In 2010, in Delaware, the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate, Christine O’Donnell, became a household name across the country after TV clips surfaced of her saying that she had “dabbled in witchcraft” and “had a midnight picnic on a satanic altar.” To stop the political bleeding, she released an unintentionally comic ad that began: “I’m not a witch.”
In 1991, a former grand wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke, ran for Louisiana governor as a Republican and reached the general election ballot. It transfixed and terrified much of the country. Virtually all Republicans, including President George H. W. Bush, rejected his candidacy.
In the simpler times, before Donald Trump won the presidency, if one or two strange or extreme candidates made it to the general election, it would be national news. As in the case of O’Donnell and Duke, the notoriety often doomed their candidacies. But today, bizarre and extreme candidates appearing on the general election ballot is commonplace. Most fly under the radar without the national spotlight that did in O’Donnell and Duke. So many candidates refuse to accept election results that news organizations use multimedia tools to let readers know who are election deniers or other peddlers of disinformation.
We have dumpster-dived into general election ballots and identified the 10 most out-there candidates with a real shot of winning—and a real opportunity to wreak havoc if elected. We’ve organized the list by office. The most disheartening part was keeping the list to 10.
Kari Lake (Arizona)
Kari Lake shares similarities with other pro-Trump gubernatorial candidates. Like Pennsylvania’s Doug Mastriano and Maryland’s Dan Cox, she promoted COVID-19 conspiracy theories before declaring the 2020 election stolen. Unlike Mastriano and Cox, she has a good shot at winning. Lake is in a dead heat with Democrat Katie Hobbs; FiveThirtyEight has her holding a 0.7-point lead.
Her fame helps. Lake spent more than 20 years in Arizonans’ homes as a reporter and anchor for the Fox affiliate in Phoenix. Today she leverages her notoriety to rail against critical race theory. She claims that, as governor, she’d have the legal authority to declare an invasion at the border and use state funds to defend it. If Lake wins, along with the election-denying Republicans running for secretary of state and attorney general, she could overturn a Democratic win in the 2024 presidential election.
It gets worse: Lake would likely refuse to certify a Democratic victory in 2024, even if a Democratic secretary of state were to certify the results. “The first week, we’ve got to have legislation to turn these elections around,” Lake told Republican state legislators after winning the primary this summer. “No more corrupt elections, no more BS. We will not take it!”
Tim Michels (Wisconsin)
Asked in May by a conservative radio host if the 2020 election was stolen, Tim Michels responded, “There were certainly illegal ballots. How many? … I don’t know if anybody knows. We got to make sure.” During the primary campaign, he said, “President Trump probably would be president right now if we had election integrity.” Michels won’t commit to certifying the 2024 presidential election in this swing state.
Ominously, Michels has pledged a “full reorganization” of the state’s election commission—which runs Wisconsin’s balloting—likely ending its bipartisan balance.
Michels is also an unreconstructed social conservative who has repeatedly expressed support for Wisconsin’s 19th-century law—now in effect—banning abortion except to save the mother’s life. However, in recent days, he has tried to blur the issue. He said, “I will never arrest a doctor, as they’re saying. You know, I’m a reasonable guy.” But as the Wisconsin State Journal reported, his spokesperson indicated that doctors could still get arrested: “The [district attorneys] should enforce all laws. The governor is an executive. He’s not a DA or beat cop arresting anyone.”
Secretaries of State
Mark Finchem (Arizona )
Last week, the Washington Monthly noted that Mark Finchem
spent the months after the 2020 election corresponding with Trump advisors to devise a plan to disqualify ballots for Biden by analyzing their “kinetic markings”—a desperate heave even as far as fraud claims go. He hosted Rudy Giuliani at a Phoenix hotel to discuss falsehoods about “election integrity.”
As the judiciary struck down each fraud allegation, Finchem would claim a new Biden conspiracy. He was a driving force behind the election auditing. This year, Finchem introduced legislation to decertify the last election and “set aside” the ballots in three counties, including Maricopa, as “irredeemably compromised.” Trump backed him in the primaries, and Finchem wears a “Trump 45” pin in honor of the man he thinks won the last election.
As secretary of state, Finchem could refuse to certify a Democratic win in 2024. Such an action—especially if supported by a Republican trifecta of Lake and attorney general candidate Abraham Hamadeh—could hand Arizona’s 11 electoral votes to the GOP. Finchem will almost certainly push the legislature to end early voting, used by the vast majority of Arizonans, himself included.
Jim Marchant (Nevada)
Like his America First Secretary of State Coalition buddy Finchem, Jim Marchant might use the secretary of state’s office to deliver Trump a victory in 2024. He can sound loopier than Finchem. According to Marchant, Nevada has not had a fair election in more than a decade. He was allegedly part of a plot—now under FBI investigation—to submit a fake slate of pro-Trump electors to Congress in a signing ceremony in Carson City on the same day the legitimate electors were certified. Trump’s 2020 loss is not even the only one Marchant has tried to overturn; he filed a lawsuit (that courts rejected) to redo his own 2020 congressional loss.
A former Nevada assemblyman with ties to QAnon, Marchant has also proposed forcing Nevada voters to reregister. He’d also like to curb mail-in voting.
CNN’s recent poll found Marchant with a 3-point lead over his Democratic opponent, Cisco Aguilar.
Blake Masters (Arizona Senate)
Asked on a podcast to name a “subversive thinker” who would “influence people in a good direction,” Blake Masters chose Ted Kaczynski—the “Unabomber,” who murdered three people and is serving life in prison. “There’s a lot of insight there,” Masters said, noting the notorious felon’s “criticisms of industrial society” and his assessment of “the political left and about how they all have inferiority complexes and fundamentally hate anything like goodness, truth, beauty, justice.”
These comments weren’t the crude rantings of a teenage college student (though we’ve seen some of those from Masters too). Masters praised the Unabomber while campaigning for the United States Senate.
Masters made sure to say that Kaczynski “shouldn’t hurt people.” But a couple of months after that podcast Masters again made comments uncomfortably close to an incident of far-right domestic terrorism. On May 14, a young white man murdered 10 African Americans in a grocery store after posting a racist manifesto peddling the notion that immigrants and people of color are “replacers” who will supplant white people. Hours after the shooting, Masters posted on Twitter his own version of the so-called great replacement theory: “The Democrats want open borders so they can bring in and amnesty **tens of millions** of illegal aliens—that’s their electoral strategy.” Two days later, Masters posted a video saying the shooter should be tried and executed. He repeated that “mass amnesty is an electoral strategy for the Democrats” and added, “if you want to call me a white supremacist for that, that’s stupid, but go ahead, knock yourself out.”
Maybe not for that, but maybe for this: In April, Masters said on a podcast, “We do have a gun violence problem in this country, and it’s gang violence … Very often, you know, Black people, frankly.”
Now that Masters is running for the general election, he is trying to bury some of his past. He removed claims from his website that Trump won in 2020 and also erased his support for a constitutional amendment to establish the principle that “unborn babies are human beings that may not be killed.” The slightly softer persona has helped Masters narrow the gap with the incumbent, Mark Kelly. But don’t be fooled; Masters is still who he has always been.
Joe Kent (Washington State, Third District)
You might think a congressional candidate on good terms with a podcaster who calls Nazis the “pure race” would have no chance in a swing district. Yet, Republican Joe Kent is considered “likely” to win by Inside Elections and Sabato’s Crystal Ball. (Slightly more optimistically, the Cook Political Report with Amy Walter deems the district race “Leans Republican.”)
The southwest Washington State district sided with Trump over Biden by just four points and is represented by Republican Jaime Herrera Beutler. But Beutler voted to impeach Trump following January 6. Such gumption earned her four Republican primary challengers (plus four other candidates) in the August nonpartisan blanket primary, and she could only muster 22.3 percent of the total vote.
The Trump-endorsed Kent didn’t do much better, scratching out 22.8 percent, but that was enough for second place and a spot on the general election ballot.
The press covered Kent’s associations with white nationalists during the primary, and he has tried to downplay them. In March, the white nationalist activist Nick Fuentes, who has said he is “fighting for a white majority,” publicly talked about a social media strategy call he and his “Groyper Army” allies had with Kent. The year prior, Kent reacted to Fuentes’s ban from Twitter with his own tweet: “Many are glad that their political rivals are targeted by the state & big tech, they hate Trump, @NickJFuentes & MAGA. This short side thinking has led to some of the greatest tragedies in human history. We must fight for all speech & fight the confluence of gov & big tech.”
In a YouTube interview with the American Populist Union, Kent said, “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with there being a white people special interest group.” (The American Populist Union, soon after hosting a social event on Adolph Hitler’s birthday, changed its name to American Virtue. A former leader of the group is on the payroll of Blake Masters’s campaign.) And Kent explained his differences with Fuentes as “more of a tactics thing.”
Karoline Leavitt (New Hampshire, First District)
With right-wingers obsessing over immigration and transgender rights, climate science denial may feel quaint. But the 25-year-old Leavitt must have the soul of a chain-email-forwarding old man. Asked by WMUR-TV for her climate views, she responded, “The alleged ‘existential threat of climate change is a manufactured crisis by the Democrat Party to frighten the American people into supporting the passage of the Green New Deal, which is a socialist takeover of our economy and society.” In a July interview with the podcast Good Morning NH with Jack Health, Leavitt, a former Trump staffer, said the Democrats are “trying to brainwash my generation with all this BS about climate change.”
Leavitt’s nostalgia for musty right-wing obsessions extends to Social Security. She told WMUR-TV, “The privatization of Social Security, while grandfathering in those who have already paid into the system, including myself, I think is a solution that should be looked at very closely.”
On abortion, Leavitt has insisted she won’t touch the issue in Congress, saying, “I will not support restrictions on the federal level, because I believe this is an issue that should be left to our states.” But her website conveys a different message: “As a member of Congress, I will be a fearless pro-life advocate to defend the lives of the unborn and speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves.” And in a 2021 podcast, she argued that abortion “is not about women’s reproductive rights, it is not about women’s health. It is about life and protecting that, period. And as a woman, it is the most amazing thing that we can do to reproduce. That’s why we’re here. That’s why, you know, God made men and women.”
Since she served in the Trump White House, you will not be surprised to learn that Leavitt is a 2020 election denier and insurrectionist sympathizer. In an August primary debate, she said, “Joe Biden did not win 81 million votes,” and the election was “stolen.” (She recently tried to backtrack from that position in a Q&A session with WMUR, calling Biden “legitimate” for the first time.) She has also said, “Jan. 6 was a peaceful protest,” noting that “there were rioters who caused destruction and violence and they need to be held accountable.”
Yesli Vega (Virginia, Seventh District)
Vega is one of the 300 Republican election deniers running for congressional or state office this year. In that respect, Virginia’s Seventh District candidate is not unique. Her right-wing views on immigration are pure MAGA, having advocated for a controversial program in Virginia’s Prince William County to allow local sheriffs to transfer suspected undocumented immigrants to ICE custody. It’s since been abandoned.
But Vega, a Salvadoran American whose Hispanic outreach has been impressive, may win the title for one of the most alarming comments on abortion among active candidates. In an audio clip from a May campaign event, Vega had the following to say about no-exception abortion restrictions: “The left will say, ‘Well, what about in cases of rape or incest?’ I’m a law enforcement officer. I became a police officer in 2011. I’ve worked one case where as a result of a rape, the young woman became pregnant.”
When asked if she’d heard that it was harder for a woman to conceive in cases of rape, Vega said that did not surprise her. “It’s not something that’s happening organically,” she continued. “You’re forcing it. The individual, the male, is doing it as quickly—it’s not like, you know—and so I can see why there is truth to that.”
In 2012, two Republican U.S. Senate candidates lost their races after claiming that rape couldn’t lead to pregnancy. Nevertheless, Vega is locked in a tight race against the Democratic incumbent, Abigail Spanberger, in a district that went for Biden in 2020 and the Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin in 2021.
In the House, Vega would be just one of 200-plus Republicans. But her winning would add to Republican momentum with Hispanic voters.
Ken Paxton (Texas)
Trump’s most loyal state attorney general, Ken Paxton filed a lawsuit in December 2020 alleging that election “fraud” in Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin led those states to award electors to Biden and that Texas voters were injured as a result of the fraud. Paxton’s suit was a significant addition to the push for the independent state legislature theory. The widely disparaged legal notion holds that statehouses may disregard the popular vote or ignore court rulings about elections.
Like his idol Trump, Paxton is bracing for criminal charges. Since 2015, he’s been under indictment for securities fraud—venue changes have increasingly delayed the trial—and he is under FBI investigation following bribery allegations. This month, a Texas Politics Project survey gave him a 14-point lead over his Democratic challenger, Rochelle Garza.
Paxton has used his office to start an election integrity unit whose chief accomplishments include screening the Dinesh D’Souza–produced election denial “documentary” 2,000 Mules and issuing legal challenges in 2020 to more than 100,000 votes in liberal Harris County, the seat of Houston. His preoccupation with Harris County continues. In conjunction with the Texas secretary of state’s office, Paxton is sending “election monitors” to the county to observe voting this November.
If reelected, Paxton will continue to wreak havoc on the work of election administrators through Texas’s liberal pockets. “Our toughest challenge in administering the 2020 election was not the pandemic, it was Ken Paxton,” Chris Hollins, the former Harris County clerk, told The Texas Tribune. “Four more years of Ken Paxton is going to do lasting damage to our state, to our communities, and we should be fearful of what could happen in a contested 2024 election if he is at the helm in this critical position as chief legal officer of the state of Texas.”
State Legislature Candidates
Dean Browning (Pennsylvania Senate, Fourteenth District)
Pennsylvania is one of three states (along with Arizona and Michigan) with Republican-controlled state legislatures that Democrats might flip. And one of the Pennsylvania districts features a doozy of a Republican.
Dean Browning ran for the U.S. House two years ago. Soon after his narrow defeat, he provided some post-election comic relief. Browning tweeted, “What Trump built in 4 years, Biden will destroy in 4 months.” When another Twitter user said Barack Obama deserved credit for the economy during the Trump years, Browning replied, “I’m a black gay guy, and I can personally say that Obama did nothing for me, my life only changed a little bit and it was for the worse. Everything is so much better under Trump, though.” Browning, however, is white and married to a woman.
After the tweet blew up, Browning said, “I was quoting a message that I received earlier this week from a follower.” Then, a Washington Post reporter observed that a Twitter account ostensibly from a gay, Black Trump supporter named “Dan Purdy” was a frequent replier to Browning, prompting allegations that Purdy was a fake account used by Browning. (The Purdy account was prone to posting racist comments such as “black women will be the death of America.”) But then a Black man posted a video on the Purdy account saying he was Dan Purdy and had sent the anti-Obama message to Browning.
Whether or not Browning set up a fake Twitter account to promote himself, the controversy drew attention to other crazy posts from his own account. As reported by Snopes, Browning “also tweeted that Joe Biden turned his son Hunter into a ‘crackhead,’ questioned the COVID-19 death toll, said that ‘so many other crimes are more deserving of the national eye than Breonna Taylor,’ spread mail-in voting conspiracy theories ahead of the 2020 U.S. presidential election, and called MSNBC host Joy Reid ‘stupid,’ ‘racist,’ and a ‘cow.’” Another tweet appeared to push the QAnon conspiracy theory that Democrats are child traffickers.
Author: Gabby Birenbaum and Bill Scher