CNN  — 

When Jo Rae Perkins walked over to greet us for the very first time, she did not introduce herself or ask our names, the first thing she did was move her hand across her face and say, “What are these things on your faces?”

Jo Rae Perkins in her hometown of Albany, Oregon.

I couldn’t hear her, so I walked closer. Perkins, who is running for the US Senate after winning the Oregon Republican primary, made clear in the first minute of our meeting that she does not believe in the science behind wearing masks in the middle of the deadliest pandemic the world has seen in 100 years.

“What did you say?” I asked her.

“What are these things?” Perkins repeated circling her mouth with her hand.

“What are what things? What are you asking?” I responded

“Those things covering your faces, I can’t see you guys?”

“Oh, masks?” I said

“Oh, thank you,” she said.

“Do you not believe in wearing masks?” I responded.

“Do you see one?” Perkins replied.

“I do not. But what’s your answer?” I said.

“No,” Perkins said

“Why not?” I replied.

“They do absolutely nothing to protect you,” she said confidently.

So I asked, “How do you know that? Are you a scientist?”

“No, I don’t need to be a scientist. I’ve done tons of reading,” Perkins retorted.

“Oh. Are you a doctor?” I asked.

“I don’t need to be a doctor either. I know how to read,” she said with a chuckle.

At the time we talked, America had lost nearly 170,000 lives to Covid-19, and the nation’s top scientists continue to say masks help stop its spread. Top economists say a nationwide mandate could curtail economic pain. Perkins is convinced otherwise. She scoffs at advice given by America’s top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, and she believes that the Covid-19 death toll is being manipulated.

“I totally believe that that the numbers are doctored,” Perkins said. “Because they can destroy the economy. They can blame it on President (Donald) Trump, that the economy is not doing good. Look at how phenomenal the economy was doing.”

She is convinced of this because of who she talks to and what she reads, which she says is varied. Her reading also includes missives from an anonymous poster on message boards called “Q.”

What does Q mean to you?

“Q is a resource for information,” Perkins says. “I can read all these articles. It’s kind of like a clearing house. And that’s what I really like about Q. That’s one thing that I like, the other thing is that there are questions in the Socratic method … Go do your own research, figure it out for yourself,” Perkins says pointing out that there are articles in the “Q” posts from many different news outlets including CNN and The New York Times.

In reality, “Q” is the purveyor of an outlandish conspiracy theory called QAnon.

“The broad narrative in QAnon is that the world is controlled by a satanic cabal of child-eating pedophiles. And they believe that this cabal is made up of politicians (mostly Democrats), Hollywood entertainers and the mainstream media,” Travis View, a conspiracy theory researcher who participates in a podcast on QAnon theories, told CNN. The QAnon community believes Trump knows about the evil group and is working with military intelligence to expose it and arrest all involved. View says to say that what “Q” is putting out is simply a clearing house for articles is simply not how it is used. He is not alone in that. An FBI field office specifically mentioned the group in a memo about extremists.

Perkins has run for office before and lost in 2018, 2016 and 2014. Before winning the primary in 2020, the mother of two and grandmother of 14 was an insurance agent. This time she says it was staying “engaged” that won her the Republican primary for a US Senate seat in Oregon against three other candidates. Perkins faces a tough race since she is running against incumbent Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley who has held the office since 2009 in the blue state.

At first glance, Perkins generally holds a traditionally conservative Republican stance on many issues.

The federal government is too big. The federal deficit is too high. She says she is “100% pro-life.” In today’s political scene, she is incensed over the weeks of nightly protests that have turned violent in Portland. But the first thing she wants to tackle if she wins a seat in the Senate is term limits: “I believe 12 years is plenty of time to be in DC,” she says.

But she is also one of several Republican candidates for office who have linked themselves to QAnon theories in one way or another as these candidates bring what was a conspiracy theory born on the internet’s dark fringes into the mainstream of Republican politics.

These candidates’ victories have forced a split in the Republican Party – with some Republicans, like Rep. Adam Kinzinger, publicly denouncing supporters of the QAnon theory, while others have embraced the candidates or remained silent.

Trump congratulated Marjorie Taylor Greene last week after she won the GOP nomination for a US House seat in Georgia despite her promotion of QAnon, and while he hasn’t spoken about the QAnon theories, he has retweeted multiple Twitter accounts of QAnon supporters, many of them using the theory’s slogans and buzzwords. During Wednesday’s press briefing Trump went farther when asked about QAnon: “I don’t know much about the movement; I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate,” adding, “I heard these are people that love our country.”

After Greene won the primary in Georgia, Kinzinger, on the other hand, tweeted that QAnon “could be Russian propaganda or a basement dweller. Regardless, no place in Congress for these conspiracies.”

Among that group of candidates who are sympathetic to QAnon, Perkins is one of the most open about her interest in QAnon. Perkins posted a video on Twitter to “take the oath” as a “digital soldier” using a hashtag that has become a symbol of QAnon followers.

“I am honored and blessed to be the US Senator nominee… I am also one of the thousands of digital soldiers,” she begins in her post.

It sounds like a standard oath of office pledge, but she has not won a political seat yet and the digital soldiers’ line is part of the pledge taken by supporters of the QAnon conspiracy theory to show their loyalty to what they see is a noble cause.

View says ultimately their commitment to the QAnon ideals can be dangerous to democracy as we know it.

“The real danger is that, QAnon, because it deviates so far from what is real that it could lead to politicians, creating legislation, not based upon real world concerns, but rather about, enforcing their conspiratorial beliefs,” View says.

Perkins is clear she “doesn’t believe everything she reads,” and she doesn’t support everything President Donald Trump does. For example, she is upset with how high the US deficit has risen during his time in office. However, when asked about some of the provably false information that “Q” had posted on a message board, she asked, “Such as?”

I pointed out one glaring one glaring inaccuracy. On October 28, 2017, the anonymous “Q” posted, “Hillary Clinton will be arrested between 7:45 AM – 8:30 AM EST on Monday – the morning on Oct 30, 2017.” That never happened.

But when I asked Perkins about it, she responded with a question of her own, “Do you know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, are you a 100% sure that she was never arrested?”

“Are you a 100% sure she was?” I asked.

“No. I’m not,” Perkins said adding that she is a “critical thinker” and doesn’t have proof of Clinton’s arrest but clearly isn’t convinced one way or the other.

She goes on to say that “sometimes misinformation is necessary” to flesh out the truth.

Some who believe in QAnon conspiracies “don’t believe things because of like actual, you know, evidence. They believe things because it excites them. It excites them to be a part of this grand story. So, as a consequence of that, really no amount of real reasoning or counter-argument or debunking is very effective on them,” View says.

An old debunked conspiracy gets new interest

You might be asking why there is a theory that former Secretary of State and 2016 Democratic nominee for president Hillary Clinton was arrested. That conspiracy theory takes us back to another conspiracy that existed before QAnon but one that its community has embraced: Pizzagate.

It is a thoroughly debunked conspiracy theory started in 2016 when Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta’s emails were leaked by Wikileaks. Without bothering to spell out how the conspiracists got there, it truly went off the rails after someone mentioned a Washington, DC, pizzeria called Comet Ping Pong.

On the 4chan message board where the QAnon theory was eventually born, someone speculates that the pizzeria is the headquarters of a child sex trafficking ring linked to the Democratic Party and led by Clinton and Podesta. A vile and ultimately dangerous conspiracy grows from there with the help of a couple of conservative radio show hosts.

In December of that year, a 29-year-old father of two named Edgar Maddison Welch decided to take action against the made-up sex trafficking ring and fired three shots inside the pizzeria with an AR-15 rifle. When he found no evidence of the conspiracy, he stopped. He didn’t injure or kill anyone, but he did plead guilty to gun charges in federal court and was sentenced to four years in prison.

That conspiracy is still alive and growing now in QAnon believers who are convinced that Clinton and thousands of other people, including high level politicians, Hollywood A-listers, and wealthy Democratic donors, will be arrested en mass and Trump will have coordinated it all with certain designated intelligence officials.

An internal FBI memo from an Arizona field office obtained by Yahoo News determined that conspiracy theories like QAnon are a domestic terrorism threat. Several people who mentioned QAnon beliefs have already taken violent actions. The FBI memo mentions what appears to be the first QAnon related terrorism incident, View notes. It says a man in Arizona who was involved in a June 2018 standoff where he drove an armored vehicle on the bridge above the Hoover Dam and blocked traffic while demanding the release of documents that QAnon conspiracy theorists believe will expose members of the deep state.

That man, Matthew Wright, pleaded guilty to terrorism charges in February.

This is the first clear evidence that the conspiracy theory is “radicalizing people,” View said.

QAnon is like a ‘dangerous game’

The conspiracy theory has a game like quality. It promotes active participation in finding meaning in clues. Followers look for them everywhere. View says in some ways that makes it dangerous.

“It’s participatory, and the followers, they’ll read a ‘Q’ drop that looks like a lot of nonsense, a string of characters, and they’ll convince themselves that it has to have some kind of secret meeting,” View says. “It’s causing people to take actions that are very dangerous actions.”

But Perkins dismisses violent incidents linked to QAnon as disturbed people who were not radicalized by the conspiracy theory but just happened to latch onto it.

“Q never talks violence. Q talks against violence,” Perkins says. “I think you guys should really sit down and start reading it for yourself.”

Jason Kravarik contributed to this report.