Not even five seconds into her speech at a rally to support former-President Trump and his agenda is when the boos and catcalls began for Arizona State Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita.
She lasted at the podium for 75 seconds before she hustled off stage like a comedian who had bombed her set.
The event, hosted by Turning Point Action – the fundraising arm of pro-Trump organization Turning Point USA – took place at Arizona Federal Theatre in downtown Phoenix on July 24, and all Republican candidates for the governor, secretary of state and U.S. Senate races were invited to speak.
The crowd’s treatment of her raised the question of whether the Arizona Republican Party is doomed in the 2022 general election if this crowd was going to turn on one of the most conservative lawmakers in the state, someone who has passed more bills to tighten election laws than practically anybody else.
Ugenti-Rita was one of two Republican candidates for the chief election officer job who showed up. Two others did not attend. The event surrounded the topic of election integrity – something Ugenti-Rita has built a career on over the course of a decade in politics.
Ugenti-Rita’s record includes things conservatives have boasted about. She wrote the bill to ban ballot harvesting that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of on July 1. She also passed a bill this year to revamp the state’s early voting list, changing it from being permanent and laying out a process to remove registered voters who don’t return their ballot by mail.
The indoor venue, formerly called Comerica Theatre, has a great sound that carries through the 5,000-seat auditorium, but during its usual concerts, the sound is coming from the stage, not the audience.
Before she left the stage, Ugenti-Rita barely got through two full sentences as the heckling and hollering drowned her out and she shouted: “Why don’t you listen to what I have to say?”
Two Republicans deeply tied within the grassroots of the state party were critical of the crowd’s treatment of her.
Kathy Petsas is the Republican chairman of Legislative District 28 – one of Arizona’s strongest swing districts that houses some of the most prominent politicians in the state.
She told Arizona Capitol Times she doesn’t agree with Ugenti-Rita on most issues, but that it was a “shame” nobody came to her defense to let her speak.
“Ugenti-Rita deserved every right and every respect and courtesy to provide her message and it was a shame that party leadership like Kelli [Ward] didn’t speak up for her to say she deserves the right to speak,” Petsas said.
She added that Ward, the two-time controversial chairman of the Arizona Republican Party, stood up for Daniel McCarthy, the failed U.S. Senate candidate in 2020 who was incredibly critical of Ward, during the state party meeting in January, but she didn’t extend the same courtesy to Ugenti-Rita.
“If the party wants to win general elections, then they have a responsibility to allow all their candidates the platform,” Petsas said. “I don’t know that she’s the person I’m going to end up voting for. Maybe she is, but she sure did have every right to be there and speak.”
Petsas said if there’s a candidate like Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley or Rep. Shawnna Bolick, R-Phoenix, up against one of the Democrats for secretary of state, there’s a good chance Republican voters will not vote for that race rather than vote across party lines like what happened in Arizona in 2018 and 2020 on the top of the ticket.
“If you don’t like either, all of a sudden you’ve got 75,000 Republicans who don’t vote,” she said.
Nearly 36,000 people “undervoted” for the U.S. Senate race in 2020.
Trey Terry, a Republican member on the Agua Fria School Board and a state committeeman in Legislative District 13, didn’t go as far as Petsas, but said it depends on how much longer Republicans are talking about the Senate’s audit of the 2020 election.
“When it comes to a general election, this mindset that we saw at the rally is disastrous for Republicans moving forward,” Terry said. “Republicans in Arizona need conservatives like Ugenti, [House Speaker Rusty] Bowers, [County Supervisor Clint] Hickman, [Maricopa County Recorder Stephen] Richer, etc., if we want any chance at winning statewide or competitive elections.”
He said winning a Republican primary is easier from what was seen at the rally, but general elections need independent voters to win statewide. Republicans far-and-wide have been appealing to Trump in hopes to win competitive races among their party.
“Mark Finchem participated in the January 6 riot,” Terry said. “He would get crushed in a statewide general election. I think Shawnna is in a better position, but we just don’t know. I think if Republicans are still talking about this audit and the 2020 election in the 2022 general election, we are going to get crushed. If we are able to put this audit behind us and learn from our mistakes in 2020, there is a lot of history showing that Republicans can have a very good year.”
Petsas said the crowd, which seemed to support another potential Trump presidency in 2024, would be better off supporting someone like Ugenti-Rita.
“[She] is a legitimate conservative, with bona fides to prove it, which is a lot more than I can say for Trump,” she said.
It’s believed that the boos for Ugenti-Rita were because she wouldn’t hear election bills from Sen. Kelly Townsend, R-Apache Junction. Ugenti-Rita, who chairs the Senate Government Committee with Townsend as vice chair, repeatedly said throughout the session that the bills were bad.
“There is no shame in voting against something that is bad policy,” Petsas said, adding that it’s still no reason to boo her off the stage before she can lay out her platform.
Terry said Ugenti-Rita has been the most effective legislator over the past decade when it comes to conservative changes on election integrity, but she could be criticized on other issues and he doesn’t support her candidacy or anyone else in that race.
“But to criticize her on alleged unwillingness to ‘support election integrity measures’ or whatever, is intellectually deranged.”
Ugenti-Rita in turn went home to immediately criticize the Senate’s audit of the 2020 election for the first time publicly and took a swipe at Senate President Karen Fann for her leadership, two moves that could hurt her chances in the race, which is still more than one year out.
“I’ll put my record of fighting for election integrity up against anyone. What I won’t do is vote for ‘show’ legislation that does nothing to strengthen election integrity and introduced for self serving reasons,” she wrote in a Twitter thread immediately after the rally.