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‘Kingmaker’ Trump heads to rural Arizona, where GOP candidates are eager for his backing

Pollster: Candidates ‘doing everything they can’ to get his support

Former President Donald Trump, here in Iowa in October, heads to Florence, Ariz., on Saturday for his first rally of the year.
Former President Donald Trump, here in Iowa in October, heads to Florence, Ariz., on Saturday for his first rally of the year. (Scott Olson/Getty Images file photo)

Donald Trump is signaling he intends to fight this year for Republican candidates in Arizona — and beyond — even though some high-profile GOP nominees scored victories last year with the former president largely on the sidelines. 

Republicans are riding high after a number of victories and close losses last year, including in two states Trump lost by double digits in 2020, Virginia and New Jersey. Trump largely remained in the background of those gubernatorial and state legislative races despite Democrats’ efforts to make him the focus.

That will change Saturday night, however, when Trump joins several GOP candidates in Florence, Ariz., a state he lost by less than half a point to Joe Biden, becoming the first Republican presidential nominee to lose the state in 24 years. Arizona has become ground zero for Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was “stolen” from him by Democrats and, to him, insufficiently conservative governors and state elections officials.

The list of speakers for his first rally of 2022 includes conservative lawmakers and candidates he has endorsed who have all espoused what Democrats call the “big lie” — that the last presidential race was rife with fraud and shenanigans that cost Trump a second term.

Not on the list to join Trump onstage are Arizona Republicans with whom Trump has clashed, including Gov. Doug Ducey and state Attorney General Mark Brnovich, who have publicly and privately pushed back on Trump’s election claims. Brnovich is running for the GOP nomination to challenge Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly.

A Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee official, granted anonymity to speak candidly, suggested that Trump’s presence in Arizona and other states would hurt GOP candidates.

“Look at where he has endorsed already: Pennsylvania, North Carolina and elsewhere,” the official said. “His endorsement didn’t clear the primary. It did the opposite, it just created more chaos. … His endorsements, so far, have just added fuel to the fire.”

‘For the sake of winning’

Trump’s selection of Arizona to lead off his 2022 rally appearances shows how he intends to make his “stolen” election claims a centerpiece of his midterm message — and perhaps the basis for a White House comeback bid in 2024.

The state’s new House map, following redistricting, is widely seen as favoring Republicans. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the races for the redrawn seats of Democrats Tom O’Halleran and Ann Kirkpatrick as Lean Republican and Tilt Republican, respectively. That has many state political operatives and pundits watching GOP statewide and House primaries on Aug. 2.

“The action here is going to be in the primaries, really, the Republican primaries,” said Michael O’Neil, a former political science professor-turned-private pollster based in Arizona. “The list of speakers at the rally, and really most Republican candidates, for the sake of winning their primaries, are tickled to have Trump here. They’re doing everything they can to associate themselves with him.”

Joe Walsh, a former Republican congressman from Illinois, on Wednesday downplayed the notion that the party is making any substantial efforts to distance itself from the 45th commander in chief.

“This is Donald Trump’s party,” Walsh told CNN, noting that the former president is by far the most popular figure within the GOP and its clear leader. “If he wants the nomination in 2024, it is his.”

To that end, 82 percent of Republicans have a “very favorable” or “somewhat favorable” view of Trump, a Jan. 2-4 Economist/YouGov poll found. A number of surveys conducted late last year found a clear majority of GOP voters want Trump to remain active in politics.  

Democrats are hoping Republican candidates do two things in primary races: Wrap themselves in the “Make America Great Again” flag, and leave the eventual winners beaten to a political pulp — and castable as mini-Donalds in the general election.

“Chaos might work for Trump, but we think it’ll prove detrimental to GOP candidates,” the DSCC official said. “He’s pushing these candidates to take unpopular stances. … Whoever makes it out of attacking each other in the primaries will have gone through months and months of attacks.”

O’Neil disagreed, saying “the Trump endorsement is golden — candidates are doing everything they can to associate themselves with him.” He also sees one possible motive in Trump picking Arizona for his first 2022 rally.

“There is probably no better state for Trump in terms of being able to draw a big crowd. Florence is a rural area, it’s the heart of Trump country,” he said. “He has always pulled big crowds here. Given his ego, that’s probably the No. 2 consideration. If he drew a small crowd out of the gate in a midterm year, he knows everyone would say, ‘He’s lost his aura.’”

“This way, he can send a message that he’s still the kingmaker,” O’Neil said. 

The former president himself has publicly predicted a packed house at the Country Thunder festival grounds. In a Jan. 4 statement announcing the cancelation of a Mar-a-Lago news conference about his 2020 election claims that was slated for two days later, Trump said he “instead will discuss many of those important topics at my rally on Saturday, January 15th, in Arizona — It will be a big crowd!”

Trump also offered a possible preview of his Saturday night message in the same statement.

“What has become more and more obvious to ALL is that the LameStream Media will not report the facts that Nancy Pelosi and the Capitol Sergeant-at-Arms denied requests for the D.C. National Guard or Military to be present at the Capitol,” he said of the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol. “Also, why is the primary reason for the people coming to Washington D.C., which is the fraud of the 2020 Presidential Election, not the primary topic of the Unselect Committee’s investigation? This was, indeed, the Crime of the Century.”

‘Running up the score’

While Trump diving into the Arizona scene in 2022 is a contrast from his relative absence on the trail in Virginia and New Jersey last year, he remains very popular in the rural and deeply Republican districts in the Grand Canyon State.

Conservative hard-liner Paul Gosar, whose new district along Arizona’s western border would have backed Trump over Biden 62 percent to 36 percent, is among Saturday’s invited speakers. So are Reps. Andy Biggs and Debbie Lesko whose redrawn seats Trump would have carried by at least 13 points.

Then there are statewide candidates eager to be seen beside Trump on Saturday. Former TV news anchor Kari Lake will take the stage as his endorsed candidate for governor, as will state Rep. Mark Finchem, his pick for Arizona secretary of state.

GOP candidate Jim Lamon wants Trump’s support in the Senate primary so badly he was the first national candidate to use an anti-Biden slogan in an ad. “Let’s take the fight to Joe Biden and show him we the people put America first,” Lamon says in the spot. “The time is now. Let’s go, Brandon. Are you with me?”

All are hoping Trump’s vast popularity in rural parts of the state will push them to victory.

“Democrats still need to exercise efforts in rural areas to remain competitive statewide,” according to Predictive Insights, a nonpartisan research firm that studies Arizona politics. “In a state such as Arizona, where elections can come down to a few thousand votes, rural efforts could prove pivotal in [2022] statewide races.”

The firm, in a research paper, stressed how important “running up the score” in counties outside of [urban] Maricopa, home to Phoenix, will be for Republicans in 2022: “It is important to also understand that it is possible for Republicans to run up their margins in the state’s rural counties to such a degree that it outweighs a potential loss in Maricopa County.”

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