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Arizona GOP primaries pit traditionalists against Trump-backed hopefuls

Cartels, QAnon and election conspiracies find their home in the state's GOP primaries.

PHOENIX (CN) — Arizona’s August primary election is playing out like so many others, pitting traditional Republicans against candidates endorsed by former President Donald Trump.

Election integrity, border security and fentanyl trafficking are key issues Republicans hope to address in the state come November. Each candidate seemingly reflects a similar party line in their stance. However, subtleties are driving the campaign approach.

Topping Trump's list in the race for governor is Kari Lake. The former broadcast journalist has a penchant for controversial remarks while advocating for hardline issues, like battling drug trafficking over the U.S.-Mexico border.

“The narco-terrorists are in control of our border, it’s unacceptable,” she said in a rally in March. “The CCP [Chinese Communist Party] is sending up fentanyl into our communities to kill our children and to weaken America, and we have had enough. We’re done.”

Her messaging resonates with a zealous GOP base disillusioned by the perception of rising crime and drug-related activity. Arizona has seen its share of a national increase in recent years.

According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, 2,006 Arizonans died from opioid overdoses in 2021, up 117% from 923 in 2017. Data from the National Institute of Health shows an increase of 47% nationally in that same period.

Trump’s endorsement comes with excellent support but also carries a significant burden for the recipient. Lake pulls no punches in airing Trump's election fraud allegations. 

During a debate in June, Lake told the moderator that President Joe Biden wasn’t legitimately elected and asked other candidates running on the Republican ticket to confirm their thoughts.

“He lost the election, and he shouldn't be in the White House,” she said. “We had a corrupt election. I'd actually like to ask everybody on this stage, if they would agree, [that] we had a corrupt, stolen election. Raise your hand.”

Of the four candidates, Lake’s closest competitor, Karrin Taylor Robson, was the only one not to raise a hand, and there may be a good reason.

Thomas Volgy, a political science professor at the University of Arizona, suggests election deniers could disillusion voters who don’t see the benefit of it.

“Election deniers have credibility within the GOP primaries, but they don't appear to have much credibility when it comes to Democratic or independent voters,” he said. “In a state like Arizona where the primary comes close to the general election, this likely means that it will be difficult for these candidates to pivot back to the center on this issue.”

In the same debate, Robson stopped short of perpetuating fraud claims, instead opting for a more subtle take.

“I didn't have the evidence in front of me,” she said. “I'm a lawyer … it's like acting on a piece of legislation that I haven't read. I wasn't sitting there. I was not privy to the [governor’s] information.”

Outside election fraud claims, Robson shares Lake’s sentiments about the border, drugs, protecting the Second Amendment, and even finishing Trump’s border wall.

Volgy believes issues like the border and different copy-and-paste GOP stances won’t make a candidate stand out.

“Border issues will not make much of a difference in the primary since almost all the GOP candidates appear to have some very far-right positions,” he said. “It is particularly strange that they would want to use Arizona resources for border issues since state actions appear to be grandstanding more than having an actual impact on the problem. This is more likely to be an issue for candidates for federal rather than state office.”

According to a recent survey by OH Predictive Insights, polling suggests Robson may have an advantage with traditionalist undecided Republicans over the populist Trump-driven conservative.


Results found that likely GOP voters who support the Republican Party over Trump are more than twice as likely to support Robson at 47% than Lake at 22%. Conversely, Trump-era Republicans supported Lake at a rate of 57% to Robson's 24%.

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich is banking on a similar traditionalist strategy as Robson in the race for U.S. Senate. In 2022, he, alongside fellow Republican Governor Doug Ducey, certified the presidential election for Biden. 

Since then, he has drawn the continued ire of Trump, who maintains that Brnovich refused to act on election fraud concerns.

“Mark Brnovich is such a disappointment to me,” Trump said in a June statement. “He is the current Arizona Attorney General, and while he understands what took place in the 2020 Presidential Election, and that it was Rigged and Stolen, he only views it as something he would like not to see happen again. The Arizona State Senate gave him overwhelming evidence of fraud and irregularities, issued a report which was damning, and he did nothing about it. In other words, all talk and no action!”

According to an OH Predictive Insights poll in January, Brnovich enjoyed a comfortable 14-point lead in the polls. In recent months as Trump questioned Brnovich’s inaction on election fraud concerns, that lead has whittled away.

In June, after Trump endorsed Blake Masters for the Senate seat, Masters eclipsed Brnovich by 14 points in a Public Policy Polling poll.

Masters, an understudy of Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley billionaire with anti-regulation free-market ideologies — has seen his share of controversy. 

In April, Masters blamed "Black people" for gun violence while appearing on "The Jeff Oravits Show." 

“It’s gangs. It’s people in Chicago, St. Louis shooting each other," Masters said. "Very often, you know, Black people, frankly. And the Democrats don’t want to do anything about that.”

Masters doubled down on his comments after they were widely publicized in June.

"Journalists only cover shootings where the shooters and victims fit a certain profile," he said in a statement. "But most victims of gun murder in America are Black men. And most perpetrators of gun murder in America are Black men. These are simple facts, go look up the FBI crime statistics and CDC cause of death data while you still can."

In Arizona's 2nd Congressional District, one of the largest in the country spanning northern and central Arizona, a current state representative is in a dominating lead for the Republican ticket over a man purported to have started the QAnon movement.

According to a co/efficient poll from June, Walt Blackman leads the pack with 26% support. Ron Watkins, who has denied claims he is the architect of the QAnon movement, polls at 1%.

Watkins campaigns mainly on election fraud claims but hopes to fund the border outside of his congressional district.

“The coyotes looked me in the eyes, and they ran away,” Watkins said during an April debate about his trip to the border. “When I was down there, I saw more coyotes than I saw Border Patrol. When I get into Congress, I'm going to make sure we bring that money back for the Border Patrol, and perhaps even bring in more because … if fentanyl is coming through the Arizona border, if children are being trafficked through, that affects everybody in the entire country.”

Volgy believes issues and sentiments like Watkins’ don’t resonate and aren’t profound.

“What concerns me is the hypocrisy that candidates have shown with respect to a meaningful solution to the border,” he said. “Immigration reform is clearly the answer, and that must occur at the federal level. Everything else appears to be in the realm of grandstanding.”

Blackman’s closest competitor appears to be Eli Crane, a former Navy Seal, who is polling at 5%.

Blackman is running on bringing monetary growth to his constituents.

“I ran a bill that passed that gave $1 million into internet … infrastructure in rural Arizona, that's going to bring jobs and that's going to also bring revenue,” he said during an April debate. “Navajo County is the poorest county, in my district and in the state. So, we need to look for ways to innovate new ideas for job opportunities for job development.”

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