At a press conference ahead of the 2022 election in Arizona, Marlene Galan Woods—a prominent former TV journalist in Phoenix and a onetime member of the state’s Republican elite—described that year’s GOP ticket as a bunch of “election-denying lunatics.”
“Only one party is trying to end democracy,” Woods said. “Only one party is trying to limit who can vote. Only one party embraces antisemitism, racism, and an extreme white nationalist agenda—and it is not the Democrats.”
Last November, Arizona voters awarded a clean sweep to Democrats, including a candidate whose campaign Woods chaired: Adrian Fontes, who defeated hardcore election denier Mark Finchem for the office of secretary of state.
Now officially a Democrat, Woods is making her former party’s assault on elections a focal point of her 2024 campaign against Rep. David Schweikert (R), who represents a battleground congressional district in the Phoenix area.
But tucked inside Woods’ first federal campaign finance report is a detail that complicates her pro-democracy bona fides: one of her most generous supporters is the attorney who led the Trump-fueled legal challenges to the 2020 election result in Arizona.
Since November 2020, Dennis Wilenchik and his law firm have represented the Arizona Republican Party and its former chair, Kelli Ward, in two lawsuits which aimed to throw out Joe Biden’s victory and challenge the integrity of Maricopa County’s vote-counting procedure.
While judges quickly shut down these cases—and any threat they posed to the transition of power—Wilenchik and his law firm continued to file appeals related to these lawsuits into this year.
According to Federal Election Commission records, Bonnie Conrad, who is Wilenchik’s fiancée, gave $6,600 to Woods’ campaign, which is twice the federally allowed maximum for a primary election. A note on the line item states that the donation was “reattributed to Conrad and Wilenchik,” indicating that the $6,600 was split into two $3,300 contributions—the maximum allowed for a primary election—from the couple. The Woods campaign did not provide comment as of press time. Wilenchik did not respond to an email seeking comment.
A prominent local attorney and fixture in Arizona GOP circles, Wilenchik likely has a personal connection to Woods. Her late husband, Grant, served two terms as state attorney general in the 1990s and was John McCain’s first congressional chief of staff. Both Grant and Marlene were active in state GOP politics—though Grant was known to support Democrats—until Trump’s rise prompted them to leave the party. Grant died of a heart attack in 2021.
Marlene Woods has referred to herself as a “lifelong Republican.” In this purple district, that long association with the GOP may not be a major obstacle—even in a Democratic primary, given how much the party has gravitated toward anti-Trump voices on the right. A number of active Arizona Republicans have donated to Woods’ campaign, according to FEC records.
But in a crowded Democratic primary field, Woods could find her support from Wilenchik raises serious questions about her commitment to countering election denialism and marginalizing the Republicans who challenged the 2020 outcome and the state’s election system.
The cases handled by Wilenchik and his private law firm, Wilenchik & Bartness, were the most high-profile challenges to the 2020 election in Arizona, where Biden defeated Trump by just around 10,000 votes.
About two weeks after Election Day, Wilenchik was listed as lead counsel for Ward, the controversial far-right former state GOP chair, in a lawsuit challenging the election result. The initial complaint, drafted by Wilenchik’s legal team, demanded the Maricopa County Superior Court declare “the certificate of election of the Biden electors is of no further legal force or effect” and “that the election is annulled and set aside.” Under state law, they had to prove that enough votes were illegally or fraudulently cast to have swayed the outcome.To support that claim, Ward’s lawyers requested she be allowed to personally inspect presidential ballots submitted in Maricopa County. Jack Wilenchik, Dennis’ son and legal partner, told the press that if enough ballot signatures were determined to be flawed, it could lead to the overturning of Biden’s victory.
The court allowed Ward to examine ballots, but it was a pointless exercise. Voter signatures were separated from the actual ballots, so it would be impossible to tell if an objectionable signature was associated with a Trump or Biden vote.
Days after the suit was filed, Maricopa County Judge Randall Warner dismissed Ward’s lawsuit, stating the plaintiff provided insufficient evidence to meet the extraordinary burden of proof to throw out the election result. Wilenchik and his team appealed to the state Supreme Court, where Chief Justice Robert Brutinel dismissed it as well.
“The challenge fails to present any evidence of ‘misconduct,’ ‘illegal votes’ or that the Biden Electors ‘did not in fact receive the highest number of votes for office let alone establish any degree of fraud or a sufficient error rate that would undermine the certainty of the election results,” wrote Brutinel.
In a separate lawsuit, Wilenchik represented the Arizona Republican Party in its demand that Maricopa County redo its process of auditing votes by hand on the grounds that the county had implemented a different kind of voting system than used elsewhere in the state.
Though the initial hand audit had reported 100 percent ballot accuracy, Wilenchik’s firm, on behalf of the Arizona GOP, asserted that the audit redo was necessary in order to maintain “confidence in the integrity of our elections.” If they prevailed, county officials worried the redo would take so much time that it would delay Maricopa County’s official reporting of election results.
At one point, Wilenchik’s team requested an injunction to stop the imminent certification of those votes—critical to the state’s overall certification process—until the legal matter was resolved.
Maricopa County Superior Court Judge John Hannah ruled against the Arizona GOP at every turn. On December 21, he issued a scathing opinion dismissing the suit as foundationally flawed, from its lack of evidence to support any miscounting of votes to the fact that the challenge to voting rules was made after the election and not well before it.
Those moves led Hannah to conclude the state GOP’s challenge was not really about voting rules at all. “The real issue, evidently, was the outcome of the 2020 election,” he wrote.
In a shot at the plaintiff, Hannah wrote that the state’s election rules “remain vital… guarding the electoral process against the gamesmanship of those who might otherwise hedge against a loss at the polls by holding legal issues in reserve or use the law as a tool to thwart the will of the voters.”
While Arizona Republicans’ formal challenges to the 2020 result persisted well into the following year, Wilenchik’s firm continues to represent them in proceedings associated with the initial lawsuits. As of last July, he was still helping the Arizona GOP fight court orders requiring them to pay attorneys’ fees for parties they had sued, including Arizona election officials, after judges found they were “bad faith” suits.
Having practiced law for decades, Wilenchik is a stalwart in Arizona’s legal and Republican communities. Before 2020, his record and résumé has been more in line with the state’s long tradition of center-right Republicans.
According to FEC filings, he has never donated to Trump; in 2022, he contributed to the Senate campaign of former Attorney General Mark Brnovich, who was defeated in the GOP primary by the far more stridently right-wing Blake Masters.
Woods spent much of her career in the same centrist, business-friendly milieu of Arizona Republicans—at least until Trump came along. She has said she and her husband left the GOP after Trump’s election in 2016, though state voting records show she continued to vote as a Republican until the November 2018 general election, when she cast her first ballot as a Democrat.
In a May video announcing her campaign against Schweikert, Woods kept her focus on the Trump-era GOP’s assault on democratic norms.
Schweikert, a former member of the hardline House Freedom Caucus, voted against certifying Pennsylvania’s electoral votes after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. In a tweet linking to the video, Woods called him a “MAGA enabler.”
“When insurrectionists tore through the halls of Congress on January 6th, it shook me to my core,” Woods said in her video. “All the stories I heard growing up about my own parents’ escape from Cuba came flooding back. I could not shake the similarities.”