People gather before the start of a campaign rally with former President Donald Trump on October 9, 2022, in Mesa, Arizona.
CNN  — 

There is perhaps nowhere in the country where former President Donald Trump had more success elevating his slate of “Make American Great Again” candidates into formidable 2022 contenders than Arizona, a state he narrowly lost in 2020 where he has relentlessly sought to overturn the presidential election results.

With less than a month until Election Day, Trump campaigned in Mesa on Sunday with those hand-selected GOP candidates vying for the top offices in the state: Gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake, US Senate nominee Blake Masters and Secretary of State nominee Mark Finchem.

All three rose to the top of their fields during the primary contests – in a state where Trump acolytes have asserted their control over the Republican Party – by echoing Trump’s falsehoods about the 2020 presidential election to varying degrees.

That has made Arizona the most closely watched laboratory for democracy in the midterm contests, as Trump weighs another presidential run in 2024, setting up a fresh test of the nation’s election apparatus and the strength of democratic institutions.

In the near-term, the Senate race could be pivotal to control of the chamber in 2023. But looking forward, Arizona’s status as a battleground state means it could determine the next occupant of the White House, which is why the Democratic opponents of Lake and Finchem – along with Wyoming GOP Rep. Liz Cheney, the vice chair of the House select committee probing January 6, 2021 – have warned that their ascent to the state’s highest offices could lead to meddling with the 2024 election results, creating what Cheney recently framed as a test of the “future functioning of our constitutional republic.” In Arizona, the secretary of state is second in line to the governorship.

On Sunday night, Trump called on Arizona to produce a “clean sweep of every statewide office for the Republican Party” in November.

“You can prove that Arizona is still a red state, and you are,” Trump said, during a speech where he once again falsely claimed he won Arizona in 2020.

The former President also waded into the abortion debate, reiterating that he favors exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother, but also stating that he favors a ban at 15 weeks, a version of which Arizona’s GOP governor has signed, and bringing the issue “back into the states.”

Nationally, the question of where limits should be set on abortion has divided the GOP, particularly after South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham proposed a 15-week national ban.

Democrats hope the debate will weigh in their favor in November since many independent and moderate voters who opposed the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade believe the most restrictive state measures are too extreme. But Trump’s comments on Sunday night may offer some cover for Republican candidates who were struggling to articulate their stance.

Three competitive races

Trump offered glowing praise for Lake, and when he invited her on stage to speak, she managed to create her own moment by telling the crowd that she’s defied “know-nothing consultants” who have advised her to distance from Trump to win her race in a purple state.

“Wouldn’t it be horrible? What would it say about my character if I stepped away from my friends?” Lake said. “If I step away from my friends, that means I would step away from you and I will never step away from the people of Arizona.”

“So, for those know-nothing consultants and the media, I want to show you what it looks like when I step away from President Trump,” she continued, then theatrically hugged him in front of the cameras.

Lake, Masters and Finchem are all in tight contests for the seats they are seeking, according to new CNN polling in the Grand Canyon state.

They are benefiting in part from the fact that a plurality of Arizona voters are registered as Republicans, but also from the fact that election denialism does not rank as the top concern for the state’s voters as they grapple with the impact of inflation, high gas prices and economic turbulence in a climate that should favor the GOP.

There is no clear leader in the gubernatorial race between Lake and Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, who gained national prominence by opposing the efforts of Trump-aligned GOP lawmakers in Arizona to repeatedly wage partisan audits and challenge the 2020 election results. (There is no evidence of widespread election fraud, and the so-called audit confirmed Biden’s victory.) About 49% of likely voters backed Hobbs, while 46% backed Lake in CNN’s new poll.

Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly is narrowly leading Masters 51% to 45% among likely voters in the Senate race; and there is no clear leader in the race between Finchem and Democrat Adrian Fontes, the former recorder of Maricopa County who was defeated in his 2020 reelection bid after facing criticism for some of the changes he made to the county’s voting systems.

Trump, who repeatedly targeted Arizona’s term-limited GOP Gov. Doug Ducey for rebuffing his entreaties to overturn Biden’s victory in Arizona, has heartily embraced Lake’s candidacy. The former Arizona news anchor, who has repeatedly referred to the 2020 election as “stolen” and “corrupt,” has raised money at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago retreat in Florida. During a GOP primary debate this year, she said she would not have certified the 2020 presidential election results in Arizona as Ducey did (and as is required by law).

Ducey declined national Republicans’ efforts to get him to run for Senate this year, leaving a crowded field of candidates jockeying for Trump’s support. Trump eventually backed Masters, who had the support of conservative tech billionaire Peter Thiel in the primary, and had released a campaign video stating he believed Trump won the 2020 election.

But during an Arizona Senate debate last week where Kelly warned that the “wheels” could “come off our democracy” if candidates like his opponent are elected, Masters modulated his tone on the 2020 election results – part of a clear play by the venture capitalist to appeal to a broader swath of the Arizona electorate. Under questioning from the moderator he conceded that he had not seen evidence of fraud in the 2020 vote counting or election results in a way that would have changed the outcome.

After his primary victory in August, he also scrubbed his website of language that included the false claim that the election was stolen.

Neither Lake nor Masters mentioned the 2020 election in their remarks Sunday in Mesa before Trump arrived. But Lake, who is executing a Trump playbook by focusing her efforts on boosting GOP base turnout in Arizona, has not attempted to finesse her stance on the 2020 election as some other Trump-endorsed candidates have.

In an interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday morning after Major Garrett noted that Masters had said he had not seen evidence of problems that would have changed the 2020 outcome, Lake did not directly answer when asked if Biden is the legitimate president.

“I think we have major problems in our election system. And … it goes back to 2000. We had Democrats saying the 2000 election wasn’t fair,” Lake replied, adding that Democrats had raised questions about several subsequent elections. “Nobody called them election deniers. And now, all of a sudden in 2020, Garrett, we don’t have free speech anymore. We can’t speak out against our own elections. All I’m asking for is the ability to speak out. When our government does something wrong, we should be able to speak out against it.”

Finchem is one of at least 11 Republican nominees running for state elections chief who have questioned, rejected or tried to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

The state representative co-sponsored legislation with fellow Republican lawmakers in Arizona that would allow them to reject election results and require election workers to hand count ballots instead of using electronic equipment to tabulate results.

He has also called for decertifying the 2020 election results in three Arizona counties – even though legal experts say there is no legal mechanism to do so.

This story has been updated with remarks from Trump’s rally.