Republican Senate candidates who won uncontested primaries have expressed varying levels of support for a unfounded and wide-ranging conspiracy theory which holds that Donald Trump is fighting an elite cabal of business leaders, celebrities, media professionals and politicians engaged in Satanic worship and child sex trafficking.
The most vocal proponent of the QAnon conspiracy theory in Arizona politics, Legislative District 18 Senate candidate Suzanne Sharer, posts regularly to Facebook and Twitter about QAnon and engages in speculation about hidden messages from “Q,” who believers maintain is a high-level government employee — possibly an alive John F. Kennedy Jr. — fighting a corrupt national government from the inside.
Tucson Senate candidate Justine Wadsack, a Purple for Parents activist who toyed with a run for Congress before opting to challenge Rep. Kirsten Engel, D-Tucson, for the open Legislative District 10 Senate seat, has tweeted hashtags used by QAnon supporters. And in July, Republican Sen. Vince Leach of Saddlebrooke included a cartoon of Trump, former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and a man with a “Q” for a head stepping on kneeling figures labeled “globalists,” “Marxists” and “traitors” in his daily flood of political cartoons on Facebook.
Sharer and Leach did not return calls for comment. When reached by phone, Wadsack threatened to file a complaint for harassment if any more reporters asked her about her use of QAnon hashtags. She landed on a list of national QAnon-supporting candidates compiled by the left-leaning Media Matters for America for her repeated use of the slogan and hashtag “Where we go one, we go all” or “#WWG1GA” — a quote from the 1996 Jeff Bridges sailing flick “White Squall” that QAnon supporters attribute to former President John F. Kennedy.
Wadsack insisted reporters are trying to link every Republican candidate to QAnon to sabotage their election chances.
“You are all working for the Democrats and your mission right now before the election is to try and pin every Republican in our nation on QAnon bullsh–,” she said.
Wadsack, running against a longtime lawmaker in a district where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by more than 13,000, was always a long-shot candidate. But Sharer, whose south Tempe/Ahwatukee-based district was at least partially represented by Republicans until two years ago, represents an attempt by a fringe candidate to win in a competitive district.
Incumbent Sen. Sean Bowie, D-Phoenix, said he started reading about the QAnon theory after congressional candidates indicated they believe it helped them win their primary races in red districts in Colorado and Georgia this summer. It was a shock to learn that his opponent believed the same things, he said.
“It’s just really concerning to find out that my opponent has posted about this hundreds of times over the years,” Bowie said. “I mean, she’s running to represent one of the most competitive districts in the state. She believes in this.”
Bowie said he’s trying to make sure voters know about the conspiracy-minded posts Sharer has shared, which range from tweets and Facebook posts speculating about “Q” to videos in which she claims COVID-19 is a ruse to control people’s behaviors.
Sharer’s involvement with QAnon appears to have started at least two years ago. In July 2018, she posted a video called the “Great Awakening” that serves as a primer on QAnon theories to her Facebook and Twitter pages, adding: “I think this is still not the full story but a great place to start understanding what is and has been happening. I would love to see your thoughts.”
In the intervening months, she has publicly engaged with other QAnon-supporting Facebook and Twitter users. On Twitter, where she goes by the handle “@blondeandsmart,” Sharer responded on April 9 to someone who expressed confusion as to the deeper meaning of a tweet describing Vice President Mike Pence’s schedule, writing: “I’m with you. I figured a lot of this out myself over the years but now how it all ties into Q and current events and codes…help! Lol”.
Later that month, she commented that “Q” had been quiet, then added: “But Q calculates his silences to mean something. He’s planned it forwards and backwards it seems so I’m quite curious. 10 days will be the 29th.”
Twitter banned more than 7,000 accounts associated with QAnon – including many to which Sharer had replied – in late July shortly after people involved with QAnon propagated a viral theory that furniture company Wayfair was selling children in overpriced cabinets.
Sharer suggested Bowie was personally to blame for her loss in followers after Twitter banned those accounts, tweeting August 7 in response to former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka that the site “just took down many followers of mine coincidentally after my Democrat opponent for State Senate decided to attack me for my interest in Q discussions! Called me extreme and radical! This is how the left silences their opposition!”
Republicans in LD18 didn’t get a chance to really vet Sharer because she ran unopposed in her primary, said Triadvocates principal Mike Gardner, who represented parts of what became LD18 for three terms in the House in the 1990s.
Gardner, who’s still actively involved in Republican circles in the East Valley, said he had heard something about Sharer retweeting accounts linked to QAnon, but he didn’t know the extent of her involvement.
“I live in the district and I’m very active and very involved,” he said. “It’s not common knowledge that she might have some of those views.”
LD18 has moved to the left with an influx of new residents, particularly those who work in the East Valley tech sector. The shift is in keeping with a nationwide move among educated, upper-middle class suburbanites from supporting Republicans to backing Democrats after Trump became the Republican Party’s flag-bearer. When Bowie won his first election in 2016, Republicans held a 6,000-voter edge – now registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 4,000.
Even before Democrats began winning elections in the East Valley, the district tended to elect more moderate Republicans. Three of its last four Republican lawmakers, Bob Robson, Jeff Dial and John McComish, voted for Medicaid expansion; McComish also opposed anti-immigration measures pushed by SB1070 author and former Senate President Russell Pearce.
The last Republican to represent LD18, Tea Party member Jill Norgaard, recruited Sharer to run.
Traditional Republican candidates could still win in LD18, and Republicans are optimistic that Robson will manage to take a House seat this year, Gardner said.
“Mainstream Republicans, traditional Bob Robson-type Republicans, it’s getting harder and harder to find those types of Republicans who are willing to stand up and run for office, especially against somebody like Sean,” Gardner said.
QAnon materials have started drifting into Arizona’s mainstream politics as well. Over Independence Day weekend, Rep. Jay Lawrence, R-Scottsdale, tweeted: “Qanon Patriotic Americans who support President Trump,” only to apologize for that statement the next morning, saying he knew “practically nothing” about the group and wrongly thought they were just patriotic Americans being attacked for supporting Trump.
“Now I think half of them are rather nuts,” Lawrence said. “I do miss the simpler days when someone could say something patriotic and you could applaud without having to first make sure they don’t also think that Oprah and Tom Hanks secretly control the world. Oh well, lesson learned and yet another reason to be cautious before deciding on and sharing an opinion.”
The internet, and social media in particular, makes it easier for people to engage with conspiracy content, sometimes without even realizing, said Keith Brown, director of the Melikian Center at Arizona State University.
“Politicians and others might pick out a cartoon that particularly appeals to them, they might pick out a slogan that particularly appeals to them, but they haven’t necessarily spent the time working out where that image comes from and how they’re being generated,” Brown said.
For QAnon believers in particular, seeing political figures like Trump share their messages serves to validate the theory.
Brown and fellow ASU professor Braden Allenby, who teaches engineering and ethics, both pointed to social media and social isolation as factors that enable people to become entrenched in conspiracy theories. Bots that engage with QAnon-related posts reinforce ideas that real people might question, and someone who already mistrusted the government can be open to the theories underlying QAnon, Allenby said.
Wadsack has had her battles with the government. She spent years locked in a fight with the state Department of Child Safety over her use of a medically prescribed “safety bed” that resembles a wooden cage for a teenage daughter with severe disabilities.
Since last summer, Wadsack’s fellow parent activists in Purple for Parents have pushed an unfounded theory that Democratic Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman seeks to sexualize children because of her support of comprehensive sex education in schools. In August, right-wing internet personalities took those attacks a step further, claiming in viral Facebook posts that Hoffman literally groomed children for pedophiles.
Wadsack denied that she believed in QAnon, then pivoted to explaining, without evidence, that Democrats who want to keep businesses closed are doxxing – publishing private identifying information about – customers and business owners and the government is encouraging them to snitch through the Department of Health Services’ complaint hotline.
She volunteered to send lesson plans from the Tucson Unified School District that prove the district is trying to “indoctrinate” children into the Black Lives Matter movement, but did not share those documents.
“We want you to talk about the real issues,” Wadsack said. “But when the first words out of your mouth is ‘QAnon,’ it’s wrong. You’re not talking about Antifa or BLM.”