Despite Republican candidates and voters spending the past two years constructing elaborate myths and conspiracy theories about the 2020 election being stolen, Tuesday’s midterm elections appear to have mostly gone off without a hitch. Despite Democrats outperforming expectations, most Republican candidates so far have opted not to deny their own losses. Far, far too many election deniers won office—at least 166 so far—but among the marquee races for governor and secretary of state most of them lost.
But then there is Kari Lake, the Arizona Republican gubernatorial candidate who followed Trump’s 2020 model of continuing the “Stop the Steal” show. As her Democratic opponent held a slight lead Tuesday night with votes still being tabulated and no media outlets calling the race in either direction, Lake was undeterred when she spoke on stage to supporters, declaring, “We are going to continue to monitor the ballots.… When we win, the first line of action is to restore honesty to Arizona elections.” After so ably channeling Trump, better than any other candidate in 2022, Lake has ended up as the last MAGA standing.
It didn’t take long on the morning of Election Day for Lake supporters to fall back on the Stop the Steal narrative. Arizona was ripe for this: Throughout her gubernatorial campaign, Lake clung to conspiracy theories about a stolen election in 2020 and would not commit to accepting the results in her own election. (As of early Wednesday afternoon, with about a third of votes left to be counted, Lake and her Democratic opponent, Katie Hobbs, the current Arizona secretary of state, are separated by a narrow margin in Hobbs’s favor.) With Lake turning back to raising unfounded fears of fraud Tuesday, the Stop the Steal set even got to return to its initial backdrop, Maricopa County, where Trump supporters had rallied in November 2020, calling his loss a fraud and setting in motion weeks of chaos stretching all the way to Congress.
There was ample reason to fear things might go that way again. The immediacy and speed with which election misinformation can take hold was on the side of the Stop the Steal redux, with right-wing influencer conspiracy theories spread by Steve Bannon’s War Room: Pandemic podcast quickly amplified in “straight” news coverage throughout the day on Fox. Some of the Stop the Steal players were already involved, such as Tyler Bowyers, who signed on as a fake elector on behalf of Trump in 2020 and serves as the chief operating officer of the Arizona-based national right-wing influence group Turning Point USA. Extremism researchers had already said that election-related political violence was more likely to happen in states like Arizona with contentious races. In the days ahead of Election Day, Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone announced he would dispatch deputies to guard the ballot tabulation center in downtown Phoenix, site of protests in 2020, and on Tuesday night he pledged they would remain “until the community’s accepted the outcome.”
Around 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Lake responded to problems with some vote tabulators in Maricopa County by telling voters not to go to a different location instead, saying if they did their ballot “likely will not count,” which reporters debunked as misinformation that would possibly disenfranchise her own voters. Nevertheless, her post was retweeted more than 10,000 times by the time she spoke to reporters after casting her own vote in Maricopa County a few hours later. “We came right down into the liberal heart of Phoenix to vote,” Lake said, around 1 p.m., “because we wanted to make sure we had good machines. And guess what?” She leaned into the narrative. “They had zero problems with their machines today.” Lake predicted she would win and serve two terms. She added, as a rejoinder directed to the media, “I’m going to be your worst frickin’ nightmare for eight years.”
Claims about Maricopa County were by then spreading fast, with the Election Integrity Partnership counting over 40,000 posts on Twitter about the tabulation errors, with a pronounced spike after a tweet from Charlie Kirk of Turning Point USA. Kirk had claimed that “Democrats running elections here knew this would happen. Traffic jam by design. DONT LET THEM DO 2020 AGAIN.” This was further spread on Telegram by Stop the Steal organizer Ali Alexander and white supremacist Nick Fuentes, among others. Trump himself piled on: “Can’t let this happen, AGAIN!!!” Right-wing activists who had deputized themselves as poll watchers were in action to “document” such alleged wrongdoing, like the failed, QAnon-supporting Arizona gubernatorial candidate who recorded himself violating regulations that prohibit filming at or too close to polling locations. Wearing the lavalier mic she reportedly rarely takes off, part of her rig with her husband as videographer, Kari Lake herself encouraged voters to stay in line in Maricopa County.
The official Maricopa County Twitter account tried to correct the misinformation, along with other elections officials who responded throughout the day, beating back claims of “fraud” leveled at normal elections operations. Kirk stayed on it. “Poll workers in Maricopa actively encouraging people to drop off ballots instead of voting in person,” he posted. “This is voter suppression. People need to be arrested.” The Maricopa County recorder, who oversees the tabulation of votes, made a statement minutes later. “Every legal vote will be tabulated. I promise.”
A little later that afternoon, Trump again threw his weight behind the narrative. “To the great people of Arizona, Maricopa County in particular, don’t leave your line,” said Trump in a video posted to his Truth Social platform and reposted by other right-wing accounts with substantial followings on Twitter. “They say that the machines aren’t working,” he continued. Trump also claimed, “They want to delay you out of voting,” without specifying who “they” were. (Tucker Carlson chimed in not long after.) Almost at the same moment, Maricopa County officials announced a fix for the problems with the tabulation machines—a printer setting was not calibrated dark enough—saying it had already corrected issues in 17 polling locations.
Claims of election wrongdoing, as in 2020, moved from social media to legal filings. Attorneys for Kari Lake, along with Senate candidate Blake Masters and the Republican National Committee, filed a lawsuit around 5 p.m., seeking to extend voting hours in Maricopa County from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. and push back the release of ballots to 11 p.m. An attorney for the defendants, the Maricopa County officials, said the lawsuit failed to include a single allegation of a voter being denied casting their ballot that day due to the issues with the machines and that to allow the extension would invite voter fraud. The extension Lake sought was denied, the judge agreeing with the defendants that there was no evidence of disenfranchisement due to tabulator issues.
As polls approached closing time, sheriff’s deputies arrived on horseback at the same tabulation center in Phoenix where Stop the Steal protests began two years before. An elderly Kari Lake supporter holding an American flag stood outside, saying there would be “more of us later” to “demand” a “paper ballot verification” of the machine results, while a line of cars still waited for occupants to drop off ballots. Mark Finchem, the Republican Arizona secretary of state candidate and another election denier, made an election night appearance on Church Militant, the far-right Catholic media outlet.
At her election night party, Katie Hobbs said she “felt good” about the vote count so far but also prepared her supporters, saying, “It’s going to take days” for a final result. Counting would stretch into the night, but at that moment, the early votes tabulated had favored Hobbs. For her part, Lake had at least not claimed outright victory, but she was still adamant that it would eventually be hers. She addressed what may be her true opponent. “The fake media back there tried to tell us we were wrong for asking questions about our elections,” she said from the stage at her own party. “Guess what, we are going to win this.” With the victory balloons still secured, the remaining guests stood in the partially empty ballroom, listening to “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.”