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Experts alarmed by GOP secretary of state candidate’s conspiracy theorizing in N.M.

In this Jan. 6, 2021, file photo, supporters of then President Donald Trump climb the west wall of the U.S. Capitol in Washington. Jose Luis Magana/The Associated Press)
Audrey Trujillo falsely claims the 2020 election was stolen

Audrey Trujillo, the Republican candidate for New Mexico Secretary of State, appeared on Steve Bannon’s podcast in June to explain why she’s convinced former President Donald Trump won the 2020 election.

“Somebody asked me, ‘How do you know Trump won New Mexico?’ and I’m like, ‘We didn’t see Biden signs anywhere,’ ” Trujillo told Bannon, podcast host and former Trump adviser, who is awaiting sentencing on a federal conviction for contempt of Congress and separately facing charges of fraud, money laundering and conspiracy in New York State.

“We saw Trump signs,” Trujillo said. “We saw huge convoys. We had so many people that were so excited to see Trump continue in his presidency.”

Trujillo has embraced a wide range of conspiracy theories, including that President Joe Biden has been replaced by a clone and that school shootings are carried out by a shadowy “deep state” in order to push gun control on the American public. Last year, her social media account shared an antisemitic meme insinuating a Jewish conspiracy to push COVID-19 vaccines on the public. She told the Albuquerque Journal her account was hacked before switching gears and claiming she may have shared the image but didn’t have any “racist intent.”

She’s also a regular guest on the conspiracy podcast “Spoken Words in New Mexico,” telling host Jordilynn Ortiz in August that legalized abortion is a plot against Black and Hispanic communities.

“Look at the people who support BLM. They’re the same people that support abortion,” Trujillo said. “And they don’t realize, the whole point of those Planned Parenthoods was to put ‘em in those areas where we had the Black population, where we had, you know, Hispanics. To kill our babies!”

Only 6% of Planned Parenthoods are located in majority-Black areas, and abortion bans disproportionately harm people of color, according to doctors, researchers and advocates.

Despite her numerous false claims, 33% of voters in New Mexico say they would cast their ballots for her, according to recent polling by the Albuquerque Journal. Still, she trails incumbent Democrat Maggie Toulouse Oliver by a wide margin, with 45% of likely voters favoring Toulouse Oliver. Trujillo is also far behind on fundraising, with only $63,852 in her campaign coffers compared to $466,231 raised by Toulouse Oliver.

Despite the seemingly long election odds, Trujillo has gained a measure of national influence through her prolific use of social media and alliance with major far-right figures like Bannon. She is a member of a national alliance of election-denying candidates vying to become their state’s top elections administrator called the “America First SOS Coalition.” She’s slated to appear at the Ruidoso Convention Center on Oct. 7 along with major national conspiracy figures Mike Lindell, Joe Oltmann and Seth Keshel.

Trujillo ran unopposed in the N.M. primary for the party nomination, but very little of her campaign’s financial support has come from Republican Party PACs, with only $2,700 total PAC contributions to Trujillo over the course of the election cycle.

Mike Curtis, communications director for the Republican Party of New Mexico, declined to answer questions about the party’s support for Trujillo, responding only that Source New Mexico should direct questions to Trujillo’s campaign. A recent email flyer circulated by the party advertised a meet-and-greet with Trujillo in Mesilla, though the flyer noted Trujillo’s own campaign was paying for the event.

According to Bret Schafer of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a nonpartisan think tank that works to combat authoritarian attacks on democracies worldwide, Trujillo consistently ranks among the top three most influential Secretary of State candidates on social media nationwide. The group maintains a tool, the Midterm Monitor, for tracking political candidates’ reactions and follows on various social media platforms.

Schafer said it’s impossible to tell whether the reactions to Trujillo’s social media are driven by supporters, opponents or simply by “morbid curiosity.”

“I guess if you’re taking the glass-half-empty approach, it would be that there is significant public interest in the platforms of election deniers,” he said. “If you were taking a more optimistic view, it would be that this is also on the radar of the public in general to push back.”

Schafer said secretary of state positions are among the most critical elected offices, since the winner gains direct influence over the voting process.

“Being an election denier inherently suggests that you are partisan in your leanings and have at least engaged with, on some level, conspiracy theories,” he said. “And this is not just a problem of narrative. You’re seeing in some cases that decisions are being made, laws are being changed.”

Schafer pointed to the example of Nye County, Nevada, where the county commission voted to hand count all ballots, using debunked conspiracy theories about voting machines as a rationale. Republican Nye County Clerk Sandra Merlino warned commissioners that hand counting is less accurate than machine tabulators and risks introducing confusion into the process, before resigning in frustration after the commission ignored her warnings.

David Armiak, of the progressive watchdog group Center for Media and Democracy, warned of the dangers of electing conspiracy theorists in even starker terms.

“We’re in deep trouble for democracy, because if this group comes in power, they could potentially be in power continuously” by changing election rules to ensure their own reelection, he said. “So that’s moving us toward authoritarianism or fascism.”

Rachel Orey, associate director of the Elections Project at Washington, D.C.-based think tank the Bipartisan Policy Center, said the two major risks of election deniers taking secretary of state positions are that they could potentially disrupt election processes, and that they could undermine public confidence in elections.

“When you have the spokespeople for elections in a state not believing the results of the election … it’s going to further the fracturing of the American public,” she said. “I could absolutely see another Jan. 6 happening at the state level. I hope that does not come to fruition, but it is on the table.”

Trujillo has been endorsed by David and Erin Clements, who have played a major role in sowing discord and disrupting elections in New Mexico, and were named by NPR as some of the most influential election deniers in the country. David Clements claimed to have met with Trujillo in July, and Trujillo has repeatedly shared posts by the Clements on social media.

David and Erin Clements were the masterminds behind a statewide push for county commissions to refuse certification of the June 7 primary elections. Commissioners in at least three counties acting on the Clements’ advice voted against certification, though all counties eventually certified the results. Trujillo posted a message to Facebook days after the election urging county commissioners to vote against certification. In Otero County, the New Mexico Supreme Court had to step in and order the commission to certify the elections.

Trujillo did not respond to emailed requests for comment for this story. David and Erin Clements declined to comment.

Alex Curtas, a spokesperson for the Secretary of State’s Office in New Mexico, said he thinks it’s unlikely that election deniers could cause a total breakdown in the state’s electoral system.

“I think our laws, the institutions we have, are really good. And I think they would still hold up, and the way they’re structured would resist even an election denier being in the Secretary of State’s Office,” he said.

Still, he said, a conspiracy theorist taking the reins could cause a lot of damage. He pointed to the example of the Otero County commission’s refusal to certify the primary election results.

“We mobilized very quickly to give as much information as we could to the Otero County clerk, the Otero County attorney … and we had to then take them to court to make sure the Otero County Commission acting as the election board didn’t disenfranchise something like 8,000 voters,” he said. “That scenario … with someone like Audrey Trujillo as Secretary of State would have played out quite different.”