As the Arizona Senate debated the merits of allowing the sale of cocktails–to–go on the morning of May 13, a standoff between several dozen diehard Trump supporters and a smaller, but just as vocal, contingent of progressive activists seeking an end to the Senate’s audit of the 2020 election was erupting just outside.
That scene – a peaceful debate about an unrelated issue on the second floor of the Senate, a screaming match about the audit below – highlighted the lengths to which senators have tried to distance themselves from the audit being conducted in their name. The Senate GOP’s recount of Maricopa County ballots, which is now on track to drag on at least a month longer than it was originally expected to end, is the only Arizona political topic on most people’s minds, but most senators would rather talk about anything else.
Rank-and-file Senate Republicans say the audit is up to Senate President Karen Fann or Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Warren Petersen, the two people who signed subpoenas for the ballots.
Petersen regularly defers questions to Fann, who defers to the contractors she hired or Ken Bennett, the former Republican secretary of state moonlighting as the Senate’s liaison for the audit. Bennett, meanwhile, insists only Fann or the professional auditors can answer basic questions, including who’s funding the remaining cost beyond the $150,000 the Senate agreed to pay.
With their ongoing audit, as with all discourse about the 2020 election, almost all Senate Republicans have fallen into one of two camps: banging the drum about election fraud claims believed by huge segments of their base, or ignoring the recount a few blocks north to focus on legislation.
In the first camp are people like Sen. Wendy Rogers, a freshman Republican from Flagstaff who so fervently admires President Trump that she waged an unsuccessful campaign to name a state highway in her district after him.
“Multiple courts already determined we have the legal authority to subpoena the ballots for this audit,” Rogers wrote in an email to supporters last week. “The Dems are just terrified that we will find the truth: That Arizona went for President Trump.”
In the other are people like Sen. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, who says he doesn’t expect the Senate’s audit to find evidence of fraud or change any minds. Once the process is complete, Shope said he expects that people who trust the election system will maintain that trust and people who believe the election was full of fraud will still believe it was somehow stolen.
In Shope’s eyes, Petersen is responsible for the audit, just as Shope was responsible for an ethics investigation into former Rep. David Stringer, who resigned in disgrace after police reports detailing decades-old allegations of child molestation resurfaced. Shope was the House Ethics Committee chairman at the time, and other House members outside the Ethics Committee knew of the investigation but were not involved.
While he acknowledged that most people probably won’t draw a distinction between the Senate and its judiciary chairman, he also doesn’t think most Arizonans are paying much attention to the audit.
“I think outside of our bubble, people aren’t as interested or have moved on overall,” he said. “Within our bubble we like to talk about it.”
Fellow Republican Sen. J.D. Mesnard of Chandler, meanwhile, said his constituents are paying more attention to the audit than he is. His unsuccessful 2020 running mate, Liz Harris, tried to organize canvassers to go door-to-door interrogating voters about their voting history as part of a planned but ultimately abandoned portion of the audit. She also widely shared the personal cell phone number of the sole Republican senator to vote against holding Maricopa County’s supervisors in contempt for seeking court guidance on responding to subpoenas they said violated state law. She also films multiple daily videos about alleged fraud.
At one legislative district meeting Mesnard attended during litigation over the audit, he recalled mentioning that there was a new judge on the case only to have the room shout the new judge’s name back at him. But while his constituents – at least those who regularly attend Republican party meetings – are closely tracking every development in the ongoing count, Mesnard said he tries to avoid it.
“Maybe I’m living in a box because I hear various things, people getting worked up about this or that, but I’m not aware of what specific thing happened,” Mesnard said. “Am I following all the Twitter wars about it and every article that I knew from the beginning would not be kind? I am not.”
Critics of the Senate’s audit regularly appeal to Mesnard, Shope and Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, as the “reasonable” Republicans they believe can stop the Senate from continuing an audit that has once again made Arizona the butt of late-night hosts’ jokes. But Boyer, though he’ll openly talk about being embarrassed by the Senate’s audit, contends there’s nothing he or other senators can do to stop it.
The only way he foresees it stopping – and he was quick to emphasize that he isn’t proposing this – is if someone else replaces Fann as Senate president and orders it to end. He doesn’t think Fann will stop the audit herself, and it still has broad, though not universal, support in the Republican caucus.
“We’re never going to be able to vote on the audit,” Boyer said. “That train has already left the station.”
Sen. Martín Quezada, D-Glendale, said Republicans seem to wrongly assume that they don’t have any influence on the audit process, but every rank-and-file Republican has a trump card he or she can play. All it takes is one Republican telling Fann, privately or publicly, that she needs to stop the audit or lose that senator’s vote on partisan legislation, including the state budget.
“Each one of them is a 16th vote,” he said. “They can demand whatever they want. If they really wanted to end this, any one of them or a couple of them could go into Senator Fann’s office, sit her down quietly and say, ‘Hey, look, we got to stop now. Otherwise, we’re gonna have some problems,’ and none of them are doing it.”
After The New York Times published an article over the weekend quoting Boyer as saying the audit made the Senate look like idiots, he heard from other Republicans who privately agreed with him.
“’That’s pretty accurate,’ is what one member told me, but they would never go on record like I did,” he said.
Boyer, who also was the sole Republican senator to vote against holding the county supervisors in contempt and was the first Republican legislator to acknowledge President Biden’s victory, said he has a simple explanation for continuing to speak out: reporters call him with questions and he answers truthfully. But he believes his colleagues, even those who are privately skeptical of the audit, are just trying to keep their heads down and waiting for it to blow over.
“You’d have to ask them, but my suspicion is they wouldn’t want to tick off the Trump base,” he said.
Recent polling data from HighGround supports that conclusion. Near the end of March, the Arizona firm surveyed 500 Arizona voters about whether they believed there was significant fraud in the 2020 presidential election, and found that only 42% of voters – but 78.3% of Republican voters – believed there was.
HighGround consultant Chuck Coughlin wrote in a blog post about the results that they explain why Fann and her Senate caucus believe they must proceed with the audit. The 16 remaining Senate Republicans represent districts that were safe Republican districts when they were drawn in 2010 – though Trump lost in Mesnard’s Chandler-based district and eked out a victory with fewer than 400 votes in Boyer’s West Valley district in 2020.
Coughlin warned that running on election fraud claims won’t be a winning strategy in a general election in 2022. And Quezada said he thinks his Republican colleagues are following the same strategy they do for other controversial issues: hope that voters forget about it.
“They hope that the momentum is going to die down, but this one’s not,” he said. “It’s getting worse. it’s going in the opposite direction. So I think it’s a major miscalculation on their point.”