“BELIEVE”. The word is written in large blue letters above the door of Adrian Fontes’s campaign office in Scottsdale, Arizona, a replica of Ted Lasso’s motivational sign from the hit TV show featuring an American football coach thrown into the bear pit of the English Premier League.
“It speaks to me,” Fontes explained. “It says that ‘You can do it’ is a question of faith.”
Then there’s the sign on the other side of the door. Pinned discreetly to the back, where few visitors get to see it, is a printed notice that says: “Adrian, don’t fuck it up!”
If the “BELIEVE” sign speaks to Fontes, then the F-sign – created by his campaign chair – should speak to millions of other Americans. They may not know it yet, but their future as citizens of one of the world’s oldest democracies could depend on it.
At least that’s how Fontes sees the upcoming midterm election in which he is standing for statewide office. Asked what is at stake on 8 November, what hangs upon him not F-ing it up, he replied: “Literally the fate of the republic, and the free world too if you accept that America is still its leader. We are potentially looking at the democracy that upholds the United States of America no longer functioning.”
That may sound hyperbolic, especially as the position for which he is running, secretary of state, is relatively obscure and in normal times would barely get a mention outside Arizona. But these are not normal times, and Fontes’s race is attracting international attention.
The cause for such high-decibel concern is his opponent. Mark Finchem, an extremist dressed in cowboy’s clothing, is the epitome of the Donald Trump-adulating election denier.
An Arizona lawmaker endorsed by Trump, Finchem is arguably the most radical of the 12 Republican secretary of state candidates who have disputed Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election. He has tried to decertify the 2020 election results in three key Arizona counties, and supported the convening of a slate of fake electors for Trump in an effort to subvert the outcome.
He was once a member of the far-right Oath Keepers militia. He was also present at the US Capitol during the January 6 attack in 2021 – an insurrection that he prefers to call a “kerfuffle”.
Were he to win in November, Finchem would become Arizona’s top election official. The nuts and bolts of election administration – including the levers that control presidential elections – would fall into his hands.
Finchem is careful to present himself as a public servant who faithfully applies the law. In a recent interview with CBS News, he said his goal was “to make sure that we have secure, fair, open and transparent elections”.
But to his own people he shows another side of himself, one with fundamentally anti-democratic motivations. In a fundraising email sent out at the start of the campaign last year, he told his supporters that were he to become secretary of state he would “make sure that Arizona is the Red State it REALLY is!”
Fontes responded heatedly to Finchem’s provocations in his Guardian interview. “The sheer audacity to come right out and say, ‘We’re going to fix the election, no matter what any of you think’ – that’s absolutely un-American. It’s anti-American.”
The most chilling prospect of a Finchem victory relates to the 2024 presidential election in which Trump may stand again. In such an evenly divided state as Arizona, which Biden won by 10,457 votes in 2020, an election denier ensconced as the top election official would have plenty of opportunity for mischief.
Fontes said that he has wargamed what might happen in 2024. The nuclear scenario would involve Biden, or his Democratic replacement, winning the state again by a narrow margin, with Arizona’s 11 electoral college votes sufficient to tip that candidate over the 270 needed to defeat Trump and take the White House.
“Mark Finchem doesn’t want that to happen,” Fontes said. “So he doesn’t certify the election.”
Congress at that point would be presented with a predicament: the magic 270 threshold would not have been reached, and there would be no winner.
An exceptional election would then take place in which each state delegation to Congress would get a single vote – Montana (population 1 million) wielding the same power as California (39 million). As there are more majority-Republican state delegations in Congress than majority-Democratic delegations, Trump would make an incendiary return to the White House.
“All of a sudden, we don’t have a president elected by the people. We have an American president appointed by Congress. That’s real,” Fontes said, animated.
“That’s why this election in November could be the last regular election in American history. We are on the edge. We are on a precipice. That is how fascism takes away democracy. That’s how totalitarianism wins.”
Fascism. Totalitarianism. These are strong words. Would he apply them directly to his opponent?
“Mark Finchem is a fascist,” Fontes said without hesitation. “Look, call it like you see it – this guy’s a fascist. He believes he knows better than everybody else, that we should not have free and fair elections. He’s willing to sell his country out from underneath his own feet.”
The Guardian invited Finchem to respond to the charge, but he did not respond.
If you accept Fontes’s hypothesis as a genuine possibility – and a growing number of political analysts, Democratic leaders and moderate conservatives do – then the weight of America’s future now falls on his shoulders. He must defeat Finchem or the US will take one giant leap toward self-destruction.
Given that burden, Fontes’s campaign office is remarkably humble. It sits amid a collection of low-rise office buildings in the suburbs outside Phoenix, Arizona’s sprawling capital, surrounded by scrubby cactus desert.
The space is sparsely furnished and unnervingly low-key. There are stacks of lawn signs piled up in corners exhorting voters to “Protect democracy – elect Fontes secretary of state”. The flag of the US Marine Corps, in which the candidate served for four years in the 1990s, is pinned to a wall alongside certificates affirming his qualifications as an election administrator.
Then there is Fontes himself. A lawyer and former prosecutor, he presents himself as the calm, rational antithesis to Finchem’s tub-thumping, conspiracy theory-peddling politics.
The contrast in tone between the two candidates was driven home at an online town hall that Fontes held on his laptop on the afternoon of the Guardian’s visit. A participant introduced herself as an 80-year-old African American named Lisa.
“I can see what is happening in this country,” she said. “I can hear the anger in the voices of Republicans. But I don’t hear the same urgency from the Democrats. How are you going to get the urgent message that we are losing our democracy to all the people of Arizona?”
Fontes replied: “The urgency that I have isn’t emotional, it’s intellectual, steeped in solid planning and execution. I learned that in the Marine Corps: have a cool hand, an open heart and a plan. You’re not going to see me jumping up and down and getting into Twitter fights – that’s not my style.”
It’s not clear whether his answer assuaged someone who clearly felt the country was closing in on her. As a politician’s address, it came across as strangely bloodless.
The other strange thing about Fontes as the person vested with saving US democracy is that he has only stood in two previous elections, one of which he lost. His first campaign was in 2016, when he secured the post of recorder of Maricopa county; he then stood for re-election in 2020 but was narrowly ousted.
In his four years as Maricopa county recorder he oversaw aspects of elections in Arizona’s largest constituency, which encompasses 60% of all voters in the state. The role threw him into the white-hot center of Trump’s efforts to overturn the Arizona presidential result, replete with “Stop the Steal” protests and conspiracy-fueled “audits”.
The furor rocketed Fontes from being a relative unknown to the winner of the Democratic primary in August, to one of the most closely watched candidates in the country. “I’ve never been a statewide candidate before, I don’t have that experience,” he said.
“But then, Arizona has never been in this situation before, with democracy on the ballot, and nor has the United States. So this is a first for everyone, and I guess what we’re doing is the best that we can – sort of like a new parent.”
If Fontes’s perception of himself as a struggling new parent may not be entirely confidence-inducing, then the opinion polls don’t help much either. A recent CNN survey had Finchem leading Fontes by 49% to 45%.
Asked about the poll, Fontes said his campaign’s own private polling suggests that the race is indeed very close but that he is in the lead. “I’m pretty sure we’re winning. The one thing I absolutely know for sure is that we are out-campaigning Finchem, on the street, on the airwaves, on billboards,” he said.
Financially, the news is more cheerful for Fontes, who has enjoyed a recent surge. The Democrat has now brought in a total of $2.4m to his opponent’s $1.8m, according to Arizona records.
In the last quarter, Fontes attracted $1.7m in donations – a huge sum for such a traditionally low-profile race – compared with $592,000 for Finchem. Democratic groups are planning to pile in with further massive spending.
“It would have been nice if they’d shown up a little while ago, you know,” Fontes said. “But slowly, but surely, people are taking notice.”
Reinforcements are also arriving in the unlikely form of prominent Republicans. Liz Cheney, the US senator for Wyoming who as co-chair of the January 6 committee has become a thorn in Trump’s side, has called on fellow conservatives in Arizona to vote for the Democratic candidate.
Cheney said it was important to ensure that Fontes was elected – and Finchem thwarted – “for the future functioning of our constitutional republic”.
Adam Kinzinger, the other Republican on the January 6 committee, has also added his name to a coalition of more than 30 Republicans and independents backing the Democratic candidate in a rare outpouring of bipartisanship.
“I’m a Democrat, backed by Republicans and independents – that’s an important message in a state like Arizona,” Fontes said.
It is an unconventional approach to campaigning in these heavily polarized times. But just as Fontes is delighted to accept the support of anti-Trump Republicans, he is unabashed about breaking with what he sees as Democratic shibboleths.
“Democrats tend to react to things – when somebody says something, they say the opposite. That’s just dumb, and ill-advised,” he said.
Instead, Fontes, a Mexican American, presents himself consciously as a patriotic former marine who cannot easily be wedged into political party pigeonholes. “I use words like ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ and ‘patriotism’. I talk about baseball and apple pie, because that’s real to me. That’s my America. When I see people waving the flag, I feel pride. At my campaign gatherings I put up lots of bunting. I don’t want Finchem and those SOBs stealing my country’s symbolism from me.”
With two weeks to go before the election, there is a lot riding on Fontes’s belief that his version of American patriotism is stronger than Finchem’s. That the “respect and decency” which he said informs his politics will prove more attractive than his opponent’s “hateful yelling”.
Does he ever contemplate the possibility of defeat on 8 November, with all its devastating ramifications?
“Well, you have to. You run to win, but you prepare for the alternative,” he said.
For Fontes to say that he is preparing in his own mind for the possibility of losing is another less than confidence-inducing moment. But in the last analysis, Fontes said he remains determined to “kick Finchem’s ass in November – that’s how we stop him”.
We are back to the Ted Lasso sign: “BELIEVE.”
“There are more of us,” Fontes said. “In the end, the people will decide, and there are more of us. I have to have faith in my fellow countrymen. That’s what this country is all about.”