Kari Lake Kyung Lah
These GOP candidates have a strategist afraid for the party's future
05:25 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Republican leaders nationally hope to move on from re-litigating the 2020 election as they set their sights on winning back the House and Senate in next year’s midterms, but that may be a difficult shift to make in Arizona.

GOP headliners running for some of the state’s top jobs are making former President Donald Trump’s baseless claims about election fraud central to their campaigns as they inject conspiracy theories into the debate.

The most prominent Republican vying to take on Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly, state Attorney General Mark Brnovich, is facing mounting pressure from conservatives to use the law enforcement tools of his office to produce criminal charges out of Trump’s election claims – a tall task given that the evidence of widespread voter fraud has proven non-existent. Other candidates like Kari Lake, a former Phoenix-area news anchor endorsed by Trump for governor, and Mark Finchem, a four-term state representative who’s running for secretary of state, are fully leaning into Trump’s lies. Ron Watkins, the latest entrant to Arizona’s 1st Congressional District race, is getting in on it too.

The pressure on Arizona GOP candidates to embrace Trump’s lies in the state that President Joe Biden flipped last year is illustrative of the challenges the GOP faces nationwide as it seeks to win back states lost under Trump’s watch. The Trump-enthralled base is pulling candidates to the right ahead of an August 2022 primary, but that’s potentially setting them up for failure in a general election in a purple state. Trump’s legal challenges to the 2020 election results have repeatedly failed and even his own attorney general, William Barr, told the Associated Press in December that he had “not seen fraud on a scale that could have affected a different outcome in the election.”

“They have a losing message,” Arizona GOP consultant Tyler Montague told CNN of the candidates pushing election fraud. “They are strongly identified with conspiracy theories, QAnon … the conspiracy that the election was stolen from Trump. And a strong majority of the voting public does not believe this.”

Unfounded claims

But that hasn’t stopped GOP candidates from digging in. Nearly a month after Cyber Ninjas, the company hired by Arizona Senate Republicans, finished their partisan review of the 2.1 million ballots cast in Maricopa County, which produced a tally nearly identical to the county’s tally showing that Biden won, Lake repeated a series of roundly debunked claims about the 2020 results in an interview with CNN this week.

Though there is no question that Biden won the presidency and the state of Arizona, Lake insisted that investigators still “need to prove that this election was won fair and square” and said her potential Democratic gubernatorial opponent, Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, should go to prison “if we find out there was fraud.” There is no evidence of wrongdoing by Hobbs.

“I believe (Joe) Biden is the president just like O. J. (Simpson) is innocent,” Lake told CNN after speaking to young Republicans at Arizona State University. She baselessly called the election “shady, shoddy” and “corrupt,” and said “the left is trying to make us live with this – and we’re not going to live with it. We’re going to get to the bottom of it. And while we may not be able to do a whole lot about this, I will be damned if when I’m governor, we’re going to have another election run this way.”

Watkins and Finchem, who have both advocated the legally impossible path of decertifying the 2020 election, are publicly urging Brnovich to take legal action after the sham audit conducted by Cyber Ninjas.

Brnovich’s office did not respond to calls from CNN asking about his next steps or his response to the criticism. But in a statement last month following the release of a draft report about the Maricopa County ballot review, he said he would take “all necessary actions that are supported by the evidence and where I have legal authority” as his office reviews information and evidence passed on by the Arizona Senate.

Unless he produces some sort of election-related action, his prospects for winning over Trump’s base in Arizona are uncertain, particularly after what amounted to a public shaming by Trump in May, who criticized him for not taking a more active role in prosecuting what the former President falsely referred to as the “massive crime in the 2020 Election.”

The super PAC supporting Blake Masters, one of Brnovich’s GOP Senate opponents, is not letting voters forget about that jab from the former President – recently releasing an ad accusing Brnovich of not doing enough to investigate Trump’s claims of voter fraud and saying that he had not stood “with our president.”

In the state’s 1st Congressional District, which Biden narrowly won in 2020 and a seat that both parties view as competitive, Republicans are also talking up conspiracy theories.

Watkins, a prominent figure in the QAnon movement who falsely told CNN this week that Trump is still the “de facto leader” of the United States and that Biden “is currently occupying the White House,” is attempting to elevate election conspiracy theory2 to the forefront of his campaign as he vies for the GOP nomination to take on Democratic incumbent Rep. Tom O’Halleran. The lines of that district are being redrawn as part of the redistricting process, but Watkins said he intends to go “out of my way to chase (O’Halleran) to whatever district he’s moving to.”

Speaking with CNN outside the attorney general’s office, Watkins said he wants Brnovich “to take action for the people of the United States and to show that election integrity is a main issue for everybody.”

Watkins said he had made numerous visits to Brnovich’s office requesting a meeting as he was preparing to mount his congressional campaign. He posted a video on his Telegram account outside the office last week urging his followers to “stay vigilant” in Arizona and across the country and keep up the pressure to “indict any and ALL criminals who have facilitated election fraud,” despite there being no evidence of widespread fraud in the last election.

Watkins gained national attention as a former administrator of 8Kun (formerly 8chan), a hate-filled online forum that provided the home for the QAnon movement, which drove many unfounded conspiracy theories including that politicians and celebrities were working with governments around the world to foster child sex abuse and the view that Trump would save the world from unspecified maneuvers of the “deep state.” Watkins’ involvement with the online forum led to some speculation that he was the mysterious individual known as “Q,” who posted some of the original content.

“I’m not Q. I never posted as Q. I don’t know who Q is,” Watkins told CNN this week, stating that he is “not deeply involved in the movement.” “People can label themselves whatever they want to label themselves as, and I label myself as a freedom fighter,” he said.

The general election risk

While candidates like Lake, Watkins and Finchem hope to ride the wave of anger within the Republican base about non-existent widespread election irregularities, some Arizona GOP strategists warn that those messages have limited appeal beyond Trump’s hard-core base in Arizona and that their embrace of conspiracy theories jeopardizes the party’s ability to win in next year’s general election.

Montague argued that the GOP’s future in Arizona “can be bright if we’re talking about policies that are broadly supported like lower taxes, less regulation, personal freedom – those things are popular and we can win.” But he added, “If we’re talking about conspiracy theories and QAnon, that’s a losing formula.”

Republicans still have a slight registration advantage over Democrats, but they only comprise a little more than a third of the electorate, according to the latest figures from the Arizona Secretary of State’s office.

Paul Bentz, senior vice president for research and strategy at the Republican-leaning firm HighGround Inc. that advised former GOP Gov. Jan Brewer, said the central problem the GOP is facing is that primary-voting Republicans “have really walled themselves off from everyone else – and the (Cyber Ninjas) audit is a huge example of that.”

“What we see is that time and again, there’s this segment of the Republican electorate that is driving the conversation on several issues that is not really reflective of the overall, or general electorate,” he told CNN. “So what Republicans really are facing right now is a significant challenge among our independent and unaffiliated voters, because they keep picking the other side of these issues.”

Bentz listed examples like the controversy over the flat tax approved by the GOP-controlled legislature and signed by Republican Gov. Doug Ducey – which critics hope to challenge through a ballot referendum – and the effort to ban public school mask mandates, which was struck down as unconstitutional by a Maricopa County Superior Court Judge in late September. (Ducey vowed to challenge that ruling.)

Andy Barr, a Democratic consultant whose firm Uplift Campaigns has worked extensively in Arizona, said Lake’s rise in Arizona is proof that “Trumpism is going to be dominant in Arizona Republican-based politics for a long time” and that “the politics of batsh*t insanity are here to stay.”

But he added that “there’s a pretty clear cap on that appeal” and he said population trends in the state will not make “Trumpist dominance of the state Republican Party” a winning message. Barr noted, for example, that while for many years Arizona saw an influx of retirees from the Midwest, now there are many more transplants who are tech workers from California.

Some Democrats hope that at least Trump’s own factually inaccurate statements – like the one earlier this month that “if we don’t solve the Presidential Election Fraud of 2020… Republicans will not be voting in ’22 or ‘24” – could serve to drive down GOP participation in elections.

“In a purely Machiavellian sense, I hope they keep talking about it,” Barr said, “because the only evidence of it doing anything right now is all these polls showing Republicans thinking that voting may not be an on-the-level system and they just may not do it anymore.”

When asked about her reaction to Trump’s statement, Lake told CNN that she still wants to see Republican voters cast ballots despite her concerns about the election system.

“I think that everyone should vote,” she said, adding that she believes the legislature will pass stronger laws “to protect the integrity of our vote.”

Lake rallies crowds by rejecting Covid protections

Lake, who is holding a fundraiser with Trump at Mar-a-Lago next month, is running on a promise not only to secure future elections, but to protect Arizona from what she views as government overreach in regulations meant to protect them from Covid-19.

She said she left her job as a news anchor earlier this year after concluding that coverage of Covid-19 “wasn’t just biased. It was unethical and immoral.” In addition to her election fraud claims, she has framed her candidacy as one intended to represent “fed-up moms and dads” who reject Covid-19 mandates on masks and vaccines.

“They’re after your mind. They’re after your thoughts,” she said, accusing the news networks of brainwashing people during her speech Monday night at ASU. She argued that she is running to bring “a sense of normalcy” back to Arizona. She applauded students in the room who were not wearing masks, falsely asserting that they don’t work.

“You guys have been wronged,” Lake said, referring to the mask mandates and asking for a show of hands among students whose parents were at risk of losing their jobs due to vaccine mandates.

Lake has dangerously advocated for the use of two medications – hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin – as possible treatments for Covid-19 despite government warnings about their use. Last summer, the Food and Drug Administration revoked its emergency use authorization for the use of hydroxychloroquine as treatment for Covid. In August, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a health advisory underscoring that ivermectin, an anti-parasitic drug, is not authorized or approved by the FDA for prevention or treatment of Covid-19.

While Lake said at the event earlier this week that she is not “anti-vax,” she argues that people are “losing their livelihoods” because of vaccine mandates.

“As governor, I will stop this madness if it doesn’t stop before I get into office,” she told the college Republicans at ASU.