SIERRA VISTA, Ariz. — Kari Lake has a strategy for getting elected in 2022.
Keep talking about 2020.
Minutes after her pitch at Cochise County’s Republican headquarters in suburban Southern Arizona, Ms. Lake focused on the presidential election 18 months ago, calling it “crooked” and “corrupt.” She claimed nearly a dozen times in a single hour that the 2020 election had been stolen from Donald J. Trump, a lie the public — some of whom wore red hats that read “Trump Won” — were eager to hear. Ms. Lake, a former local Fox anchor who won Mr. Trump’s endorsement while campaigning to become Arizona’s next governor, calls the 2020 election a major motivation for her decision to enter the race.
“We need people with backbones to stand up for this country – our elections have been stolen,” Ms Lake said in an interview following the Cochise County event in March, adding: “I don’t know if it’s a winning issue , but it is a winning issue when it comes to saving this country.”
Republicans in many states are the Stop the Steal movement and Mr. Trump’s push to reward election deniers and punish those who accept President Biden’s victory. At a time when Mr Biden’s approval ratings are falling, party leaders are urging candidates to focus instead on the economy, inflation and other kitchen table issues.
Just 12 weeks before the Republican primary in August, Arizona is showing how firm Mr. Trump and his election conspiracy theories still are at every level of the party, from local activists to top candidates statewide. And this week’s win for JD Vance, the author of “Hillbilly Elegy” who won the former president’s backing in the Republican primaries for a seat in the Ohio Senate, shows that loyalty to Trumpism goes a long way in battlefield states.
Still, some incumbent Republicans worry that party leaders have gone too far and effectively hand over the deeply divided swing state to Democrats in November.
“Anyone still re-litigating about 2020 will lose the general election,” said Kathy Petsas, a Republican who has served as a district captain and has collected signatures for several candidates this year. “I think the people back home got it, and I don’t think many of our candidates got it.”
Two forces have ensured that election denial remains a core issue in Arizona: the Republican-sponsored and widely derided revision of the presidential election in the state’s largest county, and Mr. Trump’s ongoing attacks on Republican governor Doug Ducey for rejecting his efforts to block election certification. More than three dozen Republicans running for office in Arizona — including six candidates for statewide posts — have made denial of the 2020 results a focal point of their campaigns, according to two candidate-tracking groups, States United Action and Pro-Democracy Republicans. United States United Action is impartial; Maricopa County’s top election official, a Republican, started pro-democracy Republicans earlier this year.
In interviews with more than a dozen voters during Ms. Lake’s campaign events, nearly all said “election integrity” was their number one issue, and none believed that Mr. Biden was the legitimate winner of the presidential election.
“We need strong Republicans to get rid of the RINOs who are ready for nothing like our governor,” said Claribeth Davis, 62, who used the acronym for “Republicans in name only” to refer to Mr. Ducey. Ms. Davis, a medical assistant, said she recently moved from the suburbs of Phoenix to Sierra Vista in Cochise County, a rural part of southern Arizona, to “be with more like-minded people.”
Numerous courts and assessments 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 there were even more votes in Maricopa County. been for Mr Biden and even less for Mr Trump. The county’s board of supervisors refuted nearly all of the group’s claims. But none of that has quelled the fervent belief among many Republicans that control of the country has been snatched away from them.
“There are nothing but elites in charge,” said Suzanne Jenkins, a 75-year-old retiree who described herself as a Tea Party Republican and who drove about an hour to Sierra Vista to hear Ms. Lake speak.
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There was little political advantage for moderate and more established Republicans in Arizona to speak out against the party’s far-right wing. Instead, the handful of those who have done so have faced protests, censorship from local Republican organizations, and intimidation. Bill Gates, the Republican chairman of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, who has repeatedly defended the 2020 election, has received death threats.
“There’s not enough pushback,” said Senator Paul Boyer, a Republican who is not running for reelection. “Because everyone is afraid of a primary.”
For generations, Arizona was a reliable red state. Even as Senator John McCain made himself a moderate maverick, the state was a hotbed of conservative anti-immigration politics that fueled Mr Trump’s candidacy and presidency. Mr. McCain’s name is now being invoked as an insult by conservative Republicans, including Ms. Lake.
But in the past four years, voters have elected two Democratic senators and one Democrat as president for the first time in more than two decades, though Republicans retain control of the state legislature and the governor’s office.
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 came to be known as the “Leave Me Your Papers” Act, eliminating racial profiling. was effectively legalized. It was later knocked down and Mr. Arpaio is now running for mayor in suburban Phoenix.
Ms. Lake, who quit her job as an anchor for the local Fox station because of what she called its bias and dishonesty, often blows the media up as “brainwashed,” “immoral” and “the enemy of the people.” And her widespread name recognition has given her an early lead in the polls.
But winning the overcrowded Republican primary is far from certain. Ms. Lake faces particularly fierce opposition from Karrin Taylor Robson, a Phoenix business owner who has contributed millions to her own campaign. The race to replace Mr. Ducey, who can no longer run due to term limits, has already become one of the most expensive gubernatorial races in state history, with $13.6 million in spending to date.
Ms. Taylor Robson has not made the 2020 election the main focus of her campaign, but when asked if she considers Mr. Biden to be the fairly elected president, she replied in a statement: “Joe Biden may be the president , but the election was certainly not fair.”
Ms. Lake says Arizona needs to finish the border wall Mr Trump started building. She has emphasized her ties to the former president by appearing with him at his state rally earlier this year, raising funds with him at his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida, and putting his name on her campaign boards.
Ms. Lake has made conspiracy theories the center of her campaign: she ran a television ad telling viewers that if they watched the ad, they were in the middle of a “fake news” program. “You know how you know it’s fake?” she says to the camera. “Because they don’t even tell the biggest story there is: the rigged 2020 elections.” She also praises her endorsement of MyPillow’s chief executive, Mike Lindell, a key funder of right-wing efforts to discredit the 2020 election.
Many Republicans in Arizona have increasingly embraced an extremist form of right-wing politics, from new candidates to incumbent officials in Congress and the state legislature.
Representative Paul Gosar and Senator Wendy Rogers both spoke at the America First Political Action Conference, a group with strong ties to white nationalists, and both were censored by their legislatures for their violent rhetoric and antics. Ms. Rogers and State Representative Mark Finchem, a Republican running for Secretary of State, have acknowledged ties to the Oath Keepers militia group. Ron Watkins, widely believed to have played a key role in writing the anonymous posts that fueled the pro-Trump conspiracy theory known as QAnon, is running for Congress. Jim Lamon, a Republican running for the U.S. Senate, falsely claimed to be an Arizona voter last year.
Even Mr. Ducey, who was formally censored last year by the state Republican Party for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, has acknowledged the hard judge’s energy and signed a bill that would require proof of citizenship to join federal to vote in elections. When reporters asked about his support for Ms. Rogers, Mr. Ducey said that “she is still better than her opponent‘, a Democrat, though he later applauded the legislature’s vote to censor her. Mark Brnovich, the Arizona attorney general who is now running for the U.S. Senate, has faced repeated criticism from other Republicans, including Ms. Lake and Mr. Trump, and accusations that he is delaying the presidential election investigation.
A few Republican candidates have made the economy and immigration the focus of their campaign. But even among those candidates, almost none have offered a full defense of the 2020 election. Some Republicans believe that focusing on 2020 is both irresponsible and politically unwise, but it may not matter in Arizona, where the president’s approval rating is now at its lowest since he took office, a plunge largely driven by independents. voters.
Since independent and third-party voters make up about 34 percent of the electorate, it is impossible to win the state with Republicans alone. Ms. Lake and other candidates like her may have already reached a ceiling, even among primary voters, as polls show many voters undecided, and there is evidence of growing support for other candidates.
“I’m concerned that if these people are elected it will make for another decade of madness,” said Bob Worsley, a former state senator who describes himself as a moderate Republican. “I don’t know who has the status to say, ‘Let’s bring this party back, bring the establishment back to power.’ Now we’re a purple state and we don’t have John McCain trying to crack the whip.”