(CNN)Arizona Republican secretary of state nominee Mark Finchem doubled down on the conspiracy theories that he has espoused about the 2020 presidential election in a debate against Democrat Adrian Fontes Thursday night, asserting that the votes in several key Arizona counties should have been "set aside" even though there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 contest.
"There are certain counties that should have been set aside as irredeemably compromised -- Maricopa County was one of them. Yuma County was one of them," the Republican state lawmaker said, echoing claims he made in a February resolution that called for decertifying the 2020 election results in three Arizona counties -- even though legal experts say there is no legal mechanism to do so. "We have so many votes outside of the law that it begs the question, what do we do with an election where we have votes that are in the stream, which should not be counted?"
Finchem, a Republican state representative in Arizona, was endorsed by Donald Trump in September of 2021 after becoming one of the most vocal supporters of the former President's lies about the 2020 presidential election. Trump is supporting a broad array of election deniers vying for office in November as he continues his unrelenting campaign to undermine and subvert the 2020 results.
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, as CNN's Daniel Dale chronicled last month -- a trend that has alarmed election experts and increasingly drawn the notice of the public.
His assertions Thursday evening -- which he made when a moderator asked him whether he would have certified the 2020 presidential results -- drew a sharp rebuke from Fontes, the Democratic nominee for secretary of state, who said Finchem had just outlined why it would be so dangerous for him to be charged with managing and overseeing Arizona's election systems.
"Our democracy really rests on the decisions (of) thousands of people -- Republicans and Democrats alike -- who did the work of elections. When we have conspiracy theories and lies like the ones Mr. Finchem has just shared, based in no real evidence, what we end up doing is eroding the faith that we have in each other as citizens," said Fontes, who previously served as the recorder of Maricopa County. "The kind of divisiveness, not based in fact, not based on any evidence, that we've seen trumpeted by Mr. Finchem is dangerous for America."
Fontes was elected recorder of Maricopa County in 2016 but was defeated in his reelection bid in 2020 after facing criticism for some of the changes he made to the county's voting systems. Finchem repeatedly criticized his performance in the recorder's office Thursday night.
In a Quinnipiac University poll released last month, 67% of Americans said they believed the nation's democracy is "in danger of collapse," a 9-point increase from January.
As Trump considers another run for the White House, Finchem's close alliance with the former President has drawn close scrutiny because he would be charged with managing and certifying the election results of the 2024 presidential election in a pivotal swing state that President Joe Biden won by less than 11,000 votes.
The office he is seeking is also critically important in another respect because in Arizona, the secretary of state is second in line to the governorship.
Finchem co-sponsored legislation with fellow Republican lawmakers in Arizona that would allow lawmakers to reject election results and require election workers to hand-count ballots instead of using electronic equipment to tabulate results. He has also asserted without evidence that early voting leads to election fraud and has questioned whether it is constitutional.
During the 30-minute debate, which was sponsored by the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission and aired on Arizona's PBS channel, Fontes, a former Marine, repeatedly tried to get Finchem to answer for some of the ideas that he has proposed as a legislator like curtailing the ability to vote by mail.
Finchem resisted, arguing that the secretary of state does not set policy: "The secretary of state doesn't eliminate people's ability to vote. That's up to the legislature," he said.
When a moderator interjected and pressed Finchem to answer whether he wanted to eliminate mail-in voting, Finchem replied: "What I want doesn't matter."
He later allowed that he doesn't "care for mail-in-voting. That's why I go to the polls." The Republican lawmaker said he supports "absentee vote" programs, but not programs where ballots are sent to voters who have not requested them.
When one of the moderators asked Finchem whether the August primary election was fair, Finchem responded that he had "no idea." When the moderator followed up by asking Finchem what had changed between the 2020 presidential election and the 2022 Arizona primary, Finchem replied: "The candidates."
When asked what role the federal government has in Arizona's elections, Finchem said he believes the federal government "needs to butt out," adding that it should be the legislature "who names the time, place and manner of an election, not the federal government."
Fontes tried to draw out Finchem on some of his controversial associations -- including that he is a self-proclaimed member of the far-right extremist group known as the Oath Keepers -- but the Republican lawmaker did not engage.
CNN's KFile team has uncovered a series of posts from Finchem where he shared anti-government conspiracy theories, including a Pinterest account with a "Treason Watch List" (which included photos of Democratic politicians) and pins of photos of Barack Obama beside imagery of a man in Nazi attire making a Nazi salute.
Fontes also pressed Finchem to explain what he was doing in Washington, DC, on January 6, 2021.
Finchem attended the January 6 rally that preceded the storming of the US Capitol -- though he has said he did not participate in the riot. Around that time, the Arizona Republic reported that he posted a photo online of rioters on the steps of the Capitol and said the events were "what happens when the People feel they have been ignored, and Congress refuses to acknowledge rampant fraud."
Fontes accused him of engaging in "a violent insurrection" that attempted to "overturn the very constitution that holds this nation together."
Finchem rejected that characterization. "Mr. Fontes has just engaged in total fiction, the creation of something that did not exist," he said. "I was interviewed by the (Department of Justice) and the (January 6) commission as a witness. ... For him to assert I was part of a criminal uprising is absurd and frankly, it is a lie."