Meet the First Election Denier Poised to Win for Secretary of State This Year
The Trump-allied Chuck Gray clinched a contested Republican primary in Wyoming, and is running unopposed in the general election.
Daniel Nichanian | August 19, 2022
Measured by the intensity of the media glare, Tuesday night unquestionably belonged to Liz Cheney’s bid for political survival, as the conservative Republican with the dynastic name fell in a race defined by her vote to impeach Donald Trump and her role in the investigations into the Jan. 6 insurrection. But Trump’s allies clinched another milestone on election night.
Chuck Gray, a Wyoming lawmaker, became the first election denier running in 2022 to effectively secure promotion to secretary of state, the chief office that oversees elections in the state.
Boosted by Trump’s endorsement, Gray prevailed in a competitive GOP primary to replace retiring incumbent Ed Buchanan; he beat fellow lawmaker Tara Nethercott 50 to 41 percent. His path forward is unobstructed since he is running unopposed in the general election. There will be no Democrat on the November ballot; an independent candidate has until Aug. 29 to jump in. (Update Aug. 30: The election division told Bolts that no independent filed by the deadline.) Someone could also mount an uphill write-in bid.
Gray’s win in the smallest state in the union comes as politicians similarly aligned with Trump’s lies about the 2020 presidential race are advancing toward these critical election offices all around the country, including in critical swing states like Arizona, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.
Already, sitting GOP secretaries of state who have ostensibly stayed away from the lie that the 2020 election was stolen have nevertheless trumpeted vague and baseless claims of widespread voter fraud to push for new voting restrictions.
Gray has outright called the 2020 presidential election “clearly rigged” and has echoed Trump’s specific lies about the race. He has developed relationships with like-minded Republicans elsewhere in the country who are pushing to audit results. He traveled to Arizona last year to observe an audit ordered by state Republicans—the operation ended up uncovering no major problems—and he has sought to bring that approach to Wyoming, a state dominated by Republicans that Trump won by 43 percentage points in 2020.
Gray also proposed legislation last year to empower the state’s department of audit to audit election results, but his fellow Republican lawmakers rejected the bill last year, faulting him for disparaging the work of local election officials.
Nethercott, Gray’s primary opponent, strongly rejected his statements about the 2020 election during the campaign, stressing that they have no objective basis.
“I called out my opponent for his rhetoric alleging that Wyoming’s election process has fraud in it, when there is absolutely no evidence of that,” Nethercott told Bolts on Thursday. “That kind of rhetoric just continues to serve to undermine the integrity of our elections, and therefore undermines democracy.”
Gray did not reply to requests for comment from Bolts.
Gray has focused his ire on ballot drop boxes, a secure method for voters to return absentee ballots in designated areas ahead of Election Day that was used sparingly in some Wyoming counties in 2020. During the campaign, Gray organized screenings of the widely–debunked film “2000 Mules,” which falsely blames ballot drop boxes for skewing the 2020 race. Gray says the movie shows “how the woke, big tech left has stolen elections with ballot drop boxes.”
In Wyoming counties that have made use of drop boxes in the past, local officials have said the practice was helpful to boost voting access, especially during a pandemic. But Gray wants to ban ballot drop boxes going forward. An outright ban would demand an intervention from the legislature, and it is largely up to county clerk offices whether to use them, but the secretary of state’s office is in a position to influence local officials; Nethercott stressed that county clerks had collaborated with the secretary of state’s office to set these up in 2020, and that Gray’s approach may chill future decisions.
Nethercott takes issue with Gray for raising false alarms about how local officials are handling elections. “I will continue to reinforce the confidence of Wyoming voters in our election system here in Wyoming through whatever voice I can and continue to support our 23 county clerks in Wyoming that administer our elections because I trust in their diligence ensuring we have that election integrity,” she said. “In Wyoming, particularly, due to our rural nature, our local county clerks know how to administer those elections best to their constituents.”
Local elections officials have faced targeted harassment since the 2020 election. All employees of the elections office of a staunchly red county in Texas resigned this week, citing threats. The use of ballot drop boxes has also grown into an issue in county clerk races around the country.
Gray joined the legislature in 2017, and he has been a staunch conservative ever since on a wide range of issues, including fighting abortion access. But many of his legislative proposals have revolved around voting procedures. Besides his failed legislative proposal to audit elections, he was the lead sponsor of a voter ID law adopted in 2021.
Gray routinely deploys innocuous-sounding praise for election security to say he is motivated by defending democracy, even as he champions limiting voting options and even as extensive investigations show the depths of his allies’ antidemocratic maneuvers. “Election integrity has been and will continue to be my top priority because without free and fair elections, nothing else in government that we do will matter because the will of the voters will be thwarted,” says his website. He has long used such rhetoric. “We should also want to make sure that these elections are run fairly,” he wrote in his 2011 column for the college paper The Daily Pennsylvanian. “One of the first steps in the decline of a democracy is the compromising of free and fair elections.” The column, which invited readers to support a GOP candidate in a local race in Philadelphia, alludes to allegations of voter intimidation and illegal electioneering in the Democratic city.
Meanwhile, Gray has associated with Republicans, including Trump, who have actively plotted to overturn results. During his trip to observe what he called Arizona’s “incredible” audit, Gray trumpeted his meeting with Sonny Borrelly, a Republican state Senator who participated in “Stop the Steal” efforts to hand over Arizona’s electoral efforts to Trump despite Joe Biden’s victory in the state, including endorsing a list of fake electors that sought to overturn the will of the voters.
Gray also faces a federal complaint, filed this month by Max Manfield, who served as Wyoming’s GOP secretary of state between 2007 and 2015, alleging that he filed fraudulent disclosures about the origin of his campaign funds while he briefly ran for Congress last year. Gray has responded that the complaint is “frivolous” and mounted by “liberal insiders.”
Heading into the 2022 midterms, proponents of Trump’s Big Lie created networks of candidates looking to take over secretary of state offices nationwide to assume more power over elections systems. Many who have run on these views have lost in Republican primaries, including in three states that border Wyoming: Idaho and Nebraska in May, and Colorado in June.
But many, like Gray, have been successful in grabbing the Republican nomination. The GOP nominees for secretary of state in at least Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, and New Mexico have denied the results of the 2020 election. The party’s nominee for governor in Pennsylvania, who will have the power to appoint a secretary of state if he wins, is a fervent election denier. And Republican candidates elsewhere, including in blue-leaning Connecticut and Vermont, have also voiced similar views.
Wyoming is rarely on the radar of these conversations given its size. Since he faces no opponent, Gray is the first election denier to be virtually guaranteed that he will win a state elections office in November. And the arrival of even one such candidate to power could help Trump allies sow further doubt about the integrity of elections by transforming an institution charged with running them into a relay for the former president’s lies.
“What happens here is certainly an example to the rest of the nation for where the country is going, and how we get caught up in perceived fears that aren’t relevant to our own communities, based on the rhetoric that we’re constantly hearing,” Nethercott told Bolts. “And it’s important, I think, to disengage from some of that rhetoric.”