June 9, 2022

A coalition of far-right “stop the steal” Republicans is working to put Trump loyalists in charge of elections across the U.S. At its helm is a shadowy QAnon influencer who some segments of the conspiracy theory believe to be the late John F. Kennedy Jr.

The America First Secretary of State Coalition includes more than a dozen Republican candidates for secretary of state and other positions with purview over elections, including in battleground states such as Nevada, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Arizona. The candidates say they don’t believe that President Joe Biden won the 2020 election. And at least some have demonstrated strong enough support to be competitive in their races to control elections.

Four of the group’s candidates are endorsed by former President Donald Trump. They include Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, who already won his primary. Another, Michigan’s Kristina Karamo, also got the nod from her state’s Republican Party to be its secretary of state nominee this November. A third, Mark Finchem, has raised about $900,000 in his effort to be Arizona’s next secretary of state.

“We definitely can’t write these candidates off as fringe candidates,” said Joanna Lydgate, CEO of States United Action, which is tracking election deniers running for statewide office. “There is a real cause for concern right now. People need to pay attention.”

The emergence of the coalition underscores the sticking power of Trump’s unfounded allegations that the 2020 election was fraudulent and “stolen.” It illustrates the growing influence within the Republican Party of a conspiracy movement that helped fuel an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and numerous other incidents of violence and extremism.

It also threatens to transform the often obscure, largely bureaucratic offices that administer elections — the very agencies that resisted Trump’s attempts to reverse his loss in 2020.

PolitiFact reviewed more than 30 hours of video featuring the cowboy boot-wearing QAnon promoter who claims to be organizing the coalition. He appears under the alias of “Juan O Savin.” We also reviewed interviews and other public statements from the group’s candidates.

Their comments reveal a coordinated push to drastically change how Americans vote — a potential overhaul of voter registration lists, early voting and other mainstays of the democratic process, based in large part on conspiracy theories. The far-reaching changes that the various America First candidates have proposed include eliminating early voting; wiping out existing voter registration lists; pulling states out of a successful information-sharing program that helps them remove ineligible voters from their voter rolls; and getting rid of electronic voting machines.

Mike Rothschild, author of the book “The Storm Is Upon Us: How QAnon Became a Movement, Cult, and Conspiracy Theory of Everything,” said the coalition’s QAnon connection signifies “the Q movement is becoming more mainstream, more focused on actually changing the outcomes of elections, and not waiting around for mass arrests anymore.”

“If this group succeeds in getting potentially insurrectionist secretaries of state installed, it could have terrible consequences for democracy,” Rothschild said.

A Qanon supporter marches on the route to the Supreme Court during the Million MAGA March protest on Nov. 14, 2020 in Washington, D.C. (Chris Tuite/imageSPACE/MediaPunch /IPX)

Juan O Savin’s real-life collaboration with secretary of state candidates was the subject of scattered news reports over the last year. The Daily Beast has reported extensively on his background. But in a number of videos posted since the America First coalition took shape in May 2021, Juan O Savin and some of the participating candidates have shared more details about his involvement in what he has referred to as “our coalition,” “our group,” and a “project” that he “helped put together.

The coalition is, in Juan O Savin’s words, focused on “looking at how we’re going to get to a lawful election this next time around, and get to the right result … how are we going to coordinate between the various states to get the right outcome?”

It’s likely a first: A pseudonymous persona with a strange-sounding alias is organizing actual political campaigns across the country to elect candidates that will make real-world changes to American voting laws.

The origins of the coalition

The day after the 2020 election, Jim Marchant had just settled into a suite across the hall from Trump attorneys and allies at the Venetian Las Vegas hotel. Election results showed he was losing his Nevada congressional campaign to a Democrat, a contest he would soon falsely claim was stolen and challenge unsuccessfully in court.

“And guess who showed up at my suite? It will blow you away,” Marchant recounted on Oct. 25, 2021. “Juan O Savin.”

In Marchant’s retelling — delivered during the Patriot Double Down conference hosted at a Trump supporter’s Las Vegas hotel and organized by another QAnon influencer — he and Juan O Savin got to work “trying to expose the fraudulent election.” But Juan O Savin and people who Marchant described as “other President Trump allies” also pitched him on a more forward-looking plan.

Instead of vying for Congress again in 2022, Marchant would run for secretary of state and recruit others to do the same elsewhere. The Nevada seat was one that Marchant and Juan O Savin baselessly claimed had been used to rig state elections under a plot hatched by a “cabal” that included billionaire Geoge Soros. (Soros was involved in a project focused on electing Democrats to secretary of state seats between 2006 and 2010, but there’s no evidence the initiative led to fraud. Nevada’s secretary of state is a Republican.)

“Not only did they ask me to run, they asked me to put together a coalition of other like-minded secretary of state candidates,” Marchant said during the conference. “So I got to work, Juan O Savin helped, and we formed a coalition.”

Juan O Savin was so instrumental that Marchant summed up what he called the team’s “plan A” in two words: “See Juan.”

Juan O Savin was one of about 50 people who attended or dialed in remotely to the May 1, 2021, inaugural meeting of prospective coalition candidates.

The coalition’s website, set up in January, says four of the group’s candidates were there: Karamo, Finchem, Rachel Hamm of California, and U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, R-Georgia, who got Trump’s endorsement but lost the GOP’s primary election to the incumbent secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger.

Marchant named more pro-Trump figures who were there from the start: MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, a Trump donor who promoted election falsehoods and filed numerous failed lawsuits alleging fraud; Jim and Joe Hoft with the Gateway Pundit, a website that has published false news stories about the election; and Patrick Byrne, the former CEO of the internet retailer Overstock.com, who donated millions to the Cyber Ninjas firm that conducted the Republican-led review of votes in Arizona’s Maricopa County.

“I started with Jim Marchant here in Nevada, who has then taken a primary role in this coalition as other candidates have come in, going out around the country and helping vet that we got the right players that are inside the coalition,” Juan O Savin told QAnon promoter and former boxer David Niño Rodriguez, who calls him “Juanito,” in an April interview on Rodriguez’s show.

Juan O Savin told Rodriguez that the secretary of state position is the office with the control to “cook the vote.”

“We are working hard to get a leveraged position in the most important place of all,” Juan O Savin said a month later.

The coalition has grown to include 15 website-listed candidates, although Juan O Savin has claimed in multiple interviews that the number is up to 19 or 20. In June, he estimated that they had about “24 states represented.” The group also set up a PAC, which raised about $98,000 as of April.

The group infrastructure helps the candidates share “best practices” and sound “early alarms” over what they perceive to be voter irregularities in their states, said Allen Whitt, a spokesperson for Tina Peters, the coalition’s recently indicted candidate running in Colorado. They hold weekly meetings with each other. They have hosted a dozen events around the country centered around sowing doubts about the 2020 election. And they hope the coalition provides a model for 2024.

Juan O Savin has recounted in various videos how he helped arrange events for the candidates, spoke with Marchant “about what kind of office would make sense” and then “privately numerous times,” spent a weekend with Hamm and her husband, and had dinner with Peters and her campaign manager.

South Carolina Secretary of State candidate Keith Blandford told Juan O Savin during a May interview that his leadership was pivotal. “Everybody was really frightened after Nov. 3,” said Blandford. “You were the one that provided us some light in this tunnel.”

“I am so proud to be in the foxhole with you,” Blandford said.

How Juan O Savin became the coalition’s ‘plan A’

Before he became Marchant’s “plan A,” Juan O Savin built a brand within the QAnon conspiracy movement. QAnon grew out of an anonymous internet persona’s posts on far-right message boards starting in 2017 and coalesced around beliefs that a cabal of elite Satanic pedophiles is running a global sex trafficking ring that Trump was tapped by the military to defeat.

The moniker, “Juan O Savin,” is a phonetic play on the number 107. It may be a nod to the seventeenth letter in the alphabet, Q, or to gematria, a form of numerology often cited by QAnon adherents. “When you see 107, drop the zero,” Savin said in April.

Factions of the movement believe Juan O Savin is actually the late John F. Kennedy Jr., who died in a plane crash in 1999, while others believe that Juan O Savin is a grifter and that the Kennedy myth makes the movement look bad, according to researchers who follow QAnon.

The delusion that Kennedy faked his own death has hardened into gospel in some QAnon circles. It’s become so popular that multiple influencers have been rumored to be Kennedy in disguise, and a group unrelated to Juan O Savin camped out in Dallas to await his return to life — even after “Q,” the anonymous poster behind the movement, explicitly said Kennedy is not alive.

But Juan O Savin’s appeal also hinges on the mystique he’s created as a QAnon insider. He revealed himself at the Patriot Double Down conference in October, rolling up in a red Aston Martin and entering the conference to cheers as Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” played in the room. Until then, Juan O Savin took care to conceal his identity.

He typically records interviews without showing his face, with the camera instead aimed out the window, at his boots or at the steering wheel while he drives. On at least one occasion, however, he accidentally showed his face, giving online sleuths a window to dig up more information about him.

Those sleuths, along with reporters from Vice and the Daily Beast, have reported that Juan O Savin’s real name is Wayne Willott, a private investigator from Washington state who court documents show was involved with insurance investigations in Alaska as of 2009.

blurb beside Savin’s book on the website EBooksStore says the book is a “transcript of speeches by Wayne Willott, using his nom de plume Juan O Savin.”

2015 lawsuit filed against radio host Douglas Hagmann and other people in Hagmann’s orbit made repeated references to a Wayne Willott, revealing that Willott had frequently appeared on Hagmann’s show in the years before QAnon under another alias, “W the Intelligence Insider.” W the Intelligence Insider’s voice in those radio segments sounds similar to Savin’s, and the Daily Beast reported that Hagmann also interviewed Willott under the “Juan O Savin” alias.

PolitiFact found other indicators connecting the two personas, as well.

According to Rothschild, the QAnon expert, Juan O Savin’s entry into QAnon influencer status started with his minor involvement with a group called “E-Clause,” which sprung out of outlandish claims that state Child Protective Services agencies were stealing children and forcing them into slavery. Around 2019, Savin began appearing on an online show that promoted such claims, and he played a small role in the case of a QAnon follower who planned to raid her child’s foster home and then fled law enforcement.

Juan O Savin’s celebrity within the QAnon community has grown since.

At the Patriot Double Down conference in October, he appeared on stage with “The Passion of the Christ” actor Jim Caviezel. He has recorded conversations with comedian Roseanne Barr, one of the earliest celebrities to embrace QAnon, and anti-vaccine advocate Sherri Tenpenny, a top spreader of COVID-19 misinformation. He also claims to have spent time with an unnamed senator, an unnamed Supreme Court justice, and the son of a legendary boxer.

In his conversations with Rodriguez and other QAnon personalities, Juan O Savin references the Bible, riffs about near-death experiences, asserts baseless claims of a stolen election and prophesizes about the takedown of the pedophilic cabal that was promised under QAnon’s mythology.

According to Juan O Savin’s recorded statements, he believes that the military views the 2020 election as stolen and is still recognizing Trump as the commander in chief. COVID-19 is a myth, the pandemic was planned, and the vaccines contain snake venom. Mark Zuckerberg is a “deep state” figurehead, not the inventor of Facebook. Globalists are working to depopulate the nation as part of a plot inscribed on a set of stones in the state of Georgia. The Statue of Liberty and the Washington Monument are secret tributes to the Egyptian god of the underworld. And Trump was sending coded messages as president via semaphore, a method of visual signaling that was used before the invention of the telegraph, by embedding them in the patterns of former first lady Melania Trump’s dresses.

Some of Juan O Savin’s ideas appear to have been taken up by some of the America First candidates — and especially by Hamm, a YouTube host and author before she entered politics.

Hamm says she was inspired to run for office after Jesus Christ appeared before her son at her home; she’s also claimed that California really went for Trump in a “landslide” in 2020, echoing Juan O Savin’s false belief that the deeply blue state is actually conservative but overridden by fraud.

After Juan O Savin told the crowd at Patriot Double Down in October that “a court in Gitmo” could be used for those who upheld the 2020 election outcome, Hamm two days later echoed his words.

“Remember, Juan told us the other night that if we can’t get justice through our courts, he has built another one,” Hamm said, speaking on a Patriot Double Down panel with Marchant, Karamo and Finchem. “Remember? He said that the other night. We built one in Gitmo, he said.”

Who are the candidates?

Once an out-of-the-way job that kept the democratic process moving, the secretary of state position took on a heightened importance in 2020, when Raffensperger and others faced pressure from Trump to overturn their states’ results on his behalf.

Now, the America First coalition’s effort to replace those seats with candidates who refuse to accept the reality of the 2020 election has democracy scholars and QAnon watchers who have followed Savin worried that they could thwart the will of the voters in 2024 and beyond. Several of the candidates have themselves invoked QAnon rhetoric in recent years.

In the battleground states, the candidates are:

  • Marchant, who has said he’s running to “overhaul the fraudulent election system” and would not have certified the 2020 election for Biden.
  • Trump-endorsed Karamo, who earned name recognition after claiming to have witnessed irregularities in the absentee ballot count in Detroit.
  • Mastriano, a retired Army colonel and Pennsylvania state senator who sought to halt the certification of the 2020 election and arranged buses to transport Trump supporters to Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. As governor, Mastriano would have the power to appoint a secretary of state, and his platform calls for eliminating no-excuse mail voting and ballot drop boxes.
  • Finchem, an Arizona state representative who also secured a Trump endorsement after authoring unsuccessful bills that furthered the former president’s myths about voter fraud, including a resolution to decertify the election to get rid of early voting. Finchem was outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and has identified himself as a member of the far-right Oath Keepers militia group.

Candidates running in non-battleground states include Hamm in California; Peters in Colorado; Blandford in South Carolina; Audrey Trujillo in New Mexico; Diego Morales in Indiana; Mike Brown in Kansas; Jim Ziegler in Alabama; and Dante Sabatucci, who is running for Congress in Ohio. The coalition also featured Hice, Dorothy Moon in Idaho and Robert Borer in Nebraska, each of whom has already lost their state’s primary. (Hice denied affiliation with the coalition in a statement to Vice.)

The group previously included David Winney, who stepped aside in Colorado when Peters jumped in the race and who consulted with Savin regarding the decision to drop out. Savin has also repeatedly mentioned Nevada gubernatorial candidate Joey Gilbert, attorney general Sigal Chattah and U.S. Senate candidate Sam Brown as candidates he is involved with.

“What we are seeing right now is this coordinated effort to undermine the integrity of the system, to run candidates who are election deniers,” said Lydgate, the CEO of States United Action. “This is not business as usual.”

PolitiFact researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. PolitiFact video producer and editor Jillian Banner contributed to video editing.

This article was originally published by PolitiFact, which is part of the Poynter Institute. It is republished here with permission. See the sources here and more of their fact checks here.

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Bill McCarthy is a staff writer for PolitiFact and PunditFact. Previously, he worked as a reporter for PolitiFact North Carolina, and before that as an…
Bill McCarthy

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