The Arizona Republican Party’s Anti-Democracy Experiment
Robert Draper is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He is the author of several books, most recently To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America Into Iraq, which was excerpted in the magazine.
August 15, 2022
By Robert Draper
Rose Sperry, a state committeewoman for Arizona’s G.O.P., answered immediately when I asked her to name the first Republican leader she admired. “I grew up during the time that Joe McCarthy was doing his talking,” Sperry, an energetic 81-year-old, said of the Wisconsin senator who in the 1950s infamously claimed Communists had infiltrated the federal government. “I was young, but I was listening. If he were here today, I would say, ‘Get him in there as president!’”
Sperry is part of a grass-roots movement that has pushed her state’s party far to the right in less than a decade. She had driven 37 miles the morning of July 16, from her home in the Northern Arizona town Cottonwood to the outskirts of Prescott, to attend the monthly meeting of a local conservative group called the Lions of Liberty, who, according to the group’s website, “are determined to correct the course of our country, which has been hijacked and undermined by global elites, communists, leftists, deep state bureaucrats and fake news.” That dismal view of America today was echoed by nearly every other conservative voter and group I encountered across the state over the past year.
Arizona has become a bellwether for the rest of the nation, and not just because of its new status as a swing state and the first of these to be called for Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election. It was and has continued to be the nexus of efforts by former President Donald Trump and his Republican allies to overturn the 2020 election results. At the same time, party figures from Trump down to Rose Sperry have sought to blacklist every Arizona G.O.P. official who maintained that the election was fairly won — from Gov. Doug Ducey to Rusty Bowers, speaker of the state’s House of Representatives. Such leaders have been condemned as RINOs, or Republicans in name only, today’s equivalent of the McCarthy era’s “fellow travelers.”
The aggressive takeover of the Arizona G.O.P. by its far-right wing was made manifest on primary night earlier this month, when a slate of Trump-endorsed candidates — the gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, the U.S. Senate candidate Blake Masters, the state attorney general candidate Abraham Hamadeh and the secretary of state candidate Mark Finchem — all prevailed. As a group, they maintain that the 2020 election was stolen, have promoted conspiracy theories about Covid and have vowed to protect Arizona’s schools from gender ideology, critical race theory and what McCarthyites denounced 70 years ago as “godless communism.” They have cast the 2022 election as not just history-defining but potentially civilization-ending. As Lake told a large crowd in downtown Phoenix the night before the primary: “It is not just a battle between Republicans and Democrats. This is a battle between freedom and tyranny, between authoritarianism and liberty and between good and evil.” A week later, in response to the F.B.I.’s executing a search warrant at Trump’s residence at Mar-a-Lago in Florida, Lake posted a statement on Twitter: “These tyrants will stop at nothing to silence the Patriots who are working hard to save America.” She added, “America — dark days lie ahead for us.” Far from offering an outlier’s view, Lake was articulating the dire stance shared by numerous other Republicans on the primary ballot and by the reactionary grass-roots activists who have swept them into power.
Whether that viewpoint is politically viable in a swing state is another question. Arizona’s two U.S. senators, Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema, are both Democrats. The tissue-thin Republican majorities in Arizona’s State Legislature — 31 to 29 in the House, 16 to 14 in the Senate — are the most precarious the G.O.P. has experienced in over a quarter-century as the ruling party. And, of course, Trump lost Arizona in 2020, in large part by alienating the college-educated suburbanites who have relocated to the Phoenix metropolitan area of Maricopa County in increasing numbers.
Arizona has thus become what the state’s well-regarded pollster Mike Noble characterizes as “magenta, the lightest state of red.” In the face of this shift, the state’s G.O.P. has aggressively declined to moderate itself. Instead, it has endeavored to cast out some of its best-known political figures. Last year, it censured its sitting governor, Doug Ducey; its former U.S. senator Jeff Flake; and Cindy McCain, the widow of the U.S. senator and 2008 G.O.P. presidential nominee John McCain, arguably the state party’s second-most-famous elected official, after Barry Goldwater.
In the weeks leading up to its Aug. 2 primary, and now as it turns toward the general election in November, Arizona has presented an American case study in how backlash to demographic and social change can cause a political party to turn on itself, even at its own electoral peril. “The fact that so much energy is being spent RINO-slaying and not beating Democrats is not a healthy place for our party to be in the long run,” one political consultant who works in multiple Western states including Arizona (and who requested anonymity to not alienate current and potential clients) observed fretfully.
When I recently spoke by phone with the state G.O.P.’s chairwoman, Kelli Ward, and shared this consultant’s concern, she offered a defiant laugh. “That’s the same argument that they’ve been making again and again and again, decade after decade,” Ward told me. “And they deliver us these spineless weaklings who cave in like rusty lawn chairs at the snap of a Democrat’s finger. I’m sick of it, and the people are sick of it.” A day after we spoke, Ward announced on Twitter that party officials had voted to censure yet another of their own: Bowers, the sitting House speaker, one of the few state Republican leaders who had remained steadfast in publicly saying that Trump lost Arizona fair and square, and had recently testified to the Jan. 6 House committee that vengeful opponents had driven a van through his neighborhood with a video screen calling him a pedophile. Bowers, Ward proclaimed in her tweet, “is no longer a Republican in good standing & we call on Republicans to replace him at the ballot box in the August primary.” (Bowers was defeated.)
But there is more at stake than the health of the Republican Party when its core activists, as well as a growing number of officials and those campaigning for governmental positions, openly espouse hostility not just to democratic principles but, increasingly, to the word “democracy” itself. It has long been a talking point on the right — from a chant at the 1964 Republican convention where Goldwater became the G.O.P. nominee to a set of tweets in 2020 by Senator Mike Lee of Utah — that the United States is a republic, not a democracy. The idea, embodied by the Electoral College’s primacy over the popular vote in presidential elections, is that the founders specifically rejected direct popular sovereignty in favor of a representative system in which the governing authorities are states and districts, not individual voters. But until very recently, democracy has been championed on the right: President George W. Bush, a subject of two books I’ve written, famously promoted democracy worldwide (albeit through military aggression that arguably undermined his cause). For that matter, in Trump’s speech at the rally on Jan. 6, he invoked the word “democracy” no fewer than four times, framing the attempt to overturn the 2020 election as a last-ditch effort to “save our democracy.”
What is different now is the use of “democracy” as a kind of shorthand and even a slur for Democrats themselves, for the left and all the positions espoused by the left, for hordes of would-be but surely unqualified or even illegal voters who are fundamentally anti-American and must be opposed and stopped at all costs. That anti-democracy and anti-“democracy” sentiment, repeatedly voiced over the course of my travels through Arizona, is distinct from anything I have encountered in over two decades of covering conservative politics.
It’s the failure to reinstall a legitimately defeated president, under the misguided belief that victory was stolen from him, that seems to have ushered in the view among Arizona Republicans — and many more across the nation — that democracy itself was at fault and had been weaponized by the political left, or the “enemies from within,” as McCarthy once put it. As it happened, Rose Sperry wasn’t the first person to invoke the Wisconsin senator at the Lions of Liberty event. “I had a weird dream last night about Joseph McCarthy,” said one of the morning’s featured speakers, Jim Arroyo, the head of Arizona’s biggest chapter of the Oath Keepers, a far-right paramilitary group made up largely of current and former members of the armed forces and law enforcement. McCarthy, he said, “was not only right — he understated the seriousness of it.”
Arroyo’s eschatological rhetoric was echoed by the down-ballot Republican candidates who spoke to the group. One of them was Selina Bliss, a precinct committeewoman and nursing teacher at Yavapai College who was running for a State House seat. (On Aug. 2, she was defeated by the G.O.P. incumbent, Quang Nguyen, who earlier this year authored legislation, later signed into law, requiring that Arizona high school students receive anti-Communist civics instruction.) Bliss reminded her friends and neighbors that they belonged to a thriving activist movement: “We Republicans, we conservatives, we’re the grass roots, we come from the bottom up.”
But after the seeming paean to political participation, she took a turn. “I want to address something that’s bugging me for a long time,” Bliss said. “And that’s the history and the sacredness of our Constitution and what our founding fathers meant.” She then said: “We are a constitutional republic. We are not a democracy. Nowhere in the Constitution does it use the word ‘democracy.’ When I hear the word ‘democracy,’ I think of the democracy of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. That’s not us.”
It once would have been jarring to hear a candidate for state legislative office ignore the usual parochial issues — property taxes, water access, state funding for universities — and instead repudiate the very idea of democracy in America. But Bliss’s view was hardly out of place here. Sperry, the activist sitting in the audience, had posted on Facebook a few months before: “Please strike the word democracy from your vocabulary! WE ARE A REPUBLIC!!!”
The Republican activities across Arizona before its primary could have been mistaken, at first glance, for a collective celebration of democracy rather than a threat to it. Rows of yard signs, nearly all of them for G.O.P. candidates, stretched along highways from Maricopa County to the northern conservative strongholds of Mohave and Yavapai Counties. Candidate meet-and-greets, held in coffee shops and strip malls and V.F.W. halls, were hosted by activist groups like the Granite Mountain Republican Women and United Patriots AZ. Among the candidates, the closest thing to an entrenched party war horse was two six-term congressmen from the 2010 Tea Party class, Paul Gosar and David Schweikert, each of whom were now, because of redistricting, having to sell themselves to voters in newly drawn but still red districts. (Both incumbents won.) Otherwise, the field was replete with political novices, suggestive of what Selina Bliss, at the Lions of Liberty meeting, referred to as a seeming “bottom up” democratization of the Republican Party.
But most of the G.O.P. candidates seemed to share Bliss’s fears of majority rule as well as a desire to inflict harsh punishment on those they perceive as threats, deviants and un-American. Possibly the most notorious Arizona Republican to appear on the primary ballot was State Senator Wendy Rogers. She was censured in March by her fellow state senators for telling a white-nationalist group, referring to state and federal officials who had enacted Covid vaccine mandates, “If we try some of these high-level criminals, convict them and use a newly built set of gallows, it’ll make an example of these traitors who betrayed our country.”
Yet Rogers would go on to win her primary, easily defeating a fellow G.O.P. state senator, Kelly Townsend, whose communications with Trump lawyers have been subpoenaed by the F.B.I., presumably for information she might have about the plot by Trump allies to replace Arizona’s legitimate electors with fake ones. No moderate herself, Townsend recently vowed that vigilantes at primary polling stations would monitor voters they deemed suspicious: “We’re going to have people parked out there watching you, and they’re going to follow you to your car and get your license plate.”
The leading name in this new Republican wave is that of Lake, the gubernatorial candidate, who was a well-known personality on Phoenix’s Fox affiliate for over two decades. At a Trump rally in Arizona I attended in January, she called for the arrest of illegal border-crossers and also of Dr. Anthony Fauci for unspecified Covid-related offenses, as well as unspecified conspirators “in that corrupt, shady, shoddy election of 2020.” To this litany of suspected criminals, Lake has also added teachers. “Put cameras in the classroom,” she told the Arizona conservative talk-radio host Garret Lewis last November, arguing that parents should have access to video evidence of “something being taught in the classroom” that they might deem objectionable.
Lake neatly if hyperbolically described the Arizona G.O.P.’s us-versus-them outlook on Twitter in June: “They kicked God out of schools and welcomed the Drag Queens. They took down our Flag and replaced it with a rainbow. They seek to disarm Americans and militarize our Enemies. Let’s bring back the basics: God, Guns & Glory.” On her campaign website, Lake describes the media — her former profession — as “corrupt” and “the enemy of the people.” A campaign video displays her bashing televisions to bits with a sledgehammer and a baseball bat. At a rally the night before the primary, she directed her audience to turn around and “show these bastards” — referring to the camera crews positioned on a riser — their disapproval, which they proceeded to do with loud jeers.
Lake has said she decided to leave journalism in 2021 because of disenchantment with the news media’s liberal bias. In fact, Lake herself donated to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008. A decade later, Lake’s preference had changed. She visited the White House in June 2019 to do a story for the local Fox affiliate on Stephanie Grisham, who years before served as the press secretary for the Arizona House Majority Caucus and who had just been named communications director for the first lady, Melania Trump. “What got me was how much of a fangirl for Donald Trump she was,” Grisham told me. “When she got there, she was absolutely gushing about him. I remember thinking, Even for Fox, this is a bit much.”
Trump endorsed Lake last September, a few hours after she wrote on Twitter that the likeness of the former president should be chiseled into Mount Rushmore. Trump also endorsed Blake Masters, now the Arizona Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate against the incumbent Democrat, Mark Kelly. Masters, the 36-year-old former C.O.O. of Peter Thiel’s venture capital firm, embraces the “great replacement” conspiracy theory. “If you say as a candidate, ‘Obviously, the Democrats, they hope to just change the demographics of our country, they hope to import an entirely new electorate,’ they call you a bigot,” he told Rob Hephner, who goes by Birdman, on the “Patriot Edition” podcast in April. Such views are in alignment with those of Andrew Anglin, the publisher of the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, who gave Masters his “forceful endorsement.” (Masters rejected the endorsement.) The campaign yard signs for Masters that I saw festooning Arizona’s highways bore pledges like “Blake Masters Will Prosecute Fauci” and “Blake Masters Won’t Ask Your Pronouns.”
Trump’s interest in Arizona officeseekers like Masters and Lake is anything but casual. For nearly two years running, he has repeatedly cited both his continuing desire to overturn the 2020 presidential election and Arizona’s centrality to that effort. At a rally in Prescott Valley on July 22, Trump spoke glowingly of the G.O.P. state chairwoman, Kelli Ward — “she’s winning so much.” Ward has championed the State Senate’s election audit of Maricopa County, calling it “America’s Audit.” (Arizona election officials had already conducted a succession of recounts and audits before this one by an outfit called Cyber Ninjas, headed by a conservative election denier named Doug Logan, which found in the end that Biden had won 99 more votes and Trump 261 fewer than originally recorded.)
The most telling among Trump’s Arizona endorsements is that of the secretary of state candidate Mark Finchem, whom Trump has described in an official statement as “a true warrior” who took an “incredibly powerful stance on the Massive Voter Fraud that took place in the 2020 Presidential Election Scam.” Indeed, Finchem, as a state representative, was one of Arizona’s first public officials to baselessly claim that the state’s voting machines had been corrupted in Biden’s favor. At a candidate forum I attended in mid-July, Finchem disclosed to the audience that he had charged $5,000 to his personal American Express card to rent out a Phoenix hotel conference room where, on Nov. 30, 2020, he and Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani staged a multihour presentation to Finchem’s fellow state legislators of supposed fraud in Arizona, even as state officials were certifying the election for Biden a few miles away. As secretary of state, Finchem would be Arizona’s top election official during a potential rematch of Trump and Biden in 2024 and could work to invalidate the results, which the current secretary of state, the Democrat Katie Hobbs, now running for governor, refused to do in 2020.
The enmeshment of Finchem and other Arizona Republicans in the tumultuous final weeks of Trump’s presidency is remarkable in its depth and complexity. On Nov. 4, 2020, the day after the election, Representative Paul Gosar conceived the first protest of the results anywhere in the United States, marching to the Maricopa County recorder’s office in Phoenix, where the ballots were still being tallied. Joining Trump’s lawyer Sidney Powell in a postelection lawsuit seeking to invalidate Arizona’s results, on the factually unsupported grounds that “old-fashioned 19th-century ballot stuffing” had occurred there, was the Phoenix lawyer Alexander Kolodin, who on primary night won a seat in the State Legislature (no Democrat will oppose him in the general election). As the flurry of Arizona lawsuits failed one by one, the state’s G.O.P. chairwoman, Ward — who had also filed an unsuccessful election lawsuit — maintained a weekslong pressure campaign against the Republican-controlled Maricopa County Board of Supervisors to throw out the results, saying in one ominous text message (among many that were obtained by The Arizona Republic), “I know you don’t want to be remembered as the guy who led the charge to certify a fraudulent election.”
Two weeks after the Nov. 30 election-fraud hearing convened by Finchem and Giuliani, while state officials were certifying the Arizona results, the official state G.O.P. Twitter account posted a video of Ward and 10 other Republicans signing documents falsely proclaiming themselves to be the state’s electors and declaring the election results illegitimate. Among the phony electors were three Republicans who would later appear on the 2022 primary ballot: the U.S. Senate candidate Jim Lamon and the State Senate candidates Anthony Kern and Jake Hoffman. (Lamon was defeated by Masters; Kern and Hoffman won.) This fake-elector scheme had been in the works for over a month and involved Ginni Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who in emails obtained by The Washington Post urged two Arizona lawmakers, Speaker Rusty Bowers and State Representative Shawnna Bolick, to “take action to ensure that a clean slate of electors is chosen.”
When that maneuver also failed to bear fruit, several Arizona Republicans joined with Trump in attempting a final desperate postelection measure. On Dec. 21, 2020, Gosar and his fellow Arizona congressman Andy Biggs, then the head of the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus, were among a group of G.O.P. House members who met with Trump in the White House to discuss actions including calling on Vice President Mike Pence to decertify the election results unilaterally. Two weeks later, on Jan. 5, 2021, 16 Arizona legislators — Bolick, Kern and Finchem among them — signed a letter to Pence that was also signed by Republican legislators in four other contested states, urging him to delay certifying the election results for 10 days. Pence refused to do so, and on Jan. 6, Kern and Finchem were among the Arizonans who descended on the Capitol. Finchem photographed the riotous mob and posted it on Twitter with the caption, “What happens when the People feel they have been ignored, and Congress refuses to acknowledge rampant fraud.”
As a result of their involvement in Trump’s efforts to steal back the presidency, Finchem, Ward, Biggs and other Arizona Republicans have been issued subpoenas by the Jan. 6 committee. (Though Ward taunted Democrats last year for their resistance to the State Senate audit in Arizona — “What are they hiding?” she demanded at the time — she has since sued to block the committee from obtaining her cellphone records.) Back home in Arizona, however, they have faced no reprisals within their party. Far from it: Their willingness to assist Trump in overturning the 2020 election was rewarded across the boards on primary night.
There was no mystery as to why. According to a state survey of Arizona voters last year, 61 percent of Republicans believed the 2020 election “was stolen from President Trump.” Perhaps not by coincidence, the G.O.P. primary candidates who spoke the most vociferously about fraud in the 2020 elections were those like Kari Lake and Blake Masters, who were not in Trump’s trenches back then and now had to work overtime to prove themselves fit for combat against the enemy.
“We are a Wild West state,” Lake proudly declared to a cheering audience at the Trump rally I attended in January. She was saluting her state’s undomesticated spirit and distinguishing it from what she termed the “socialist garbage” prevalent in California. Much like Texans, residents of the last contiguous state to enter the Union have long evinced a certain pride in their nearly uninhabitable territory, insofar as doing so confers a toughness that their effete neighbors to the west may lack. Lake was no doubt also nodding to the worrisome demographic reality that some 60,000 Californians relocated to Arizona in 2020. What some activists on the right derisively refer to as the looming “Californication” of Arizona — high taxes, increased gun restrictions and liberalization of social values — ranks high on the list of existential anxieties among the state’s conservatives. “They don’t win with their ideas,” Lake said of progressives to her supporters the night before the primary, “because their ideas are what sunk California.”
Roughly 39 percent of Arizona’s land is federally owned. The local hostility to government control, combined with the sense of rough-hewn independence fostered by its desert climate, has meant that conservatism in Arizona has long possessed an extremist underbelly. One former longtime state G.O.P. operative brought up the congressional district long represented by Gosar, which includes most of Mohave and Yavapai Counties, two of the two most conservative in Arizona. (The home page for the Mohave County G.O.P. contains the banner headline, “Protecting Our Republic ... One Voter at a Time.” The Yavapai County G.O.P.’s website includes links to the former Trump adviser Steve Bannon’s podcast as well as to the Gateway Pundit website, which has been banned on Twitter and demonetized by Google for promoting ludicrous conspiracy theories.) “These are the ranchers of the West,” the former operative told me. “They literally will meet you with a gun at their door if you try to say hello. It makes canvassing very difficult.” This person noted that Kingman, a town in Mohave County, was where Timothy McVeigh spent several months discussing with fellow extremists his plans to bomb a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. As the former operative told me, “This is the part of the country where they believe Timothy McVeigh was right.”
Other political observers in Arizona point to Gov. Evan Mecham, elected in 1986 and impeached and removed from office only 15 months into his term (for obstruction of justice and misusing public funds to prop up his ailing auto dealership), as an early sign of a far-right base that Trump would later exploit. Mecham, who rescinded the state holiday honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. while blaming America’s high divorce rate on women’s entering the labor force, vowed to his death that his political career had been undone by a
The bridge between Mecham and Trump would prove to be Joe Arpaio, who took office as Maricopa County sheriff in 1993, five years after Mecham’s removal, and stepped down in 2017 after losing his latest re-election bid. Styling himself as “America’s toughest sheriff,” Arpaio achieved notoriety for his barbaric attitude toward county inmates before later refashioning himself as Arizona’s foremost proponent of strict border-enforcement measures and, later still, as a pioneer of the “birther” conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was born outside the United States. Arpaio became an early spokesman for candidate Trump, who as president would pardon Arpaio after he was found guilty of contempt of court. Arpaio, now 90, was also on the ballot for the Aug. 2 primary, barely losing a campaign to be mayor of Fountain Hills, an affluent town in Maricopa County with a population of some 24,000.
Of course, Arizona’s dominant modern-day political figures — the Democrats Carl Hayden and Morris Udall, the Republicans Goldwater and McCain — have shaped the state and its national standing in ways that Arpaio and Mecham never could. But it’s also the case that McCain, the state’s most powerful Republican for the past quarter-century, commanded as much distrust as he did allegiance from the grass roots. Conservative Christians in Arizona did not readily forgive McCain for denouncing Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as “agents of intolerance” during his first presidential run in 2000. McCain’s partnership with the Democrat Ted Kennedy to reform the nation’s immigration system in 2006 further alienated his conservative constituents. Another grudge was the senator’s opposition to a 2014 Arizona bill that would permit businesses to deny service to gay customers on religious grounds, insisting that in Arizona, “We welcome all people of all persuasions.”
That year, despite McCain’s status as a war hero, the Arizona G.O.P. censured him “for his continued disservice to our state and nation,” in essence accusing its best-known Republican — and the 2008 G.O.P. presidential candidate — of being a RINO. Following the censure, several McCain associates set up a political action committee called Arizona Grassroots Action and aggressively filled vacant precinct committee seats with loyalists, who in turn voted for like-minded party chairs.
Among the precinct committeemen who continued to view McCain with disfavor was a libertarian-leaning engineering technology professor at Mesa Community College named Joe Neglia. In 2012, Neglia attended the state party convention and watched with chagrin as the Republican establishment used delay tactics to deprive Ron Paul of any delegates and ensure victory for the presidential nominee Mitt Romney. “It was a day that really changed my life,” he told me in mid-July over breakfast in Tempe. “Because I thought: This can’t possibly be right. This can’t possibly happen.”
Neglia began to catalog the means by which the party establishment maintained the upper hand: how, in 2015, they brought in busloads of McCain supporters to a party meeting so that the senator would not be greeted entirely by boos; how, in 2016, they invoked an obscure rule to shut down an “Endorse Anyone but McCain” resolution. “That’s when I started studying to become a parliamentarian,” Neglia told me. “Now I’ve got the RINOs running scared, because every meeting I go to, they see me, and they know they can’t get away with anything anymore.”
A former Maricopa County G.O.P. chairwoman, Rae Chornenky, ruefully described to me how Neglia turned the tables at the state party meeting in January 2019. “We were deciding who the next state chairman would be, and Neglia threw a bomb in the middle of it,” she said. “He insisted on a roll-call vote, so that people would have to say out loud who they voted for. In politics, you don’t always want to have to do that. It’s because of that procedure that many people feel she was able to eke out her win.”
“She” was Kelli Ward, an osteopathic physician, Tea Party activist and state senator who unsuccessfully challenged McCain in the 2016 Senate primary and subsequently failed to win a Senate primary in 2018. (Ward would later suggest in one of her books that her loss to McCain may have been due to fraud.) “McCain was like a Mafia don,” Ward told me, “whose henchmen were willing to take out people who wouldn’t kiss his ring. That’s why it’s so painful now for his cronies, because they’re used to being rewarded for their loyalty, just like in the mob. And we are seeing a resurgence or a surge of populist grass-roots people who understand how our country was founded and are tired of that kind of machinery controlling the Republican Party.”
Ward’s evocation of mobster fealty in McCain’s circle might strike some as ironic, given her unyielding fidelity to Donald Trump, whom she first met at Mar-a-Lago in December 2017, tweeting seven months later, “Every day I thank God for @realDonaldTrump & the amazing job he is doing to #MakeAmericaGreatAgain both here at home & across the world.” In February, Ward self-published a book about the State Senate audit titled “Justified: The Story of America’s Audit” and dedicated it “to President Donald J. Trump, the 45th president of the United States of America, who should still be president today.” Though the audit failed to achieve the objective of demonstrating fraud, the taxpayer-funded exercise counted as a huge win for Ward’s party organization, which raised over a million dollars during the time of the audit, far more than it did the previous year. As the G.O.P. consultant who works in Western states told me, “The audit was a tremendous windfall for the party, it was good business, the small dollar donations went through the roof.”
Ward now sits atop the state G.O.P. hierarchy, which has made her an object of carping from the grass roots, who wonder whether she is drifting away from their ideals. “Even she will violate the rules that we have,” Neglia told me, and he then went on to describe how Ward defied “Robert’s Rules of Order” in abruptly shutting down a party meeting this past January just as Neglia was trying to argue for a transparency measure. Still, Neglia remains an ally of Ward’s — “She’s definitely not a RINO,” he said — and now shares with her the view that widespread fraud tainted the 2020 election.
What persuaded Neglia, he said, was the stolen-election film polemic “2000 Mules,” directed by Dinesh D’Souza, whom Trump pardoned four years ago after D’Souza pleaded guilty to making illegal campaign contributions. Neglia told me that he met D’Souza in May at the Maricopa County G.O.P.’s annual Lincoln Day lunch. “Very nice, reasonable guy,” he said. “I don’t think he has a dishonest bone in his body.”
“So I was in the movie ‘2000 Mules,’ and I’ve been on that issue nonstop,” said Charlie Kirk as he stood before a gathering of fellow Republicans at a restaurant in the Maricopa County town Goodyear on a Thursday night in July. Kirk, 28, is the leader of the Phoenix-based conservative youth organization Turning Point USA, arguably the nation’s most high-profile Trump-adjacent activist group. He was there to raise campaign funds on behalf of his Turning Point lieutenant Austin Smith, who was running in a State House primary, which he would go on to win on Aug. 2. (Smith, in his brief stump speech that night, paid tribute to Trump announcing his presidential bid in 2015 as “a guy with golden hair coming down a golden escalator to save our country.”) But after a few perfunctory words of support for Smith, Kirk — an accomplished orator who combines earnestness, comic timing and doomful soothsaying in one smooth and youthful package — proceeded to describe, unhinged from the fact-based world, how America in general and Arizona in particular rested on a knife edge of anarchy.
“We’ve taught our kids to hate themselves, hate the country and believe there is no God,” Kirk told the audience. “And we wonder why our country’s falling apart.” Kirk told the crowd he knew who was responsible: the Democrats. “They want 7,000 illegals across the border to come into our country every day. They want C.R.T. They want this graphic transgenderism in our schools.” As with Kari Lake’s good-versus-evil formulation, Kirk went on to describe the stakes in zero-sum terms: “There’s no compromise when you want to teach 8-year-olds transgender sexual education. I’m sorry, there’s no bargaining. There’s no compromise here. I’m just going to have to get more votes than you, and we’re going to have to defeat you.”
Kirk helped start Turning Point USA in 2012. His organization did not take long to become one of the nation’s leading promoters of political disinformation. During the 2016 presidential election, a study conducted for the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence found, memes created by Kirk’s group were amplified by the Russian troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency as part of Russia’s effort to aid Trump’s candidacy. Two years later, according to an investigation by The Guardian, Kirk’s organization contracted an Arizona digital marketing firm, Rally Forge, to promote deceptive messages on Facebook with the apparent objective of persuading some Democratic voters to peel away and side with Green Party candidates, as was the case in 2016, when Jill Stein’s vote totals in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin exceeded Trump’s margin of victory in those three swing states.
In 2020, The Washington Post reported that Turning Point Action (an affiliate of Turning Point USA) commissioned Rally Forge to churn out disinformation about Covid and election security, using a Phoenix-based campaign likened to a troll farm that included teenagers as employees. That same year, Rally Forge’s chief executive, Jake Hoffman, was banned from Twitter. He was also elected to Arizona’s Legislature and was among the group of Arizona Republicans who, with Kelli Ward, proclaimed themselves to be electors in seeking to overturn Trump’s defeat. Hoffman is now vice-chairman of the state’s House Committee on Government and Elections and on primary night became a G.O.P. nominee for the State Senate.
The effect of disinformation on the growing extremism of Arizona’s conservative activist community was described to me by a former state Republican operative who asked not to be named so that he could speak candidly about a trend he found to be disturbing. He told me that he frequently received emails from several of the state’s conservative precinct committeepersons. “I’ve never known a group of people, many of whom I genuinely liked, to be so misinformed,” the former operative told me. “I wish I could send you a file of memes that I’ve seen from them over the years. They’re lies or half-truths designed to incite rage. So, what ends up happening is you start to get all these clustered groups that start to spread disinformation, but they’re also the same people that are the root source of power in Arizona’s political system, which is the local precinct committee.”
Arizona, the former operative said, is particularly susceptible to the churn of disinformation, owing to its large population of retirees. “These are all folks that have traded in their suit pants for sweatpants,” he said. “They’re on the golf course, or they’re in hobby mode. They have more than enough time on their hands. They’re digesting six to 10 hours of Fox News a day. They’re reading on Facebook. They’re meeting with each other to talk about those headlines. And they’re outraged that, ‘Can you believe that the government is lying to us about this?’”
At the event held in Prescott by the Lions of Liberty, I asked Rose Sperry, the G.O.P. state committeewoman, which information outlet she most trusted. She immediately replied, “OAN” — One America News, the Trump-touting network that provided daily coverage of “America’s Audit” in Arizona even as one of its show hosts, Christina Bobb, was helping to raise funds for and directly coordinate the operation between the Trump team and state officials.
One guest on OAN’s heavy rotation over the past year has been the secretary of state candidate Mark Finchem, who appeared on a broadcast last September to discuss the State Senate audit of the 2020 election, accompanied by a chyron that read, “Exposing the Crime of the Century.” In July, I drove to Fountain Hills, where Finchem was speaking at a candidate forum hosted by the Republican Women of the Hills. Finchem sidled up to the microphone with a pistol conspicuously strapped to his right hip. After describing his work history in law enforcement, the private sector and Arizona politics, he then offered a different sort of qualification. With a grin, Finchem said, “The Atlantic put out a piece yesterday: I’m the most dangerous person to democracy in America.”
The article Finchem was referring to did not designate him “the most dangerous person” — but rather as one of “dozens” of election-denying candidates who “present the most significant threat to American democracy in decades.” Regardless, the notion of Arizona’s G.O.P. secretary of state front-runner as a threat to democracy was received rapturously. Several women in the audience yelled out “Whooo!” and applauded.
Throughout Arizona’s 2022 political season, the proactive denigration of democracy among Republicans became a chorus that was impossible to ignore in meetings, speeches and rallies across the state. “By the way,” Charlie Kirk made a point of saying at the fund-raiser in Goodyear, “we don’t have a democracy. OK? Just to fact check. We’re a republic.” At a gathering in Mesa that I attended in July, held by the conservative group United Patriots AZ, the evening’s host, Jeffrey Crane, asked the audience, “Are we a democracy?” They responded loudly: “Nooooo! Republic!”
In each case, the very notion of democracy was raised not so much to win a scholarly point but rather to shine a spotlight on it as an offending object. When I mentioned this emerging antagonism to McCain’s longtime state director, Bettina Nava, she was genuinely stunned. Reflecting on her former boss’s brand of conservatism, Nava told me: “At the root of it all was his deep belief in the experiment of democracy. When I was his state director, we met with everybody. And there were times when it was perfectly friendly and others where it was contentious. But he never shied away from it, because disagreement didn’t equal hate.” Nava feared for the Republican Party she once served. “In my lifetime, I never imagined this attack on democracy,” she said. “I’ve been asking myself: Will this movement die out with Trump? Or are we the ones that will die out? Are we the Whigs?”
Nava was describing a democracy reliant on a notion of comity that was no longer in evidence. As McCain’s grip on Arizona waned, Arizona conservatives began gradually to part ways with his beloved democratic experiment. That experiment had worked in the past, so long as the democratic principles in question redounded to the benefit of the state’s ruling conservative base. Arizona Republican legislators led the way three decades ago in championing early voting, and Republican voters overwhelmingly chose to cast their ballots by mail, at least until the 2020 election. But by Primary Day in August, many Arizona Republicans had come to view such conveniences, against all evidence, as a trap laid by a wily leftist conspiracy bent on engineering Democratic victories.
I spent that morning visiting about a dozen voting centers throughout deeply conservative Yavapai County, from Black Canyon City to Yarnell to Congress. Outside the Cottonwood Bible Church, a young bearded man in a camouflage shirt politely greeted every voter with a fistful of ballpoint pens he had purchased for the occasion. “I know they were passing out the felt-tip pens last election and not all the votes counted,” the young man said, referring to the disproved claim that election workers in Maricopa County sought to invalidate Republican ballots in 2020 by forcing voters to use Sharpies. “I just wanted to do my part.”
At a voting center in Clarkdale, three senior citizens, all G.O.P. precinct committeepersons, sat in folding chairs directly in front of the town’s only voting drop box a few yards away. When a car idled up, they craned their necks to see whether the driver was trying to stuff the box with multiple ballots, which “2,000 Mules” claimed was a frequent tactic. Two hours into their vigil, there had been no suspicious activity.
One of them, a woman named Sandy Jenocovich, led me to a nearby booth they had set up. It included leaflets for the conservative candidates they favored, as well as free copies of the Constitution, “in case anybody wants one, not that the Democrats go by it, because they certainly don’t,” she snorted. I asked Jenocovich about the hostility toward democracy I had heard voiced throughout Arizona. Nodding, she replied: “Well to me, what a democracy is, is like 51 percent of the people can decide that they want my property, and they can take it. Where a constitutional republic is: No, you can’t do that.” The three precinct committeepersons agreed that Republicans needed to “take it back” in 2022, lest critical race theory become embedded in school curriculums and children be urged to change their gender on a whim.
That evening, at Lake’s election-watch party in Scottsdale, the ebullient gathering — many of the attendees young and wearing date-night attire — grew restive as her opponent, Karrin Taylor Robson, held onto a commanding lead for several hours. Having been told for the past two years that early voting was rife with corruption, Lake’s supporters had mostly cast their ballots on Primary Day, and the totals were slow to come in. The candidate finally emerged onstage at close to 11 to assure the crowd that Primary Day’s voters were breaking her way — adding, “There is no path to victory for my opponent.”
Then Lake’s speech took a conspiratorial turn. “This is how they do it. They want to try to take you down in this movement. They don’t want you to celebrate.”
It wasn’t clear who “they” were in Lake’s scenario. By that point, there were news reports of widespread problems in Republican-dominated Pinal County, just to the south of Maricopa County. A miscalculation by election officials there had resulted in a shortage of ballots in several precincts, with some 750 voters being turned away (though most if not all were given the opportunity to vote later that day). “What in the hell is going on?” Lake exclaimed. To many in the audience, the question itself was enough and did not require an answer. Any glitch or ambiguity on voting day would be sufficient to dispute any future election results that did not emphatically produce the outcome desired by the ascendant reactionary right.
“That’s a compromised election,” Mark Finchem, the secretary of state candidate, said to me of Pinal County. “These are people who were disenfranchised.” He had arrived at Lake’s party after his own victory was all but assured. I approached him after he finished an interview with a reporter for the far-right outlet Real America’s Voice. Finchem told me that he had spent part of the day monitoring a voting center. I said that I had encountered other such monitors north of here. Given their prevalence, I asked him, was there any reason at all to suspect anything more devious than human error in Pinal County? Finchem thought for a second as beads of sweat rolled down from underneath his cowboy hat. Then, grimly, he answered.
“Everything is suspect right now.”