It’s unusual for a national figure like Trump to take such interest in primaries or state-level races; he’s trying to reshape the GOP into a movement focused on devotion to him rather than ideology.
- Trump’s vehicle for this is a fundraising machine called Save America.
- Save America reached deepest into Michigan, backing nine candidates in primaries for legislative seats.
- In Arizona, Save America candidates for governor and secretary of state both won their primaries.
Angela Rigas stayed outside the Capitol when she attended the Jan. 6, 2021 rally that turned into an insurrection, and she could not have been prouder to be there.
“It was the most amazing sight that I have ever, ever taken in, and I hope to God I will remember that image for the rest of my life,” Rigas said. “The pride of being an American, the pride of showing up and letting the government know that ‘you need to put yourself in check.’”
When she announced her candidacy for the Michigan state House at a gathering for her state’s chapter of the ultra-conservative Constitution Party, she told them why she was at the Capitol in the first place: “They can try to take our country away in an election, but we’ll take it back however we can.”
Rigas’ previous political activism involved defying pandemic lockdown restrictions, a move that put her hair-cutting license in jeopardy. Now, with backing from former President Donald Trump, she’s the Republican nominee in a district so deeply red that she’s all but assured to take office.
It may be unusual for a national figure such as Trump to take such interest in a primary, let alone in such a low-level race, but that’s exactly what he is doing.
Without being a candidate for any federal office, he is trying to reshape the Republican Party into a movement focused on devotion to him rather than to ideological principles.
At the top of the agenda for the former president is enlisting loyalists to help him settle his grievances over his loss in the 2020 presidential race. Several experts likened the political playbook to those used by authoritarian leaders.
Trump’s vehicle for this is a fundraising machine called Save America. Started just after he lost the 2020 election and at the height of his efforts to overturn the results, the PAC’s surrogates routinely send out misinformation including conspiracy theories about the 2020 election and the FBI’s search of Trump’s Florida estate, Mar-a-Lago, to rake in donations from the public. It operates like a veritable slush fund, paying for personal expenses like luxurious hotels and even a fashion designer.
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The money given directly to the candidates by Save America — usually $5,000 each — pales in comparison to Save America’s spending on lawyers who represent Trump in ongoing investigations and barely tops what the PAC spent to commission the former president and first lady’s portraits to hang in the Smithsonian. Instead, the donation is a lever that the former president can pull on to encourage loyalty and exert influence.
The scope of the effort is wide and deep: Save America has backed 28 candidates for state office in nine states. In three of those states, Save America has backed candidates for state legislature, a level virtually unheard of for a PAC of a former high-ranking federal official. At the federal level, Save America has backed candidates for 131 seats in the House and 18 seats in the Senate. The vast majority are election deniers.
And they’ve been largely successful. Two-thirds of Save America candidates running at the state level won their primaries, including all of them in Arizona and Texas. All but a handful of the PAC’s federal candidates have advanced from their primaries and will be on the ballot Nov. 8.
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Reaching deep into the Wolverine State
Save America reached the deepest into Michigan. The PAC backed nine different candidates in their primaries for state legislative seats, the most of any state, plus candidates for attorney general and secretary of state. The group even funded a ballot initiative.
In addition to being a hotbed for challenging the results of the 2020 election — ranging from a legal challenge in Antrim County to unsubstantiated claims about Dominion Voting Systems machines — Michigan also has what state officials have called “the most decentralized election system in the nation.”
Enter Rachelle Smit, the township clerk in a village of 400 in southwestern Michigan who says her first-hand knowledge of running elections informs her view that 2020 was a “failed election.” She is one of four Save America-backed legislative candidates in Michigan who won her primary.
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“Michigan is being wrecked by a tyrannical dictator,” Smit said in a campaign ad. “As the township clerk of Martin, I knew something wasn’t adding up when precincts across the nation stopped counting late at night, and that just doesn’t happen. I too feel the frustration with our so-called leaders in Lansing ignoring their duty to uphold the constitution and kowtow to special interests.”
Jonathan Lindsey, a U.S. Army special forces veteran running for state Senate, puts the claims on his webpage. “Instead of a fair election, we saw one that was not conducted legally, was open to manipulation and fraud, and that resulted in many reports of irregularities,” his site reads.
The endorsement statement from Save America called Lindsey a “warrior” who is “tough on election integrity.”
Save America went 2-0 in primary endorsements for statewide campaigns in Michigan. Both winners have centered their campaign around the 2020 election and won endorsements from the former president and Save America that endorse their experience with alleged election fraud.
Kristina Karamo, Save America’s candidate for secretary of state, alleged on Fox News in 2020 that she had witnessed improper handling of ballots in Detroit. Her campaign account also posted a video alleging that a woman in it was fraudulently signing absentee ballots on behalf of others.
Matthew DePerno, Save America’s attorney general candidate, represented a Michigander in the infamous case against Dominion Voting systems, the elections software and hardware maker, in Antrim County. He has also been accused by state investigators working for the sitting attorney general of tampering with voting machines after the election.
A state agency has appointed a special prosecutor to review whether DePerno and others should face charges related to voting machine tampering. DePerno dismisses the issue as the work of a “the most corrupt AG in the country” seeking to influence his election.
Presidents don’t usually do this
Candidates in Michigan continually frame Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer as a dictator, but experts say the one edging toward authoritarianism is Trump himself, even though he does not have a formal position to carry out his plans and has not declared his candidacy for any federal office.
“It’s common for those who want to be authoritarians or strongmen to do anything they can to create issues with elections and question the legitimacy of elections, especially when an election is not going their way,” said Jodi Vittori, co-chair of the global politics and security concentration at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.
Rusty Hills, lecturer in public policy at the University of Michigan and former chair of the Michigan Republican Party, said there’s nothing unusual about presidents getting involved in elections, but they usually do so on behalf of the party in the general election, after voters have decided who the party nominee will be.
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“In the case of Donald Trump, he’s engaged just as much if not more often within primaries and conventions and nominating contests,” Hills said. “So he’s trying to pick out who are the right kinds of Republicans.”
Going all the way down to the state level is even more unusual, he said.
“Most presidents don’t get to that granular level of detail,” he said. “That’s getting pretty far in the weeds.”
Lawrence Rosenthal, the chair of the Center for Right Wing Studies at UC Berkeley, agreed that it’s “very unusual for a national PAC of this level of renown to be supporting at the level of state offices.” He said the overall goal is to formalize the blueprint from the 2020 election.
Vittori, who specializes in monitoring corruption and democracies, described the significance of reaching so deep into state elections.
“They’ve begun the process of putting loyalists in key offices, including low-level offices Republicans never really paid attention to,” Vittori said, noting that Trump has also talked about replacing civil service workers. “Whether he’s doing it, or advisors are doing it, they are really running an authoritarian playbook. They really understand where the rules of the game are and the large loopholes in our laws. You can undermine democracy by doing things that are technically legal, but have never been done before.”
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Batting 1.000 in Arizona
Save America batted 1.000 in Arizona, where candidates for governor and secretary of state both won their primaries, as did one incumbent and one newcomer in the state Senate. Money funneled through a state-level PAC also helped defeat another Trump opponent.
Former Arizona representative Anthony Kern, who won his primary for state Senate, has tweeted baselessly that there is “ample evidence” to prove that Trump won the 2020 election. He has also called for Arizona not to use Dominion Voting Systems machines, often blamed without evidence for allowing fraud during the 2020 election, for the 2022 midterms.
In Save America’s endorsement of Kern, Trump wrote that he already pushed out a so-called RINO, or Republican in name only — a state senator who originally supported the state Senate’s audit of the 2020 election but then called the audit’s results embarrassing — and that Kern is “an incredible fighter for election integrity.”
State Sen. Wendy Rogers, a self-described member of the Oath Keepers who builds her profile through Telegram and other social media, has repeatedly told followers, “I want the routers” in reference to Arizona’s election systems.
It’s an echo of what Trump said in 2020, when he called for the network routers that he claimed without evidence allowed fraudulent votes. An audit of the routers found no fraud and no connection to the internet and ballot tabulation. After the audit, Rogers tweeted: “The machines were connected to the internet and the elections workers tampered with the machines. The truth is the truth.”
Aside from direct candidate contributions, Save America donated $200,000 to a PAC called the Arizona First Project, which spent $98,000 in a state Senate primary opposing Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers, who testified in front of the Jan. 6 committee against Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election, and supporting former state Sen. David Farnsworth. (Another $81,000 went to supporting Save America’s candidate for governor.)
Farnsworth was one of 29 Arizona legislators who in December 2020 asked Vice President Mike Pence to accept a slate of alternate, fake electors in favor of Trump. He has run his campaign in part on his promise to overhaul the state’s elections.
Farnsworth said he would use his position to hold hearings on the 2020 election that could last up to two years, or “until people are satisfied.” He also said he would “tighten” Arizona election laws because so many people believe the 2020 election was fraudulent. He called on the state legislature in 2023 to “pass as much election integrity reform as possible,” he said.
In a June debate with Bowers, he called the 2020 election results “a real conspiracy headed up by the devil himself.” He is running unopposed on the Nov. 8 ballot.
In an interview with USA TODAY, Farnsworth said he is trying to do what he believes is right, and that people who do not want to look into the 2020 election want to suppress the truth.
“I think Donald Trump is someone who truly loves America and he understands that we are losing freedom to authoritarianism,” he said.
Mark Finchem, Save America’s secretary of state candidate, said in July that the results in three counties should be decertified. He also called for the arrest of Democratic opponent Adrian Fontes and incumbent Katie Hobbs, a Democrat who is now running for governor.
Just this week Finchem made unsubstantiated claims of fraud and election conspiracies on Twitter and the Trump-affiliated Truth Social, adding the hashtag #StopTheFraud.
Kari Lake, who won the Republican primary for governor, said throughout the primary that President Joe Biden did not win the election. During an Arizona Republican debate in June, the former news anchor said she would not have certified Biden’s win in the state.
“He lost the election and shouldn’t be in the White House,” Lake said during the debate.
She also claimed without evidence that tens of thousands of ballots were counted up to four times and 200,000 ballots were trafficked by mules.
While waiting for the results of her own primary, she said, “If we don’t win, there was some cheating going on.” Once the race was called in her favor, she said, “We out-voted the fraud.”
Moving toward ‘illiberal democracy’
Rosenthal, from UC Berkeley, pointed to a legal doctrine headed to the Supreme Court that addresses whether state legislatures can send the state’s electoral votes to a candidate who did not win the majority of votes in the state.
If the case is successful at the Supreme Court, having state legislatures stocked with Republican candidates loyal to Trump would allow them “to be able to declare the electors in battleground states for Trump, irrespective of what the popular vote is.”
Trump and his allies tried a version of this in 2020. In Arizona, for example, Trump was unable to convince Bowers to go along with a plan to appoint an alternate slate of electors. In the end, several people across different states declared themselves alternate electors in favor of Trump, instead of those states’ popular vote winner, Joe Biden.
It’s all part of a direction Rosenthal sees the Republican Party moving toward called “illiberal democracy” that has taken hold in Hungary. While technically a democracy, and while elections still happen, much of the democracy has eroded toward authoritarianism, Rosenthal said.
“It’s almost impossible for the ruling party to lose anymore,” Rosenthal said of elections in Hungary. “So this is an attempt to change the rules so that in presidential elections it will be very difficult for the Republican Party to lose.”
Tucker Carlson has fawned over the autocratic leader of Hungary, Viktor Orban, on his Fox News show, and in 2021 broadcast from Hungary for a week, where he met the prime minister and was scheduled to appear at a far-right conference.
The prime minister of Hungary appeared at the conservative conference CPAC Dallas earlier this year, calling his country, “The Lone Star State of Europe.”
Georgia and Texas
Not all of Save America’s efforts have yielded results for Trump. In Georgia, Save America spent the most money during the primaries, but neither its candidates for governor nor secretary of state won their primaries. In Texas, Save America backed candidates even though the state was not a battleground in 2020.
Save America poured $4.3 million into state and federal PACs based in Georgia, including $2.8 million into Take Back Georgia, a state-level PAC that spent money trying to beat incumbent Republican Gov. Brian Kemp. The PAC also gave $1.5 million to the federal Super PAC Get Georgia Right, whose identically named state PAC spent money to oppose Kemp in the governor’s primary.
U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, who voted to overturn 2020 election results hours after the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, lost by about 20 points to incumbent Brad Raffensperger, who became Trump’s enemy when he refused the former president’s call to “find 11,780 votes” to overturn his loss in the state.
In June, Hice received a subpoena to appear as a witness in front of a special grand jury investigating Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election in Georgia.
Two candidates for Texas Senate — Kevin Sparks and Pete Flores — won their primaries. While neither of them has made public statements challenging the outcome of the 2020 election, both generally call for improved election integrity.
Dawn Buckingham, who won a crowded primary in a bid for a statewide position that oversees land and mineral rights, said on Twitter “I support President Trump’s call for election audit legislation in Texas. The people of Texas deserve to have confidence that our elections are secure and accurate.”
The largest sum Save America gave directly to any state-level candidate was $10,000 to Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who offered up to $1 million in rewards to people who brought forward actionable information about voter fraud in the 2020 election.
“President Trump’s pursuit of voter fraud is not only essential to determine the outcome of this election, it is essential to maintain our democracy and restore faith in future elections,” Patrick said in a statement. The initiative did not uncover massive voter fraud that would have overturned the 2020 election.
Attorney General Ken Paxton, who won his primary, filed a case challenging the 2020 election results in four states. Known as Texas v. Pennsylvania, the lawsuit garnered 125 signatures from sitting members of Congress on an amicus brief but was quickly dismissed.
Dozens of those signatories of the amicus brief have been funded in their re-elections by Save America.
Contributing: Rachel Looker