An Arizona man who sported face paint, no shirt and a furry hat with horns when he joined the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 pleaded guilty Friday to a felony charge and wants to be released from jail while he awaits sentencing.
Jacob Chansley, who was widely photographed in the Senate chamber with a flagpole topped with a spear, could face 41 to 51 months in prison under sentencing guidelines, a prosecutor said. The man who called himself “QAnon Shaman” has been jailed for nearly eight months since his arrest.
Before entering the plea, Chansley was found by a judge to be mentally competent after having been transferred to a Colorado facility for a mental health evaluation. His lawyer Albert Watkins said the solitary confinement that Chansley faced for most of his time in jail has had an adverse effect on his mental health and that his time in Colorado helped him regain his sharpness.
“I am very appreciative for the court’s willingness to have my mental vulnerabilities examined,” Chansley said before pleading guilty to a charge of obstructing an official proceeding.
U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth is considering Chansley’s request to be released from jail while he awaits sentencing, which is set for Nov. 17.
Chansley acknowledged in a court record to being one of the first 30 pro-Trump rioters to stream into the Capitol building. He riled up the crowd with a bullhorn as officers tried to control them, posed for photos, profanely referred to then-Vice President Mike Pence as a traitor while in the Senate. He wrote a note to Pence saying, “It’s only a matter of time, justice is coming.” He also made a social media post in November in which he promoted hangings for traitors.
The image of Chansley with his face painted like the American flag, wearing a bear skin head dress and looking as if he were howling was one of the first striking images to emerge from the riot.
Chansley is among roughly 600 people charged in the riot that forced lawmakers into hiding as they were meeting to certify President Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory. Fifty others have pleaded guilty, mostly to misdemeanor charges of demonstrating in the Capitol.
Only one defendant who pleaded guilty to a felony charge has received their punishment so far. Paul Hodgkins, a crane operator from Florida who breached the U.S. Senate chamber carrying a Trump campaign flag, was sentenced in July to eight months in prison after pleading guilty to obstructing an official proceeding.
Chansley’s lawyer said his client has since repudiated the QAnon movement and asked that there be no more references to his past affiliations with the movement.
After the hearing, attorney Watkins told reporters that Chansley was under pressure from family members not to plead guilty because they believed Trump would be reinstated as president and would pardon him. Watkins said Chansley previously felt like Trump’s message spoke to him and that his client’s fondness for Trump was akin to a first love.
The man had long been a fixture at Trump rallies. Two months before the riot, he appeared in costume and carried a QAnon sign at a protest alongside other Trump supporters outside an election office in Phoenix where votes were being counted.
His attorney has said Chansley believed like other rioters that Trump called him to the Capitol, but later felt betrayed after Trump’s refusal to grant Chansley and others who participated in the insurrection a pardon.
After spending his first month in jail, Chansley said he re-evaluated his life, expressed regret for having stormed the building and apologized for causing fear in others.
Chansley twice quit eating while in jail and lost 20 pounds (9 kilograms) until authorities gave him organic food.
Watkins has characterized the spear Chansley carried as an ornament and disputed that his client’s note to Pence was threatening.
What the Senate election audit lacks in transparency, it makes up for in QAnon conspiracy theories.
From the Arizona Senate to the cybersecurity company overseeing the audit of nearly 2.1 million ballots from the November election, everyone involved has said one way or another that they want and hope to be transparent about the process, but to date, there is little evidence to support those claims.
While media outlets across the state had to fight and threaten legal action to receive limited access to the Madhouse on McDowell – dubbed so decades ago for raucous Phoenix Suns games – unanswered, important questions still hang in the air.
Former Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett, the Senate liaison for the audit, hasn’t disclosed any private contributors helping to fund the audit. The Senate and Cyber Ninjas, the firm overseeing the process, agreed on a $150,000 contract that will come from taxpayers, but it is known that there is a lot of money pouring in from outside sources, including One America News Network, which pushes the far-right agenda.
Bennett has stated his intention for transparency on the private funding, but has yet to accomplish that.
Bennett said April 27 he will try to have the money go through the state Senate so it can be tracked as a public record. Currently, the private money is going directly to Cyber Ninjas, whose CEO Doug Logan has repeatedly refused to disclose any information.
“I am going to fight with every ounce of breath I have to make sure that all of that money goes through the Arizona Senate, and is publicly disclosed,” Bennett said.
If any money does go to the Senate, it would go through the Legislative Council, not directly to senators.
However, according to Legislative Council, the body that would actually accept any “gifts” the Senate receives, no one has asked about the possibility of setting up a mechanism to receive these donations.
Mike Braun, Legislative Council executive director, said Arizona Capitol Times reporters were the only ones who have even broached the topic to him.
He said that this isn’t one of those times where “the answer is no, but the check will be here by two o’clock.”
“Nobody’s ever talked to us about setting it up or doing it, or what the requirements would be,” Braun said.
Bennett declined to say whether former President Trump was sending money to back the audit, but he said MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell has not donated money.
While simultaneously claiming the money would become public, Bennett plugged the Trump-friendly One America New Network-backed501(c)(4) organizations fundraising for the audit, directing people to its website to donate during the brief press conference.
He said the source of those nonprofits’ funding will “get disclosed … when all the 501(c)(4) contributors get disclosed.” That might be a while, considering 501(c)(4) organizations are “dark money” nonprofits that aren’t required to disclose donors.
Bennett also urged people to visit a website if they wanted to give money to the audit. The site – also a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization – is hoping to raise $2.8 million. The nonprofit, The America Project, is run by former Overstock CEO Patrick Byrne, who has close ties to Trump, Lindell and others in that inner circle.
Meanwhile, a Maricopa County Superior Court judge ruled on April 28 that policies and procedures for the audit conducted by Cyber Ninjas and its subcontractors is considered a public record, but the ruling is likely pending appeal to the Arizona Supreme Court.
To date, a coalition of media publications had to fight with the Senate, Bennett and Cyber Ninjas over allowing members of the press to be in the room as the audit is being conducted. It took until the fourth day of counting ballots before media got inside Veterans Memorial Coliseum to report. From day one of the auditing process, media outlets could only gain access to the venue if they volunteered to participate as an observer without being able to report, but attorneys for media organizations struck a deal to allow one pool reporter at a time in.
Before that, only one reporter, Jen Fifield from The Arizona Republic, was granted access (a Capitol Times reporter was denied after signing up) and became a key part of the story when she noticed blue pens were about to be used and urged Logan to remedy it.
Now, there’s a rotation of media outlets who can observe from the bleachers inside the coliseum during several shifts in a day.
While Arizona media fights for access, journalists and election officials are also fighting to debunk persisting conspiracy theories Bennett and others involved with the audit are pushing.
The 2020 election gave rise to many conspiracy theories of a stolen election, and some are still alive as auditors count the ballots.
The most prevalent conspiracy theory is that the auditors are using ultraviolet light to scan ballots to look for secret watermarks the Trump administration placed on “official ballots.”
QAnon emerged after Trump’s election, claiming that Trump is fighting an elite cabal of business leaders, celebrities, media professionals and politicians engaged in Satanic worship and child sex trafficking.
One of its rumored leaders, who might be “Q” himself, according to a recent HBO documentary series is Ron Watkins, who does not live in the United States. He has gotten heavily involved with the Maricopa County audit through the instant-messaging app Telegram. Watkins, on the social media channels he has not been banned from, goes by the moniker CodeMonkeyZ. He has posted more than a dozen times about the audit, claiming he has seen wrongdoing on the livestream cameras.
Bennett would not answer questions about Watkins’ possible involvement.
It’s unclear how involved Watkins is in the audit, but there is a host of connections between him and the auditors, including that Watkins and Cyber Ninja CEO Doug Logan retweeted each other after the election.
Watkins claimed Trump actually received 200,000 more votes in Arizona than he did, which Logan shared on his now-deleted account.
On the message board, Watkins commented that he has been talking with Bobby Piton, a mathematician and investment manager who has theorized that the election was stolen. Piton attended the unofficial legislative hearing in November at the Hyatt in Phoenix as an expert witness and posted on social media that he spent “12 hours working on AZ Data” over the weekend.
The two agree that UV light will expose all the fake votes.
“Called [Piton] earlier and had a chat about the potential use of the UV light station,” Watkins wrote. “Since UV is able to detect oil from fingerprints, if there are no fingerprints on the ballot then the likelihood of the ballot being marked through a non-human process is high.”
Watkins also complained that volunteers weren’t doing the UV process properly.
In an interview with Newsmax, another right-wing channel, Bennett confirmed they were looking for watermarks.
Maricopa County Elections Department recently said their ballots do not have watermarks on them.
Bennett said auditors “are looking for a lot of things” with the UV light.
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.”
Eight years ago, newly drawn legislative maps cost Republicans their supermajorities in the House and Senate.
This year, the final election with the districts drawn in 2011, Republicans could lose their majorities, period.
In their fifth and final outing with the current districts, Republicans in the legislative majority face a daunting set of maps. Registered Republicans might outnumber Democrats by nearly 100,000 statewide, but Democrats made significant voter registration gains in Phoenix suburbs, where a handful of districts in which Republicans held double-digit leads in voter registration in 2012 are now well within reach for Democrats.
With just one true exception — and one technicality — House and Senate seats have only flipped when fewer than 10 percentage points separate voter registration numbers for the two major parties. This year, that holds true in nine districts: five represented entirely by Republicans, two represented solely by Democrats and two with split party representation.
Rural Republican districts have only gotten redder. But while dramatic increases in registered Republican voters in Prescott and Mohave County might aid Republicans seeking statewide office, that growth does little to help build margins in the state House and Senate.
Democrats, who only need to flip two seats to win the state House and three to win the Senate, have multiple options in the Valley, as well as a perpetually close district in northern Arizona. Republicans are on the defensive, with their best — though still slim — chances for picking up seats in suburban districts they recently lost and a southern Arizona district where Democrats hold a double-digit lead in registered voters.
The best shot: LD 28
In north Phoenix, former lawmaker Eric Meyer sees a clearer path forward for Democratic Senate candidate Christine Marsh in her race against incumbent Republican Sen. Kate Brophy McGee than Meyer had when he and Brophy McGee squared off for the then-open Senate seat four years ago.
Legislative District 28, which encompasses the Biltmore area, Arcadia, Sunnyslope and the upscale town of Paradise Valley, has always been a little unusual. Meyer, Brophy McGee and then-incumbent Republican Rep. Amanda Reeve all ended up in LD28 through redistricting in 2012, when cutting off more liberal parts of central Phoenix created a district with a Republican voter registration edge of 12.4 percentage points.
Meyer won, building up votes on the geographic edges of the district where Hispanic and Democratic voters are concentrated and persuading enough of the moderate white Republicans who made up the bulk of the district to vote for him. LD28 continued having at least one Democratic representative, then gained a second House seat in 2018.
A gradual shift in voter registration numbers began accelerating rapidly after the 2018 election, when Rep. Aaron Lieberman won his House seat and Marsh came within 300 votes of beating Brophy McGee. In the two years since, Democrats have registered nearly 5,000 more new voters in the district than Republicans, and the Republican voter registration edge shrank to 1.9 percentage points.
Meyer, who is still active in district politics, attributes that increase in large part to a more robust and well-organized district Democratic Party. Now, LD28 Democratic volunteers work year round to keep their newly registered voters engaged, with volunteer political opportunities and social events, including book clubs and trivia nights scheduled every month.
Donald Trump helped LD28 Democrats too, after initially providing a boost to Republicans in 2016 in his successful run for president. Suburban, white, college-educated voters who historically voted for Republicans for economic reasons dislike what they see as the bombastic rhetoric and divisive politics of the Trump administration, helping Democrats win legislative and congressional seats in 2018.
“Right now, if the election were held today, enthusiasm in District 28 is pretty high,” Meyer said. “There’s a lot more Democrats that have been registered, so that’s in Christine’s favor. The district is more organized with volunteers, the voters are excited and the polling looks good for Christine. Everything’s looking good right now, but it depends on what happens on Election Day.”
The Southeast Valley – LD17 and LD18
In the Southeast Valley, a post-Trump suburban shift has been bolstered by an influx of new residents from other states, fueled by a booming tech industry in Tempe, Chandler, Gilbert and Mesa.
In Legislative District 18, which includes Ahwatukeee and parts of Tempe, Chandler and Mesa, Republicans started the decade with a voter registration edge of 8.6 percentage points. By 2018, the district had elected a slate of three Democrats. Now, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans.
“When I was first elected in 2016, there were about 6,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats,” said Sen. Sean Bowie, D-Ahwatukee. “Today, there are about 4,000 more registered Democrats. You see a 10,000 person shift in the last four years, so I think it’s a couple of things causing it.”
Longtime Republican voters turned off by Trump were more willing to give moderate Democrats a try, voting in 2018 for Democratic U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey and three legislative Democrats. And an increase of new young voters, many drawn to the mostly single-family zoning in LD18 to start their families, brought Democratic voting patterns with them.
Bowie noted: “My district, and District 28 and District 17 which is just to the east of me, if you look at the performance from 2016, 2018 and even primary turnout from this year, you just see a really marked shift away from Republicans in those areas.” Bowie said.
LD18 Republicans struggled to find viable challengers to Democratic incumbents this year, ending up with a QAnon conspiracy theorist to challenge Bowie and former lawmaker Bob Robson and write-in candidate Don Hawker running in the House after an initial House candidate dropped out over fears about contracting COVID-19.
In LD17, changing demographics have Sen. J.D. Mesnard running scared. Democratic Rep. Jennifer Pawlik of Chandler didn’t just flip a House seat in 2018 – she came in first place, beating out Rep. Jeff Weninger, R-Chandler, by about 400 votes after he secured roughly 7,000 votes more than she did just two years before.
This year, Weninger is most likely safe. Democrats opted to stick with the “single-shot” strategy of running only one candidate in the House and asking Pawlik supporters to leave their second choice for the state House blank.
But Mesnard is one of the top targets of state and national Democratic groups, second only to Brophy McGee when it comes to endangered GOP senators.
LD17 had a nearly 15 percentage point Republican lead in voter registration in 2012. Now, it’s 6.4 percentage points. And independent voters who broke for Mesnard and Weninger in 2016 jumped to Pawlik in 2018, raising hopes for Democrats that Senate candidate Ajlan Kurdoglu will win the seat.
Chandler has a combination of the suburban voters who dislike the president and a growing workforce led by transplants from blue areas like California, Chicago and the Northeast.
“I wouldn’t call it the perfect storm, but it’s quite the storm here,” Mesnard said.
The West Valley – LD20 and LD21
Across town, rapid population growth in the West Valley has moved Legislative District 20 and Legislative District 21 into reachable territory for Democrats.
Sinema won LD20 in 2018, and the 10 percentage point voter registration lead Republicans held in the Glendale-based district in 2012 has narrowed to only 4 percentage points. Liberal groups are spending heavily in the district to help Democratic candidate Judy Schwiebert unseat either Rep. Anthony Kern or Rep. Shawnna Bolick.
They’re less bullish about opportunities to remove Republican Sen. Paul Boyer, who enjoys significant support from unions because of his dogged pursuit of health protections for firefighters.
LD21 is a tougher district to flip, as the Republican voter registration advantage only fell from 10.1 to 9 percentage points since 2012. It includes portions of rapidly growing Peoria, but also contains the wealthy conservative retirement community of Sun City.
Democratic hopes in LD21 are pinned primarily on the perceived strength of their House candidate, former independent Kathy Knecht. As an independent running for the Senate in the district in 2018, Knecht came within 3,500 votes of winning a seat.
Republicans previously won the district with margins of 20 points, putting Knecht’s 4.4-point loss to Sen. Rick Gray well above expectations. This year, she has the benefit of running for an open seat and with the backing of a major party.
The constant: LD6
Like in LD21, party registration splits in Legislative District 6 have remained relatively constant throughout the past eight years. Republicans now hold an 8.8percentage point voter registration lead, down from 10.6 percentage points in 2012.
General elections have always been close — Republican Sen. Sylvia Allen of Snowflake eked out wins over Democratic opponents by fewer than 2,000 votes in nail-biter races in 2016 and 2018, and Democratic candidate Felicia French came within 600 votes of winning a seat in the state House in 2018.
This year, Democrats see an opportunity to win seats in the House, Senate or both because of the strength of their candidates. French is now running for the Senate, and she has spent most of the intervening two years still on the campaign trail, going door-to-door to meet with voters in even the most remote areas of the sprawling northern Arizona district.
She won’t face Allen, a White Mountain fixture who managed to maintain relationships with conservative Democrats as well as Republicans and independents to win re-election. After a decade of failed runs for Congress in Tempe and northern Arizona, retired Air Force Lt. Col. Wendy Rogers turned her sights on LD6, trouncing Allen in the August Republican primary.
To prevent a French win, a political action committee connected with Ducey is spending tens of thousands of dollars on ads to convince voters that French is too radical for LD6. And GOP consultants are trying the same strategy in the House, where Democratic Flagstaff Mayor Coral Evans and independent Coconino County Supervisor Art Babbott are challenging sitting Rep. Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake, and former Rep. Brenda Barton.
In 2012, two Tucson-area legislative districts appeared to be the most competitive in the state. Democrats led in voter registration by 3.9 percentage points in Legislative District 9, which elected one Republican to the House, and by 3.4 percentage points in Legislative District 10.
LD 9 flipped permanently blue in 2014, when Rep. Randy Friese defeated incumbent Ethan Orr. Now, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 14 percentage points, and the last Republican to challenge Friese and Rep. Pamela Powers Hannley lost by about 12,000 votes.
LD10 remains closer, and had a single Republican representative, Todd Clodfelter, between 2016 and 2018. Democrats appear unworried about their chances of keeping the district this year.
As Tucson itself grew more blue, the surrounding areas also began to shift. Democrats narrowed registration margins by nearly 4 percentage points in neighboring Legislative District 11, from a 13.2 percentage point Republican edge in 2012 to 9.4 percentage points this year.
Winning a seat in LD11 from entrenched GOP incumbents Sen. Vince Leach of Saddlebrooke and Rep. Mark Finchem of Oro Valley is a long shot. But Democratic political action committees have begun spending there as part of an aggressive strategy.
Republicans with few opportunities to pick up seats this cycle are eyeing Legislative District 4, a vast southern Arizona district that contains large areas of Maricopa, Pima and Yuma counties and a single precinct in Pinal County.
Democrats still hold a formidable voter registration edge of exactly 16 percentage points, a figure that fluctuated over the past eight years from a high of 17 percentage points to a low of 15.4 percentage points.
A Republican strategy for picking up a House seat in LD4 relies on picking off Rep. Gerae Peten, D-Goodyear, who hails from the growing Maricopa County portion of the district where Republicans have proliferated in recent years. A Senate strategy is less clear.
From purple to red: LD8
The only permanent pickup opportunity Republicans had over the past few years came from Legislative District 8 in Pinal County, a one-time Democratic stronghold that has shifted steadily to the right over the past two decades.
After the 2012 elections, Democratic Sen. Barbara McGuire was the only Democrat representing LD8, though registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans by 6.5 points. By 2016, McGuire was out, and Republicans now lead in voter registration by 3.6 percentage points.
Pinal County Supervisor and former Senate President Pete Rios began predicting that shift nearly two decades ago, when the unincorporated community of San Tan Valley began to develop. About 80,000 people now live in what was an undeveloped desert and agricultural land 20 years ago.
Rios noticed at the time that most of the people buying homes in San Tan Valley weren’t moving from out of state. Rather, they were conservative Republicans from the East Valley, who jumped at the chance to own a large home for tens of thousands of dollars less than they would pay in Mesa, Gilbert or Chandler.
Simultaneously, the southeast corner of Pinal County saw the development of the Saddlebrooke Ranch retirement community, which drew a large population of Republican retirees from around the country.
And the old mining towns that had long been Democratic strongholds experienced population loss. As recent high school graduates fled their small towns to go to the Phoenix area or Tucson, and old miners died, the number of Democrats in Pinal County began shrinking.
“We were seeing Republicans grow by leaps and bounds in the valley of Pinal County and Democrats dwindling in the mountain area of Pinal County,” Rios said. “So, it was only a matter of time before Pinal County was going to swing and swing strongly to the Republican side.”
Republicans still play defense in LD8, with Ducey’s PAC and the Republican Legislative Victory Fund spending to help Rep. T.J. Shope of Coolidge and Sen. Frank Pratt of Casa Grande, but Democrats don’t include the district in their list of priorities.
Pinal County is all but a lost cause for Democrats, said Rios, now running for his final term on the Board of Supervisors.
“The bottom line is, it’s only going to get worse for Democrats,” he said. “Republicans are going to keep growing in Pinal County.”
The video on Fox News showed a Wisconsin poll worker initialing ballots before they were given to voters. It’s normal procedure on Election Day.
On November 8, someone posted the clip to social media and claimed instead that it showed a Philadelphia election worker doctoring ballots.
By November 9, the bogus claim was being shared by QAnon believers and far-right figures like Michael Flynn, ex-president Donald Trump’s former national security adviser. Some noted the worker wore what looked like a common face mask.
“Masked man cheating in front of the cameras on the mainstream media,” read one post containing the clip, which directed users to repost it. “Spread to normies.”
It’s an example of Election Day misinformation that reveals how misleading claims emerge and travel, and how innocent events can be spun into the latest viral election hoax. It also shows the kind of baseless rumors and conspiracy theories that were reverberating around the internet November 9 as candidates and far-right influencers sought to explain away losses and closer-than-expected races.
Maricopa County remained the epicenter of election misinformation after problems with voter tabulation machines in that Arizona county spawned conspiracy theories about vote rigging. The claims spread despite explanations from local officials — including ones from both parties — and assurances that all votes would be counted.
It’s understandable that people would go on social media to complain about long election lines or glitchy voting machines, said University of Washington professor Kate Starbird, a leading misinformation expert and part of the Election Integrity Partnership, a nonpartisan research group.
“The problem is when their audiences pick that up with this assumed voter fraud implication,” Starbird said. “It gets picked up and reframed as voter fraud as it spreads.”
Online mentions of Pennsylvania and election fraud topped the online conversation early on Election Day, according to an analysis by Zignal Labs, a media intelligence firm that tracks online content. But that content was quickly overtaken by mentions of Arizona’s Maricopa County, which began spiking early November 7 morning just as news of the voting machine problems spread.
Many of the claims in Pennsylvania since the election have focused on misleading explanations for the time it takes to count votes.
In Pennsylvania, a woman who said she was a poll worker on a QAnon message board claimed ballot counting had ended, and that delays in vote counting are a smoke screen to cover fraud. That example was identified by the SITE Intelligence Group, a firm that monitors misinformation and extremism.
The U.S. has a long history of political races that weren’t settled on Election Day, and those occasional delays have only increased in recent years given the rising popularity of voting by mail. In key battleground states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Arizona, election officials cannot begin counting mail ballots until Election Day, guaranteeing delays.
In the weeks before November 8, election officials, voting advocates and misinformation researchers closely monitored social media content, given the role that misleading claims about voter fraud played in the deadly January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Misinformation about elections has also been blamed for deepening political divides and even an increased threat of political violence.
In some cases on Election Day, conspiracy theories about election fraud prompted violent threats, particularly on fringe platforms and websites popular with far-right groups. But in general, Election Day came and went with few major problems reported.
Vote counting in several key races continued in Arizona and Pennsylvania November 9, two battleground states that featured prominently in election conspiracy theories in 2020 and again this year.
Both states also had prominent Republican election deniers running for governor: Kari Lake of Arizona and Doug Mastriano of Pennsylvania. Mastriano lost to Democrat Josh Shapiro but has yet to concede. Lake was trailing Democrat Katie Hobbs on November 10.
One of the most harmful aspects of misinformation about voting and elections is that it can erode faith in democracy itself.
That’s true whether the candidates pushing misleading claims about elections win or lose, and especially concerning when it comes to candidates for secretary of state or other offices that have power over elections, said Bret Schafer a senior fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan organization that tracks misinformation.
“If they lose, that just reaffirms beliefs that the whole thing is rigged,” he said. “And if they win, you have people running elections who have pretty wild thoughts about how elections should be run.”
Several Republican candidates running for secretary of state positions had supported Trump’s failed efforts to overturn his 2020 loss. Results from this election were mixed.
It will take days or even weeks to begin to gauge the true impact of misinformation on Election Day and the weeks leading up to it, Starbird, the university professor, said. But early assessments suggest there was slightly less overall online engagement with viral, misleading content about elections and voting.
Ron Watkins, one of the most prominent figures in the QAnon conspiracy movement, said Monday he is running for Congress in Arizona because the state is at the forefront of the fight by many Republicans over the 2020 election results.
Watkins, a prominent promoter of false claims that the presidency was stolen from Donald Trump, said he wants “to fix the elections from inside the machine.”
“In the past year or so, I’ve been really involved in election integrity issues and especially out in Arizona, so I decided to come out here and just take it to the next step,” Watkins told The Associated Press in a brief phone interview.
Arizona has been the epicenter of the push by Trump and many of his supporters to find evidence backing the former president’s false claims that the 2020 election was marred by fraud. Trump supporters hired by state Senate Republicans to recount ballots and review election data confirmed Biden’s victory but spun falsehoods about deleted data, double voting and other malfeasance in a report that ignored basic facts about how elections are run.
For several weeks, Watkins has posted videos on the social networking site Telegram of his unsuccessful efforts to speak with Republican Attorney General Mark Brnovich, whom he is pressing to file charges over the claims of election irregularities.
Watkins has been vague about his ties to Arizona.
Watkins said he lived in Yuma briefly as a child, guessing it was between the ages of 5 and 7, but couldn’t remember if he attended school there. As supporting evidence of his Arizona ties, he emailed a photo of him as a child with his father and the family dog at the Grand Canyon. He also said he has family in the state but declined to elaborate.
Watkins said he moved to Arizona “about two weeks ago” but repeatedly refused to say where in the state he’s living, citing death threats he said he’s received. On papers filed with the Federal Elections Commission, he lists the address of a Phoenix condominium that has been owned since 2014 by Liz Harris and her husband, according to Maricopa County property records. Harris led a group of volunteers who interviewed voters at their doors and published a report claiming there were tens of thousands of “lost” and “ghost” votes, but it had no supporting evidence and drew nonsensical conclusions.
Online real estate listings say the property has a pending sale.
For his campaign headquarters, Watkins lists a Sedona address that appears to be a post-office box. He said he plans to live in the same district as Democratic Rep. Tom O’Halleran once the new congressional district boundaries are finalized.
Under the U.S. Constitution, Watkins needs only to be an “inhabitant” of Arizona on Election Day next year. There is no minimum period he must live in the state, nor a requirement to live in the district he wants to represent.
Watkins was the longtime administrator of 8kun and its predecessor, 8chan, online message boards that were known for misinformation and hate speech, and which played a crucial role in seeding the QAnon conspiracy movement. He has said he gave up the role last year.
A core belief for QAnon followers is that Trump was secretly fighting a Satan-worshipping, child sex-trafficking cabal of prominent Democrats, Hollywood elites and “deep state” enemies. An internet poster calling himself Q fueled the movement by posting clues on the 8kun message board.
Many believe Watkins himself is responsible for the messages posted by Q. He denied it.
“I’m not Q. I never was Q. I never posted as Q. I don’t know who posted as Q,” Watkins said. “I mean, everybody’s got their own hypothesis. I don’t have any facts to back that up.”
Arizona’s congressional district boundaries are still in the works, but O’Halleran is almost certain to face a tough re-election fight.
“I don’t think common-sense Arizonans want extremists representing them in Congress,” O’Halleran said in a video posted on Twitter Monday , which highlighted Watkins’ QAnon ties.
In addition to election issues, Watkins said he wants to pass a Digital Bill of Rights to prevent technology companies from restricting online discourse.
“We need to make sure that bots and companies and stuff aren’t censoring us, and we’re not being destroyed by algorithms, and we’re able to get our word out, and talk about the things that are important without getting banned and censored everywhere,” said Watkins, who has been banned from Twitter.
He also said he wants to eliminate Covid public health mandates and said he fears the United States is inching toward creating a Chinese-style social credit system that would restrict people from services based on their purchases or public activities.
Watkins is getting help from Tony Teora, a science fiction author who has run unsuccessfully for the California Assembly. If they raise enough money, they plan to hire a campaign manager, open an office and build out a campaign, Teora said.
“Ron’s going to build a true campaign out here, but it’s going to be based upon whether he has support, so he’s going to find out shortly,” Teora said.
Editor’s note: The headline has been changed to more accurately represent Ron Watkins’ reasons for running for Congress.
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