FLORENCE, Ariz. — Former President Donald J. Trump returned to Arizona, the birthplace of his political movement, on Saturday to headline a rally in the desert that was a stark testament to how he uplifted fringe beliefs and the politicians who propagated them — even as other Republicans openly fear voters will end up punishing their party for it.
Mr. Trump’s favorite gubernatorial candidate, Kari Lake, is a first-time candidate who has threatened to jail the state’s top election official. His chosen candidate to replace that election official, a Democrat, is a state lawmaker named Mark Finchem, who was with a group of protesters outside the Capitol on Jan. 6 as rioters tried to prevent certification of the 2020 election.
And one of his staunchest defenders in Congress is Rep. Paul Gosar, who was censured by his colleagues for uploading an animated video showing him killing a Democratic congresswoman and assaulting the president. Biden.
All three spoke at Mr. Trump’s rally in front of thousands of supporters on Saturday in the city of Florence, outside of Phoenix. It was the first stadium-style political event he has hosted so far in this midterm election year in which he will attempt to deepen his footprint on Republican candidates in all levels.
When Mr Trump took the stage in the evening, he praised the slate of Holocaust denier candidates present. And he hinted that perpetuating his grievances of being cheated would be a deal breaker for Republican candidates.
“We can’t let them off the hook,” Mr. Trump said. Then, he added, referring to Ms Lake and her rejection of the 2020 results: “I think that’s one of the reasons she’s doing so well.”
But as popular as the former president remains at the heart of the GOP base, his involvement in races from Arizona to Pennsylvania — and his failure to let go of his defeat by Mr. Biden — has veteran Republicans in Washington and beyond concerned. They fear that Mr. Trump will jeopardize their chances in what should be a very advantageous political climate, with Democrats deeply divided on their political program and Americans taking a generally pessimistic view of Mr. Biden’s leadership a year after the start of his presidency.
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Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, and other senior party officials have expressed concern in recent days about Mr Trump’s fixation on the last election, saying it threatened to alienate voters they had need to win in the next election in November.
Those concerns are particularly acute in Arizona, where far-right Trump-backed candidates could prove too extreme in a state that displaced Democrats in the last election as voters turned out in large numbers to oppose. to Mr. Trump. The myth of widespread voter fraud animates Arizona’s campaigns in several races, alarming Republicans who argue that engaging in the former president’s misrepresentations and lies about 2020 jeopardizes the country’s long-term competitiveness. left.
“I’ve never seen so many Republicans run in a primary for Governor, Attorney General, Senate,” said Chuck Coughlin, a Republican consultant who has worked on statewide races in Arizona for two decades. “Usually you get two, maybe three. But not five.
At Saturday’s rally, every speaker who spoke before Mr. Trump repeated some version of the false claim that Arizona’s 2020 vote was fraudulent. Mr. Gosar, the congressman, did so in perhaps the darkest language, invoking the image of a storm building, a metaphor commonly used by QAnon conspiracy theorists. And he called for the imprisonment of those involved in the counting of ballots in Arizona in 2020.
“Lock them up,” Mr. Gosar told the crowd. “This election was rotten to the core.”
For Republicans who worry about Mr. Trump’s influence over candidates they deem ineligible, the basic calculations of these crowded primaries are hard to digest. A winner could win with just a third of the total vote – making it more than likely that a far-right candidate unpalatable to the wider electorate could win the nomination largely thanks to the endorsement of Mr Trump.
Conservative activists in Arizona have long provided Mr. Trump with the energy and ideas that formed the foundation of his political movement.
In 2011, as the real estate developer and reality TV star was testing the waters for a possible presidential campaign, his interest in conspiracy theories that the birth certificate of former President Barack Obama was a fake led to Arizona Tea Party activists and a state legislator. . They were pushing for a state law to require political candidates to produce their birth certificates before qualifying for the ballot. Mr. Trump invited them to Trump Tower.
One such activist, Kelly Townsend, now a state senator, addressed the crowd on Saturday and praised those who sought to delegitimize Mr Biden’s victory.
Arizona has been a hotbed of distortions over the 2020 election. The former president’s allies have demanded an audit in the state’s largest county, insisting the official result was compromised by the fraud. But when the results of the review were released – in a report both commissioned and produced by Trump supporters – it ended up showing he had in fact received 261 fewer votes than expected.
Yet the myth persists. And those who question it quickly become the targets of the former president and his allies. They attacked two prominent Arizona Republicans – Governor Doug Ducey and Attorney General Mark Brnovich for their role in Arizona’s official certification of its election results.
“He will never get my approval, I can tell you that,” Mr. Trump said of Mr. Ducey.
Even those who resisted Mr. Trump’s bogus claims were unable to completely dodge the issue in the face of pressure from the president and his supporters.
When a group of 18 Republican attorneys general signed a farcical lawsuit from their Texas counterpart that sought to delay certification of the vote in four battleground states that Mr. Trump lost, Mr. Brnovich did not join his colleagues. He said at the time that “the rule of law” should prevail over politics. But as a Senate candidate who still holds the attorney general’s office, he investigated allegations of fraud at the behest of Trump supporters.
As speaker after speaker attacked the credibility of the vote on Saturday — those with Mr. Trump’s official imprimatur were announced as “Trump-endorsed” — several also called on the state legislature to vote retroactively to overturn the Mr. Biden’s victory. Mr Trump’s allies said they expected the issue to become more pressing in the coming weeks, although it would have no legal or practical impact.
“Arizona is a red state,” State Senator Wendy Rogers said, leading the crowd on a “Decertify” chant. “We don’t turn purple.”