How The So-Called Arizona Audit Is Already Shaping The 2022 Election

By Ben Giles
Published: Thursday, September 2, 2021 - 5:05am
Updated: Thursday, September 2, 2021 - 8:06am

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Maricopa County ballots from the 2020 general election are examined and recounted by contractors
Michael Meister/Arizona Republic/Pool
Maricopa County ballots from the 2020 general election are examined and recounted by contractors hired by the Arizona senate at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix on May 13, 2021.

Katie Hobbs was already considered a strong contender to win the Democratic primary for governor of Arizona. Now, months into a controversial review of the 2020 election in Maricopa County, political consultant Stan Barnes says the secretary of state is the clear frontrunner.

“Katie has had a fortunate cross current of events that has acted like wind in her political sails,” he said.

It’s all thanks to the so-called Arizona audit, a process that has been a blessing for some and a curse for others. 

Katie Hobbs
Scotty Kirby
Katie Hobbs

Hobbs has made local and national headlines for her opposition to the partisan recount and review of the election system in Arizona’s largest county. Julie Erfle, a Democratic communications consultant, said Hobbs’ outspokenness on the issue is a natural fit with her role as the top elections official in the state, and a boon for her campaign.

“Because she is in this issue right now, because of her statute as secretary. I think it's a — it can be a winning issue for her particularly in a contested primary,” Erfle said.

As for Republican candidates, the impacts of the review so far have been mixed. While polling shows the election review is unpopular with most Arizona voters, a majority of GOP votes are in favor of it.

Barnes says that’s put GOP candidates in a bind.

“Anybody running for the Republican nomination cannot afford to alienate and cannot afford to denigrate the audit,” he said.

That’s because those that support the Senate’s election review are typically the Republican Party’s fiercest partisans -- and the voters who will turn out in droves for the GOP primary election, less than a year away.

“The voter that will turn out in the Republican primary is highly sympathetic to the former president, and is willing to give -- give the rumor a chance -- that maybe something bad happened in the election,” Barnes said.

Some candidates have already gotten a taste of what happens when they’re deemed insufficiently loyal to the former president’s cause.

Michelle Ugenti-Rita Turning Point Rally
Gage Skidmore/The Star News Network, CC BY 2.0
Michelle Ugenti-Rita at Turning Point Action's "Rally to Protect Our Elections" in July 2021.

Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita (R-Scottsdale) has spent years grooming her reputation as a likely candidate for secretary of state But in July, she was booed off the stage at a rally headlined by former President Trump for blocking an election bill that had fired up parts of the Republican base. She’s since criticized the election review as “botched,” a position that political consultant Chuck Coughlin says could hurt her chances in the GOP primary.

“You know, we've all had friends with struggles,” Coughlin said. “Well, this is a friend that I have, my former party, that's having a struggle with an addiction. And the addiction is to a narrative that's a lie, and to a candidate in the form of President Trump that lost an election in Arizona.”

"The Republican Party keeps hitting the pipe. And it continues to act in an addictive manner to one narrative, which is particularly harmful to it."
— Chuck Coughlin

Now an independent, Coughlin says it’s clear the election review is already impacting the primary races. But three months ago, when contractors were still counting votes inside Veterans Memorial Coliseum, it seemed to him like the whole process would eventually fade from view.

Now he’s not so sure.

“The Republican Party keeps hitting the pipe. And it continues to act in an addictive manner to one narrative, which is particularly harmful to it,” Coughlin said.

The review is sure to remain in the headlines for at least another month now that Republican senators have involved the attorney general in their quest to demand even more records from Maricopa County officials.

A pending report from the review was supposed to be delivered last week, but senators are still waiting. And whenever it’s delivered, it’s sure to include recommendations for changing Arizona’s election procedures.

That’ll likely spark more debate when the legislature reconvenes in January, and perhaps last through the spring.

If that’s the case, Coughlin says Republicans would be shooting themselves in the foot in an election cycle when historically, they have an advantage.

“The presidential contests turn out a higher number of voters,” he said. “We’re looking at 750,000 fewer voters in this upcoming cycle. So that means the electorate gets older and favors Republicans more.”

While the review may have downsides for Republicans, Erfle, the Democratic consultant, said it’s not necessarily a huge boon for her party. Erfle spoke to one Democrat who’s experiencing what she described as audit fatigue.

“You know, and he was just like, ‘I've lost interest,’” she said. “And I think that's what's happening in general, among Arizona voters, they have totally lost interest in this.”

"There's an opening now for Democrats to step in and say, 'OK, this is how we're going to define the race.'"
— Julie Erfle

Erfle said democrats can win by staking out better, positive reasons for turning out to vote in 2022.

“They're ready to move forward. And I think there's an opening now for Democrats to step in and say, ‘OK, this is how we're going to define the race,’” she said.

With some Republicans still focused on an election in the past, that may leave them behind.

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