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In Arizona, a Swing State Swings to the Far Right

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

Keep talking about 2020.

Minutes into her pitch on the Cochise County Republican headquarters within the suburbs of southern Arizona, Ms. Lake zeroed in 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 was stolen from Donald J. Trump, a falsehood that the audience — a few of whom wore red hats reading “Trump Won” — was desirous to hear. Ms. Lake, a former local Fox News anchor who won Mr. Trump’s endorsement as she campaigns to grow to be Arizona’s next governor, calls the 2020 election a key motivation in her decision to enter the race.

“We want some individuals with a backbone to arise for this country — we had our election stolen,” Ms. Lake said in an interview after the Cochise County event in March, adding, “I don’t know if it’s a winning issue, but it surely’s a winning issue relating to saving this country.”

Republicans in lots of states have grown increasingly uninterested in the Stop the Steal movement and the push by Mr. Trump to reward election deniers and punish those that accept President Biden’s victory. At a time when Mr. Biden’s approval rankings are sinking, leaders within the party are urging candidates to focus as a substitute on the economy, inflation and other kitchen-table issues.

But 12 weeks before its Republican primary in August, Arizona shows just how firm of a grasp Mr. Trump and his election conspiracy theories still have at every level of the party, from local activists to top statewide candidates. And this week’s victory for J.D. Vance, the “Hillbilly Elegy” writer who received the previous president’s endorsement within the Republican primary for an Ohio Senate seat, shows that loyalty to Trumpism goes a good distance in battleground states.

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

“Anybody who continues to be re-litigating 2020 will lose the overall election,” said Kathy Petsas, a Republican who has served as a precinct captain and picked up signatures for several candidates this yr. “I believe people at home have caught on, and I don’t think numerous our candidates have caught on.”

Two forces have helped ensure election denialism stays a core issue in Arizona: the Republican-sponsored and widely derided review of the presidential vote within the state’s largest county, and Mr. Trump’s continued attacks on the Republican governor, Doug Ducey, for rebuffing his efforts to dam election certification. Greater than three dozen Republicans running for office in Arizona — including six candidates for statewide posts — have made denying the 2020 results a centerpiece of their campaigns, in accordance with two groups tracking candidates, States United Motion and Pro-Democracy Republicans. States United Motion is nonpartisan; Maricopa County’s top elections official, a Republican, began Pro-Democracy Republicans earlier this yr.

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

“We want strong Republicans to eliminate the RINOs who aren’t willing to do anything, like our governor,” said Claribeth Davis, 62, using the acronym for “Republicans in name only” to consult with Mr. Ducey. Ms. Davis, a medical aide, said she recently moved from the Phoenix suburbs to Cochise County’s Sierra Vista, a rural section of southern Arizona, to “be with more like-minded people.”

Quite a few courts and reviews have found no evidence of widespread fraud within the 2020 election. The Republican-ordered review by Cyber Ninjas, a now-defunct company with no previous experience in elections, concluded that there had actually been much more votes for Mr. Biden and even fewer for Mr. Trump in Maricopa County. The county’s board of supervisors rebutted nearly the entire group’s claims. But none of that has tamped down the fervent belief amongst many Republicans that control of the country has been snatched away from them.

“There’s nothing but elitists 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 listen to Ms. Lake speak.

There was little political upside for moderate and more establishment Republicans in Arizona to talk out against the party’s far-right wing. As an alternative, the handful of them who’ve done so have faced protests, censure from local Republican organizations and harassment. Bill Gates, the Republican chairman of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, who has repeatedly defended the state’s 2020 election, has received death threats.

“There’s not enough pushback,” said State Senator Paul Boyer, a Republican who isn’t running for re-election. “Because everyone seems to be afraid of a primary.”

For generations, Arizona was a reliably red state. At the same time as Senator John McCain fashioned himself right into a moderate maverick, the state was a hotbed of conservative anti-immigration politics that helped give rise to Mr. Trump’s candidacy and presidency. Mr. McCain’s name is now invoked as an insult by conservative Republicans, including Ms. Lake.

But within the last 4 years, voters have elected two Democratic senators and chosen a Democrat for president for the primary time in greater than twenty years, though Republicans remain in charge of the State Legislature and the governor’s mansion.

Arizona has long been a source of right-wing enthusiasm for the national party. The previous Maricopa County sheriff, Joe Arpaio, made national headlines within the early 2000s for his anti-immigrant policies, and in 2010 the Legislature passed what became referred to as the “show me your papers” law, effectively legalizing racial profiling. It was later struck down, and Mr. Arpaio is now running for mayor in a Phoenix suburb.

Ms. Lake, who quit her job as an anchor for the local Fox News station due to what she called its bias and dishonesty, steadily blasts the media as “brainwashed,” “immoral” and “the enemy of the people.” And her widespread name recognition has helped give her an early lead within the polls.

But winning the crowded Republican primary is removed from certain. Ms. Lake faces especially fierce opposition from Karrin Taylor Robson, a Phoenix-based business owner who has contributed hundreds of thousands to her own campaign. Already, the race to interchange Mr. Ducey, who cannot run again due to term limits, has grow to be amongst the most costly governor’s races in state history, with $13.6 million in spending to date.

Ms. Taylor Robson has not made the 2020 election the most important focus of her campaign, but when asked whether she considered Mr. Biden the fairly elected president, she responded in a press release, “Joe Biden will be the president, however the election definitely wasn’t fair.”

Ms. Lake says Arizona should finish the border wall that Mr. Trump began constructing. She has emphasized her ties to the previous president, appearing with him at his rally within the state earlier this yr, fund-raising with him at his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida and including his name on her campaign signs.

Ms. Lake has made conspiracy theories a centerpiece of her campaign — releasing a television ad that told viewers that in the event that they were watching the ad, they were in the course of a “fake news” program. “ learn how to understand it’s fake?” she says to the camera. “Because they won’t even cover the most important story on the market: the rigged election of 2020.” She also touts her endorsement from the chief executive of MyPillow, Mike Lindell, a key financier of right-wing efforts to discredit the 2020 election.

From first-time candidates to incumbents in 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 each spoke on the America First Political Motion Conference, a gaggle with strong ties to white nationalists, and each were censured by their legislative bodies for his or her violent rhetoric and antics. Ms. Rogers and State Representative Mark Finchem, a Republican who’s running for secretary of state, have acknowledged ties to the Oath Keepers militia group. Ron Watkins, who’s widely believed to have played a serious role in writing the anonymous posts that helped spur the pro-Trump conspiracy theory referred to as QAnon, is running for Congress. Jim Lamon, a Republican running for U.S. Senate, falsely claimed to be an elector for Arizona last yr.

Even Mr. Ducey, who was formally censured by the state Republican Party last yr for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, has acknowledged the energy on the state’s hard-right, signing a bill that may require proof of citizenship to vote in federal elections. When reporters asked about his support for Ms. Rogers, Mr. Ducey said that “she’s still higher than her opponent,” a Democrat, though he later applauded the Legislature’s vote to censure her. Mark Brnovich, the Arizona attorney general who’s now running for U.S. Senate, has faced repeated criticism from other Republicans, including Ms. Lake and Mr. Trump, and accusations that he’s dragging out the investigation into the presidential election.

A number of Republican candidates have made the economy and immigration the main target of their campaign. But even amongst those candidates, almost none have offered a full-throated defense of the 2020 election. Some Republicans consider that while specializing in 2020 is each irresponsible and politically unwise, it might not matter in Arizona, where the president’s approval rating is now at its lowest since he took office, a dive largely driven by independent voters.

Because independent and third-party voters make up roughly 34 percent of the electorate, it’s not possible to win the state with Republicans alone. Ms. Lake and other candidates like her can have already hit a ceiling even amongst primary voters, as polls show many citizens remain undecided, and there may be evidence of growing support for other candidates.

“I’m concerned that if these people get elected it’ll make one other decade of craziness,” 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, bring the establishment base back into power.’ Now we’re a purple state and we don’t have a John McCain to attempt to crack the whip.”

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