PRESCOTT, Ariz. — Pamphlets, buttons and American flags cluttered booth after booth for political candidates at a conference center in Prescott, Ariz., this month. However the table for Ron Watkins, a Republican candidate for Congress who rose to fame for his ties to the QAnon conspiracy theory, sat empty.
“I believed it began at 11:30,” said Orlando Munguia, Mr. Watkins’s campaign manager, who arrived about half-hour after the event had begun and swiftly laid out campaign materials without the candidate in tow.
Mr. Watkins, a pc programmer in his 30s, is running into the identical reality that many other QAnon-linked candidates have confronted: Having ties to the conspiracy theory doesn’t routinely translate to a successful political campaign.
More established Republican rivals have vastly outraised Mr. Watkins in Arizona’s Second District. Two other congressional candidates in Arizona who’ve shown some level of support for QAnon also trail their competitors in fund-raising ahead of the Aug. 2 primary. A fourth Arizona candidate with QAnon ties has suspended his House campaign. The identical trend is playing out nationally.
Their bleak prospects reflect the shifting role that conspiracy theories play in American politics. The Republican Party flirted with QAnon in 2020, as several Q-linked candidates sought higher office and Q merchandise appeared at rallies for then-President Donald J. Trump across the country. Yet identifying with the movement emerged as a political liability. As they’ve during this election cycle, Democrats attacked Q-linked candidates as extremists, and all but two — Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Lauren Boebert of Colorado — lost their races.
But many QAnon themes have burrowed deeper into mainstream Republican politics this yr, experts say, including the false belief that “evil” deep-state operatives control the federal government and that Mr. Trump is waging a war against them. Savvy candidates have found ways to tap that excitement — all without explicitly mentioning the conspiracy theory.
Indeed, just just a few booths away from Mr. Watkins’s in Prescott, other campaigns were suggesting that election results couldn’t be trusted, an concept that QAnon helped popularize.
“The actual iconography and branding of QAnon has really fallen by the wayside,” said Mike Rothschild, a conspiracy-theory researcher and the writer of “The Storm Is Upon Us: How QAnon Became a Movement, Cult, and Conspiracy Theory of Every part.” “People don’t really discover themselves as QAnon believers anymore.”
“However the views of QAnon are massively mainstream,” he added.
On the campaign trail, Republican candidates avoid talking about the concept that a cabal of pedophiles is preying on children, a core tenet of QAnon. But they embrace false claims that liberals “groom” children with progressive sex education. When criticizing Covid-19 restrictions, many Republicans riff on QAnon’s belief that a “deep state” of bureaucrats and politicians wants to manage Americans.
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Probably the most outstanding talking point with echoes of QAnon, though, is the false claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Mr. Trump. The movement pushed that concept long before any votes were forged, and before Mr. Trump catapulted the claim to the mainstream.
A minimum of 131 candidates who announced bids or filed to run for governor, secretary of state or attorney general this yr have supported the false election claims, in accordance with States United Motion, a nonpartisan nonprofit focused on elections and democracy.
By comparison, to date just 11 of 37 congressional candidates with some history of boosting QAnon have advanced from primaries to the overall election, in accordance with Media Matters for America, a liberal watchdog group. Only certainly one of them, J.R. Majewski in Ohio’s Ninth District, stands a likelihood at adding to QAnon’s representation in Congress. Overall, Media Matters linked 65 current and former congressional candidates to QAnon to date this yr, compared with 106 in the course of the 2020 election.
J.R. Majewski and Mr. Watkins didn’t reply to requests for comment.
Experts point to Kari Lake, a former news anchor who is taken into account the front-runner within the Republican primary for Arizona governor, as a model for Republicans who’re deftly navigating conspiracy theories for political gain.
But at a recent campaign stop, it was election fraud that got all the eye. A whole lot of Trump supporters crowded a raucous country music bar in Tucson. Nobody in the gang seemed to be wearing a QAnon shirt or hat, items that were often seen at Trump rallies. A girl selling flags and bumper stickers outside the event had no Q merchandise, either.
“A whole lot of these people like Kari Lake don’t directly imagine in Q or QAnon,” said Mike Rains, a QAnon expert who hosts “Adventures in HellwQrld,” a podcast tracking the movement. But by pushing the election fraud narrative, Ms. Lake “gets their support without having to truly know the inner workings of the movement.”
Ms. Lake was introduced on the event by Seth Keshel, a former Army captain who’s touring the country pushing debunked claims in regards to the 2020 election.
“Everybody knows that Arizona didn’t go to Joe Biden,” he said, falsely, before calling for “citizen soldiers” — a term harking back to QAnon’s “digital soldiers” — to protect ballot drop boxes.
The group roared as Ms. Lake took to the stage. Soon she was repeating lies in regards to the election. “How a lot of you’re thinking that that was a rotten, corrupt, fraudulent election?” she asked to cheers.
A spokesman for Ms. Lake declined to comment.
Polling shows that QAnon stays popular, with roughly 41 million Americans believing core tenets of the conspiracy theory, in accordance with a 2021 poll from the Public Religion Research Institute. But election fraud narratives are much more popular.
Amongst Arizona Republicans who back Mr. Trump, 27 percent imagine QAnon’s theories are mostly true, in accordance with OH Predictive Insights, a political research group within the state. That compares with 82 percent who imagine the election was stolen.
Amongst Arizonan Republicans who’re more loyal to the Republican Party than Mr. Trump, only 11 percent imagine QAnon’s theories are mostly true and about half imagine that the election was stolen.
Disinformation watchdogs warn that a slate of candidates supporting election fraud narratives in Arizona could win three key races that control elections: governor, secretary of state and attorney general.
Mark Finchem, a state representative and the front-running candidate for secretary of state, also centered his campaign on election fraud. He attended the Jan. 6 rally and has said Arizona should put aside election results from counties it deemed “irredeemably compromised.”
Mr. Finchem spoke at a conference in Las Vegas last yr organized by a QAnon influencer where Mr. Watkins also spoke. On his campaign signs at crowded intersections across the state, certainly one of his slogans reads, “Protect our youngsters,” evoking a well-liked QAnon catchphrase, “Save the kids.”
“The broader culture war picked up a few of the more conspiratorial tendencies that include QAnon,” said Jared Holt, a QAnon expert and senior research manager on the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. “There was, to a point, a merger.”
Abraham Hamadeh, a candidate for Arizona attorney general, surged within the polls after Mr. Trump offered his late endorsement. He and other candidates for attorney general said during a May debate that they might not have signed the certification of the state’s 2020 election results.
Mr. Hamadeh and Mr. Finchem didn’t reply to requests for comment.
There have been no shortage of election deniers within the race for Arizona’s Second Congressional District, either, where Mr. Watkins is waging his long-shot campaign. During an awkward televised debate in April, he distanced himself from QAnon, saying: “I used to be not Q, and I’m not.” He turned to election fraud conspiracy theories, noting that Mr. Trump had retweeted him on the topic. But he was outflanked by his competitors.
“The election was stolen. We understand that, and we all know that,” Walt Blackman, a Republican in Arizona’s House of Representatives, said in the course of the debate.
Mr. Watkins can have believed Arizona’s embrace of conspiracy theories could propel him from online celebrity to real-world politician, Mr. Holt said. But it surely proved difficult to face out in a race where nobody aligned with QAnon and nearly everyone supported the election-fraud conspiracy theory.
“Every infrequently, any individual on the conspiracy-brain right wing gets a bunch of attention online they usually think meaning they’re popular,” Mr. Holt said. “So that they attempt to run for office or have an in-person event somewhere, and it’s only a miserable crash and burn.”