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Arizona puts Trump’s political influence to the test

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Arizona is shaping up to be the next high-stakes test of Donald Trump’s political power, as the former president’s endorsed candidates face off against a slate of establishment-backed Republicans.

The proxy battle kicks into high gear this weekend when Trump will hold a rally Friday for his favored candidates, including gubernatorial hopeful Kari Lake, while former Vice President Mike Pence will stump for one of Lake’s opponents, Karrin Taylor Robson.

The dueling rallies come as Trump continues to double down on unfounded claims that he won the 2020 election, putting particular focus on Arizona, where the former president has sought to quash dissent among the GOP ranks. Other Republicans, meanwhile, are hoping to turn the page on the election, insisting that relitigating it is a recipe for disaster in the midterms and 2024.

“It’s a very defining moment for the Republican Party because it doesn’t get more obvious than this proxy war between Trump and the powers in the party,” said Arizona-based pollster Mike Noble, chief research and managing partner at OH Predictive insights. 

And Trump is seeking to make his influence known in other Arizona-based races ahead of the primaries. The former president has thrown his support behind Republican Senate candidate Blake Masters, attorney general candidate Abe Hamadeh, and secretary of state candidate state Sen. Mark Finchem (R). Lake, Masters, Hamadeh and Finchem are all set to attend Trump’s rally on Friday. 

Trump’s endorsed candidates in Arizona have touted his false claims that the 2020 election was stolen and that there was widespread fraud in the Grand Canyon State and others.

The 2020 Arizona election results have been a focus for Trump going back to the presidential contest nearly two years ago. Biden won the state, where Trump made a number of stops during the campaign, by less than a point. Under pressure from Trump, the state’s GOP-controlled Senate ordered a so-called audit of the election results. However, the suit ended up affirming Biden’s win in the state. 

The former president’s influence was especially felt this week by state Senate candidate and Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers (R). On Wednesday, the Arizona GOP executive committee censured Bowers after he testified before the Jan. 6 Committee in Washington about Trump’s efforts to pressure him to sway the 2020 election. Trump has endorsed Bowers’s opponent in the state Senate race, David Farnsworth, and recently called on Republican voters in a statement to “replace [Bowers] in the ballot box” in the August primary.

“I expect him to spend some energy dumping on Rusty tomorrow,” said one Republican operative with ties to Arizona. 

Trump has also attacked state Attorney General Mark Brnovich (R) for not taking what he believes to be an aggressive-enough role in overturning the presidential election results in Arizona. 

“He likes Farnsworth enough but he hates Rusty Bowers,” the Republican operative with ties to Arizona said. “Sure, he likes Blake Masters enough, but he hates Mark Brnovich.”

Arizona Republicans argue that Trump’s endorsement plays a bigger role in boosting lesser-known figures like Farnsworth versus more well-funded candidates like Masters. 

Having the Trump name allows lesser-known candidates to bring in more cash, unlike candidates like Masters, who already had the help of GOP mega-donor Peter Thiel by the time he was endorsed by Trump. 

“It’s not the JD Vance situation where he sort of pulled him out of third place and rocket-fueled him,” the operative said, referring to another one of Thiel’s endorsed Senate candidates who recently won the GOP Senate primary in Ohio. 

Others argue that the former president’s stamp of approval goes farther in crowded primaries, like Arizona’s secretary of state primary, where Trump can boost a candidate in a crowded field. However, it may not have as strong of an effect in races like the GOP gubernatorial primary, which is seen as a two-person race. 

“I think the Trump endorsement has helped Kari Lake, but at this point, she’s kind of plateaued,” said Lorna Romero, an Arizona-based GOP strategist who worked on the late Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) 2016 reelection bid. “Since they’re [Lake and Robson] the only two Republicans, at this point they’re fighting over the undecideds and independents that poll Republican ballots, and those are not individuals that tend to be swayed by a Trump endorsement.” 

Supporters say the president’s focus on the state goes farther back than the 2020 election, pointing to Arizona as the site of one of his first major rallies in the 2016 election. 

“I would argue in ‘16 that the first sign that this Donald Trump thing is not a sideshow but is actually real was the Arizona rally,” the operative with ties to Arizona said. “He gets a great response here. It’s an active crowd.” 

The state was also home to Trump’s first rally of the midterm cycle earlier this year. 

Additionally, some of Trump’s biggest political cheerleaders hail from the Grand Canyon State, including Arizona Republican Party Chair Kelli Ward, Reps. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) and Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), and former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. 

It’s also a state where Trump has performed relatively well in elections. In 2016, he defeated then-Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by roughly three points before barely losing to Biden in 2020. 

But those elections were close, and questions remain about whether Trump-endorsed candidates can win a general election in a state that produced moderate political figures on both sides of the aisle like McCain and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.).

“It’s a right-of-center state that really looks at the candidate,” said Chuck Warren, a national Republican strategist who has done work in Arizona. 

And as national Republicans are zeroing in on inflation, crime and the flow of migrants over the southern border, Trump’s endorsed candidates have focused more on election integrity and the 2020 presidential election results. 

“Democrats are handing the top issue on a silver platter to Republicans to just take it and run with it and just focus on the economy,” Romero said. “These distractions are what could have a Republican potentially lose in a general election here.” 

Still, Trump-backed Republican candidates insist that it’s policy that comes first. In a statement to The Hill, Hamadeh’s campaign touted Trump’s “America First” policies while bashing the Biden administration. 

“President Trump and his America First policies still remain popular, especially after living under the disastrous policies of President Biden and the radical left the last two years,” the campaign said in a statement. 

If Trump’s endorsed candidates do come out of their primaries, it remains unclear what their strategy will be to branch out beyond the conservative base once attention turns to the general election in November. 

“Are they going to be able to shift their narrative within the 8 to 10 weeks before the general?” Romero said. “I don’t know how that translates well for them in a general election.”