In Arizona, a Swing State turns to the far right

SIERRA VISTA, Ariz. — Kari Lake has a strategy to get elected in 2022.

Keep talking about 2020.

Minutes into her presentation at the Republican seat in Cochise County, Arizona’s southern suburbs, Ms Lake focused on the presidential election 18 months ago, calling it ‘twisted’ and “corrupt”. She claimed nearly a dozen times in a single hour that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald J. Trump, a lie the public — some of whom wore red hats reading “Trump Won” — was eager to tell. ‘hear. Ms Lake, a former local Fox presenter who won Mr Trump’s endorsement while campaigning to become Arizona’s next governor, sees the 2020 election as a key motivator in her decision to participate in the race.

“We need people with a backbone to stand up for this country – we’ve had our elections stolen from us,” Ms. Lake said in an interview after the Cochise County event in March, adding: “I don’t know if it’s a winning question. , but it’s a winning question when it comes to saving this country.

Republicans in many states are growing weary of the Stop the Steal movement and Mr. Trump’s push to reward Holocaust deniers and punish those who accept President Biden’s victory. At a time when Mr Biden’s approval ratings are plummeting, party leaders are urging candidates to focus on the economy, inflation and other kitchen table issues instead.

But 12 weeks before its Republican primary in August, Arizona is showing how firm Mr. Trump and his electoral conspiracy theories still are at all levels of the party, from local activists to top candidates statewide. . And this week’s victory for JD Vance, the author of “Hillbilly Elegy” who received the former president’s endorsement in the Republican primary for an Ohio Senate seat, shows that loyalty to Trumpism goes far in the battleground states.

Still, some establishment Republicans worry party leaders have gone too far and are effectively handing the tightly divided swing state to Democrats in November.

“Anyone who still challenges 2020 will lose the general election,” said Kathy Petsas, a Republican who served as precinct captain and collected signatures for multiple candidates this year. “I think people back home got it, and I don’t think a lot of our candidates got it.”

Two forces have helped ensure that election denial remains a central issue in Arizona: the Republican-sponsored and widely ridiculed scrutiny of the presidential vote in the state’s largest county, and the continued attacks by Mr. Trump. against Republican Governor Doug Ducey for pushing back on his efforts. to block the certification of the elections. More than three dozen Republican candidates running for office in Arizona — including six running for statewide office — have made denial of the 2020 results a centerpiece of their campaigns, according to two candidate tracking groups, United States Action and Pro-Democracy Republicans. United States United Action is non-partisan; Maricopa County’s top election official, a Republican, launched pro-democracy Republicans earlier this year.

In interviews with more than a dozen voters at Ms Lake’s campaign events, nearly all said ‘election integrity’ was their top issue, and none believed Mr Biden was the legitimate winner. of the presidential election.

“We need strong Republicans to get rid of the RINOs who don’t want to do anything, like our governor,” said Claribeth Davis, 62, using the acronym “Republicans in Name Only” to refer to Mr. Ducey. Ms Davis, a medical aide, said she had recently moved from suburban Phoenix to Sierra Vista in Cochise County, a rural section of southern Arizona, to “be with more like-minded people ideas”.

Numerous courts and reviews have found no evidence of widespread fraud in the 2020 election. The Republican-ordered review by Cyber ​​Ninjas, a now-defunct company with no previous election experience, concluded that it there had actually been even more votes for Mr. Biden and even fewer for Mr. Trump in Maricopa County. The County Board of Supervisors has refuted nearly all of the group’s claims. But none of this has dampened the fervent belief of many Republicans that control of the country has been wrested from them.

“There are only elitists in charge,” said Suzanne Jenkins, a 75-year-old retiree who describes herself as a Tea Party Republican and who drove about an hour to Sierra Vista to hear Ms Lake speak.

There has been little political benefit for moderate and more established Republicans in Arizona to speak out against the far right of the party. Instead, the handful who did have faced protests, censorship from local Republican organizations and harassment. Bill Gates, the Republican chairman of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors who has repeatedly championed the state’s 2020 election, has received death threats.

“There is not enough hindsight,” said State Senator Paul Boyer, a Republican who is not running for office. “Because everyone is afraid of a primary.”

For generations, Arizona was a reliable red state. Even though Sen. John McCain turned into a moderate maverick, the state was a hotbed of conservative anti-immigration policies that helped give birth to Mr. Trump’s candidacy and presidency. Mr McCain’s name is now invoked as an insult by conservative Republicans, including Ms Lake.

But in the past four years, voters have elected two Democratic senators and chosen a Democrat for president for the first time in more than two decades, although Republicans retain control of the state legislature and the office of the President. governor.

Arizona has long been a source of right-wing enthusiasm for the national party. Former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio made national headlines in the early 2000s for his anti-immigrant policies, and in 2010 the legislature passed what became known as the “show me yours” law. papers”, effectively legalizing racial profiling. It was later overturned and Mr. Arpaio is now running for mayor of a suburb of Phoenix.

Ms Lake, who quit her job as an anchor for the local Fox station because of what she called bias and dishonesty, frequently calls the media ‘brainwashed’, ‘immoral’ and ‘the enemy of the people”. And his wide notoriety has helped give him an early lead in the polls.

But winning the crowded Republican primary is far from certain. Ms. Lake faces particularly fierce opposition from Karrin Taylor Robson, a Phoenix-based business owner who has contributed millions to her own campaign. Already, the race to replace Mr. Ducey, who can no longer run because of term limits, has become one of the most expensive gubernatorial races in state history, with 13.6 million spending dollars so far.

Ms. Taylor Robson has not made the 2020 election the main focus of her campaign, but when asked if she considers Mr. Biden the fairly elected president, she replied in a statement: “Joe Biden may be the president, but the election was definitely not fair.

Ms Lake says Arizona should complete the border wall that Mr Trump has started building. She highlighted her ties to the former president, appearing with him at his in-state rally earlier this year, fundraising with him at his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida and including his name on his signs. campaign.

Ms Lake has made conspiracy theories a centerpiece of her campaign – posting a TV advert which told viewers that if they watched the advert they were in the middle of a ‘fake news’ programme. “Do you know how to know it’s wrong?” she says to the camera. “Because they won’t even cover the biggest story: the 2020 rigged election.” She also touts her endorsement of MyPillow chief executive Mike Lindell, a key financier of right-wing efforts to discredit the 2020 election.

From first-time candidates to incumbents for Congress and the state legislature, many Republicans in Arizona have increasingly embraced an extremist brand of right-wing politics.

Representative Paul Gosar and State Senator Wendy Rogers both spoke at the America First Political Action Conference, a group closely tied to white nationalists, and both were censured by their legislative bodies for their violent rhetoric and their antics. Ms. Rogers and State Representative Mark Finchem, a Republican candidate for secretary of state, have acknowledged links to the Oath Keepers militia. Ron Watkins, who is widely believed to have played a major role in crafting the anonymous posts that helped spur the pro-Trump conspiracy theory known as QAnon, is running for Congress. Jim Lamon, a Republican candidate for the US Senate, falsely claimed to be an Arizona voter last year.

Even Mr. Ducey, who was officially censured by the state’s Republican Party last year for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, acknowledged the state’s hard-right energy, signing a bill into law. who will require proof of citizenship to vote in federal elections. When reporters asked about his support for Ms Rogers, Mr Ducey said that “she is always better than her opponenta Democrat, though he later applauded the Legislature’s vote to censure her. Mark Brnovich, the Arizona attorney general who is currently running for the US Senate, has faced repeated criticism from fellow Republicans, including Ms Lake and Mr Trump, and accusations that he is dragging the presidential election survey.

A few Republican candidates have made the economy and immigration central to their campaigns. But even among those candidates, almost none offered a full-blown defense of the 2020 election. Some Republicans think that while it’s both irresponsible and politically reckless to focus on 2020, it may not have of significance in Arizona, where the president’s approval rating is now at its lowest since taking office, a dip largely driven by independent voters.

Given that independent and third-party voters make up about 34% of the electorate, it’s impossible to win the state with Republicans alone. Ms Lake and other candidates like her may already have plateaued even among primary voters, as polls show many voters remain undecided and there is evidence of growing support for other candidates.

“I’m afraid if these people get elected, it’s going to be another crazy decade,” said Bob Worsley, a former state senator who describes himself as a moderate Republican. “I don’t know who has the stature to say, ‘Let’s bring this party back, let’s bring the establishment base back to power. Now we’re a purple state and we don’t have a John McCain to try to crack the whip.

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