, Hamadeh has presided over campaign rallies at which his supporters chant “Lock them up!” in reference to Maricopa County election officials.

Many moderate Republicans, including John Giles, the mayor of Mesa—who boasts that it’s one of the most populous cities in the United States with a Republican mayor—joined liberals in seeing the Lake-Hamadeh-Finchem combo as an unprecedented threat to the functioning of American democracy. Giles had very publicly endorsed Katie Hobbs, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, as well as Mark Kelly. He worried that if Lake were elected, there would be no brakes on an increasingly extreme GOP caucus in the state Legislature, and he feared what her election would mean for the future of fair political competition in his state. “Silence is not an option in this election,” he said. “Silence is acquiescence.” In the final weeks of the campaign, outgoing Wyoming Representative Liz Cheney came to Arizona to stump for Democrats and against the election-denying troika of GOP hopefuls.

“American democracy runs through the state of Arizona in ‘22. You can’t put it any other way,” said Kris Mayes, a onetime Republican who quit the party in disgust during Trump’s presidency and was now running for attorney general as a Democrat. On the wall in her dining room was a black-and-white photograph from the early ’80s showing her and her brother as young children sitting on a cliff atop Mount Whitney. She was, she said proudly, the youngest person in 50 years to reach its summit. Now Mayes wanted her 9-year-old daughter to know one day that her mother had the strength and moral fortitude to leave a GOP that, she believed, had committed itself to a “hellish road” under the amoral leadership of Donald Trump.

Summiting a mountain is an eerily apt metaphor for the political challenge she and her fellow Democrats faced as they attempted to defy midterm patterns and wrestle a traditionally conservative state away from their Republican opponents. Hamadeh, Mayes said with contempt, would “impose an 1864 abortion ban and would probably engage in a coup against our government if given the opportunity.” By her reckoning, the results would come down to which way a relatively small number of independent voters broke in the final weeks of the race. “The independents of Arizona are going to determine the future of the country,” she said. “It’s an all-out battle for their votes. It’s a do-or-die moment.”

Although Arizona has historically been a Republican state, in recent election cycles it has gone from red to purple to, at least in federal elections, a light shade of blue. Many moderate GOP voters, said a regional Republican consultant who asked to remain anonymous, “woke up and said, ‘I can’t take four more years of this shit.’ Donald Trump’s persona—people just said, ‘Enough is enough.’” The state has two Democratic senators, both elected under Trump, and in 2020, after the vast voter registration and mobilization efforts spearheaded by Unite Here Local 11 and other unions and a huge voter turnout for Biden in the Navajo Nation and other tribal communities, its Electoral College votes went to Biden.

On many of the key issues of the day, from abortion to January 6 to climate change and immigration, Arizona voters are to the left of the GOP politicians who run the state and the candidates who ran for statewide and federal office in 2022.

Tucson, in Arizona’s far south, has long been a liberal redoubt. Over the past several election cycles, it has increasingly been joined by the population center of Phoenix (America’s fifth-largest city) and surrounding Maricopa County, which have gone from being bastions of the sort of racist, demagogic politics preached by longtime sheriff Joe Arpaio—who was finally booted out by voters in 2016 after 24 years in office—to leaning Democratic. The mayor of Phoenix, Kate Gallego, is a Democrat, and its city council has a Democratic majority that pushes progressive housing, labor, and wage ordinances.

Yet, mirroring the urban/rural divide in so much of the country, most other areas of Arizona remain in thrall to a radical-right vision of politics. These days, in place of Barry Goldwater and the John Birch Society, the state’s GOP hews to Trump, Steve Bannon, QAnon, and other toxic emblems of the far right. High-profile figures like state Senator Wendy Rogers and US Representative Paul Gosar routinely pay homage to white nationalist groups, and Republican primary voters routinely reward them for their excesses. On November 8, Rogers and Gosar both coasted to reelection.

As a result of this increasing divergence between the urban centers of Phoenix and Tucson and the rest of the state, Arizona went into November on a political precipice. The governor’s race was listed as a toss-up, although Lake, the firebrand MAGA candidate, maintained a small lead over the last couple months of the campaign. Kelly, the Democratic senator, was favored to win against his challenger, Blake Masters, who’d been catapulted into the Republican nomination through a combination of Trump’s endorsement and PayPal founder Peter Thiel’s copious financial backing. In the final weeks of the campaign, with early voting under way, the polls tightened dramatically, and the race went from “leaning Democrat” to being a dead heat. The races for secretary of state and attorney general were polling within the margin of error, though over the last month of their campaigns both GOP candidates led in the polls, despite the fact that their Democratic opponents far outspent them on TV ads. At least three of the state’s nine congressional seats were in swing districts, and Republicans were favored to make gains on the back of a redistricting process that, while nominally independent, had heavily skewed in the GOP’s favor. Both houses of the state Legislature had two-seat Republican majorities that, at least at the start of the campaign season, and especially in the immediate aftermath of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, senior Democratic Party strategists were hopeful they’d be able to flip.

Mae Peshlakai’s younger daughter, Shelley, who lived in the Maricopa County city of Tempe, wasn’t convinced by the arguments she was hearing at her mother’s luncheon. She had driven three and a half hours north to show moral support for Mae and to help with the cooking and the cleanup afterward, but her heart was with the GOP. She intended to vote Republican down the line for all the statewide offices.

A mobile phlebotomist by training, Shelley Peshlakai traveled widely for her work, which exposed her to all sides of life. It made her somewhat cynical about the human condition. “I have clients who are millionaires, and I also service the most down-and-out people—people fighting for their lives with drug addiction and alcoholism,” she said as we sat in my rental car, taking shelter from a brutal, eye-scratching sandstorm. She didn’t believe that abortion should be legal. She also didn’t believe it was right that so many undocumented migrants—many of whom, she was certain, were drug mules—should be able to cross the Mexican border into southern Arizona. In the past, she used to drop off water in the desert for migrants to drink; now, she believed that the border was simply a honey trap luring migrants to their deaths, and she wanted it sealed, both against immigrants and against crime.

It was a sentiment the GOP was tapping into daily, attacking Democrats in swing states like Arizona with increasingly lurid ads on border policy and on their supposed support for lenient criminal justice policies. For weeks, a viciously anti-immigrant organization called the Committee for Public Sanity, which has ties to Stephen Miller and other alumni of Trump’s xenophobic immigration policy team, had been running poisonous television ads and putting up huge posters linking rising crime rates to the influx of asylum seekers, or “illegals,” across the border.

These ads seemed to work when it came to the race for Maricopa County attorney. For months, internal polling data from the campaign of Julie Gunnigle, the progressive candidate for the position in the country’s third-most-populous prosecutorial office district, indicated that she was ahead. Gunnigle, who almost won in 2020 and in the years since has worked as counsel for the Poor People’s Campaign, promised not to prosecute women who had abortions or the doctors who provided them. By contrast, her opponent, Rachel Mitchell, the acting county attorney, was committed to enforcing Arizona’s ban. Robo-texts had gone out suggesting that Gunnigle’s candidacy was a front for “fetal organ harvesters.” For months, though, the sliming hadn’t seemed to dent the progressive candidate’s support.

On the stump, Gunnigle was at ease. She liked knocking on doors and enjoyed talking with locals and explaining her stances on abortion, drug treatment, alternatives to incarceration, gun violence, and the decriminalization of marijuana. When dogs barked inside otherwise empty homes, she playfully asked them where their “humans” were. She was comfortable shooting the breeze with young adults in working-class neighborhoods who were sitting in their front yards or by their pick-up trucks drinking beer out of cans in the early evenings.

The clarity of her message, Gunnigle felt, was resonating with voters. “This is not the time to triangulate or moderate,” she argued. “People want fighters on their side.”

In the end, however, the progressive candidate lost by four points. Her support likely eroded late in the campaign, not because of her stance on abortion but because the GOP succeeded in painting her as “weak on crime,” convincing voters like Shelley Peshlakai to choose “tough on crime” over “smart on crime.”

But Peshlakai’s anxieties weren’t limited to crime and immigration. The 46-year-old mother of three had attended Trump rallies to commune with others who believed in what she called “unapologetic patriotism” and was convinced that Biden had won Arizona as a result of rampant fraud. In the midterms, she was determined to vote for Lake as a way to make right what she saw as a miscarriage of political justice.

The cold winds that swept across northeastern Arizona on October 22 rapidly ushered summer out. Snow fell that night in the Grand Canyon, the first of the season, and as the clouds blew past early the next morning, their shadows caressed the vast, jagged canyonlands. Below, the drought-starved Colorado River snaked along the base of the immense abyss. In the early afternoon sunlight, the pine trees dotting the rim and lining the streets leading to Grand Canyon Village were sparkling with an icy whiteness. Down in the canyon itself, a few hardy hikers traversed the steep trails, braving the icy surface and the punishing wind.

Shortly before 1 pm, Democratic Representative Tom O’Halleran and his wife walked into a crowded meet-and-greet at the Ramada Community Center, half a mile from the Bright Angel trailhead. O’Halleran, a big, burly septuagenarian with a small hearing aid behind his left ear, wore jeans and a puffy blue jacket. The congressman’s communications team had intended the event to be outdoors, but the harsh weather had forced them to set up inside. Constituents were seated in a large circle in an open-plan room in the rear of the center. Above them, a punching bag hung from the ceiling on a heavy iron chain, and off to the side was a table stacked with bags of chips, water bottles, and bubbling pots of chili.

O’Halleran had represented the sprawling northeastern corner of the state for six years; his district incorporated the Grand Canyon and other national parks, the city of Flagstaff, and several tribal lands, including the Navajo Nation. The three-term congressman, who had begun his political career as a moderate Republican state senator 13 years earlier but had switched parties after Trump’s star began to rise in the run-up to the 2016 GOP primary, was popular with locals. A former Chicago police officer, he was known for his no-nonsense, no-pretensions persona and his moderate politics. He never turned down a chance to talk with constituents or to work on critical local issues ranging from unpaved roads and spotty electrical and sewage infrastructure in the Navajo Nation to water shortages across the region. He took pride in channeling newly approved infrastructure money to his district, in gaining the support of Arizona’s historically conservative Farm Bureau, and in working across the aisle in Congress, via the Blue Dog Coalition and the 58-member Problem Solvers Caucus, to forge what little consensus could be eked out in an increasingly polarized political environment.

Yet, despite his popularity, O’Halleran was now facing what was likely to be an uphill battle for reelection in a new district, CD2, which had been drawn by a supposedly independent commission in a manner designed to guarantee a Republican majority.

Despite knowing that his days in Congress were probably numbered, O’Halleran was determined to go down fighting and to keep pointing out how extreme the Arizona GOP had become. “At risk is the ability to have a government that is open-minded to listening to people, versus a government that is going to go down a path that is dangerous to our democracy,” he said. With a bit of luck, he could drive turnout in northeastern Arizona and influence the vital statewide races that would test the durability of democratic structures in the face of the concentrated attack from the far right.

For Richard Grant, a British journalist who lives in Tucson and is writing a book on Arizona politics, the tranche of extremists represented a Rorschach test for Arizonans. “I’m interested to see if the GOP has swung too far to the right to win,” he said shortly before the election. In particular, he feared that Kari Lake might chart a course to victory over Katie Hobbs in the race for governor. “She’s a really strong performer, everyone knows who she is, and she’s polished and has charisma. She’s the shiny-object candidate, and Katie Hobbs is the duller, flat, matte candidate. She doesn’t have a good speaking voice, doesn’t have a lot of charisma.” Others were even more critical. “Hobbs is running a terrible campaign,” said Brian Seitchik, who was Trump’s regional political director in Arizona and remains a GOP consultant. “It’s so bad. Whereas Kari Lake makes love to the camera.”

Opinion polls in the spring and early summer had shown Hobbs on track to win, but a lackluster performance on the campaign trail, including an inexplicable decision to refuse to debate Lake, had allowed the extremist candidate to make up lost ground. By September, Lake was consistently coming out one to four points ahead in most polls. Undecided voters kept asking canvassers why Hobbs had refused to debate her opponent.

Grant wasn’t just concerned with Lake’s meteoric rise. In researching his book, the journalist had interviewed Mark Finchem, the GOP candidate for secretary of state, who was running on a platform centered on ending the early voting and vote-by-mail systems that roughly four out of five Arizonans use to cast their ballots—and who had, as a state legislator, proposed a law that would allow politicians to override the will of the people by appointing their own electors to the Electoral College in close presidential races. Grant came away from the encounter horrified. “He railed against Catholics and Mormons and Khrushchev and Chinese communists,” he recalled. “He’s full-blown crazy.” The thought of Finchem becoming a nominee for statewide office left Grant asking, “Did the GOP get carried away with their own bullshit?”

As the results trickled in over the week following the election, the answer to Grant’s question became clearer. O’Halleran lost to Eli Crane by more than eight points. But statewide, as the votes were slowly tabulated, it became apparent that things weren’t going according to the GOP’s plan. True, the newly redrawn congressional districts, tailor-made to hurt O’Halleran and two other Democrats, had garnered the Republicans an additional few seats, which would prove to be crucial given the tiny majority the party would have in the new Congress. But other races hadn’t gone as well.

The first contest to be called in the Democrats’ favor was Mark Kelly’s Senate race. Kelly had amassed a $54 million war chest and used it to powerful effect to woo independent voters. “He’s done a really good job of planting that flag right in the middle and staying there,” noted Mike Noble, the pollster. Friday night, with more than 80 percent of the votes counted and with Kelly maintaining a nearly six-point lead, the networks called it for the Democrat.

The next day, Mark Finchem’s extremist bid for secretary of state was rebuffed by Democrat Adrian Fontes. Finchem joined in defeat every other election denier who sought to win that office in a swing state. “People are tired of the chaos and the relitigating and the constant undermining of our electoral system,” said Kim Rogers, the executive director of the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State, which had pumped resources into the effort to defeat election deniers around the country in the months leading up to the midterms. “Candidates matter. We had candidates who put voters first; these other candidates were promising to pick and choose winners…. Trump will run for president, and he will cast doubt on the 2022 election results. He will use his race to undermine democracy—because that is what he has continually done. The fight is far from over, but I’m incredibly optimistic. Because in a choice between lies and democracy, democracy wins.”

Fontes, a prosecutor and Maricopa County recorder, will be the first Latino secretary of state in Arizona’s history. He believes the election signified a turning point. He had, he explained, spent months educating the public about the stakes in this election, and he had successfully wooed a number of conservative figures for whom Finchem’s, Lake’s, and Hamadeh’s contempt for basic democratic norms was a bridge too far. He had spoken of the risks to Arizona’s economy of having election deniers in charge—the possibility of businesses fleeing, of tourists staying away. His strategy paid off. Conservative executives like Arizona Cardinals owner Michael Bidwell, who believed it was vital to stop Finchem’s rise to power, had hosted fundraisers for Fontes’s campaign. “I spoke directly with business leaders, thought leaders, academics, folks from all sectors of society from a conservative bent,” Fontes said. “We talked about the importance of democracy. They helped us spread the word into areas we normally would not be able to get into.”

On Monday, six days after the election, with the governor’s race still uncalled and Hobbs holding on to a narrow lead over Lake, Trump took to his social media platform, Truth Social, with a flurry of lurid, fact-free accusations about voter fraud and other electoral malfeasance in Arizona. Rumor had it that Steve Bannon was preparing to descend on the state to whip up the furious mob against election workers in Maricopa County.

A few hours after Trump’s intervention, once the last batch of votes from Maricopa were tallied, the race was called for Hobbs. Instead of conceding, Lake, in a true homage to her Mar-a-Lago mentor, denounced the result on Twitter as “B.S.” Finchem, too, declined to concede. To Adrian Fontes’s mind, Finchem’s refusal to concede was an insult to voters and to the long tradition in America, so vital to democracy’s functioning, of the peaceful transfer of power. “They need to get over the fact that their side lost and move forward like mature adults,” he said. “Concession is a bow to the voters; it is an acknowledgment we live in a democracy. They have an honorable duty to concede. Whether they choose to be honorable is up to them.”

The following week, on November 21, Maricopa County wrapped up its count. Kris Mayes had come out ahead of Abe Hamadeh in the attorney general’s race, albeit by a minuscule margin of 510 votes. The closeness of the outcome triggered an automatic recount—and Hamadeh turned to the courts to try to overturn the result—but few observers expected the Republican to ultimately triumph.

Tyler Montague, a moderate GOP consultant based in Mesa who cut his teeth during the McCain years, has made increasingly urgent entreaties about the danger to democracy represented by the likes of Kari Lake. He couldn’t help but feel some schadenfreude witnessing the GOP’s troubles. He had, after all, been warning about the extremists and their “clown show” for months. A big man dressed in shorts, a T-shirt, and sandals, he talked politics standing in his kitchen, mixing up a batch of onion dip for his teenage daughter’s party later that day. Every so often he gleefully grabbed a handful of chips and tasted his concoction, continually adding spices, chopped onions, or mayonnaise.

“It should have been a no-lose year for Republicans—nationally, but in Arizona as well,” he said slowly. “But these super-Trumpy candidates weren’t selected by Trump for their electability, but for their willingness to repeat his election conspiracies.”

Montague took particular pleasure in the voters’ passage of Proposition 308, which allows undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at public universities and colleges. He’d helped run the campaign for the ballot initiative and had solicited donations from moderate Republicans such as former senator Jeff Flake. In the end, in the face of a concerted effort by much of the state’s extremist GOP to defeat the measure, Arizona voters had repudiated its appeals to nativism. Lake had said she would activate state forces to repel an “invasion” at the southern border and had ramped up the anti-immigrant rhetoric as the election wore on. But Arizonans not only rejected her; they also sided with their better angels when it came to the state’s thousands of Dreamer youth.

As Adrian Fontes settled into his new job, he pondered the close call that democracy had just undergone in Arizona. He was under no illusions that the dangers from election deniers and anti-democracy voices had fully receded. “As long as there are people willing to buy snake oil, the snake oil salesmen will make money,” he said. But, he added after a short pause, he was feeling somewhat optimistic about the future.

“God willing and the creek don’t rise, we’ll still be here after the next cycle,” he declared. “We’re going to come in with an open heart and an open mind and show the naysayers and the doubters that the people running our election system are not frauds and fakers. They are our neighbors.”

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