Former President Donald Trump is touching down in Arizona Saturday for his first rally of the midterm election year, bringing the spotlight to a state that will have hotly contested races for governor and the U.S. Senate in November.
In the governor’s race, Trump has endorsed Kari Lake, a former news anchor who says she wouldn’t have certified the 2020 election. He has not yet picked a Senate candidate to take on incumbent Democrat Mark Kelly.
The Republicans who are vying to challenge Kelly include Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, solar power executive Jim Lamon, venture capitalist Blake Masters and retired Air Force Major General Michael “Mick” McGuire.
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Democrats have won the last two Senate races in Arizona, including the 2020 special election when Kelly defeated former Senator Martha McSally by 2.4 points. Kelly, a retired astronaut, is serving the remainder of the late Arizona Senator John McCain’s term and must run again this year for a full six-year term.
Trump isn’t expected to endorse anyone Saturday — Arizona’s primary is August 2, and sources familiar with the race believe Trump is waiting to see how the race shapes up before he decides on a candidate.
His endorsement is powerful, but it doesn’t always clear the field. North Carolina Congressman Ted Budd, for instance, is in a tough race against former North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory. And in Alabama, Trump-endorsed Congressman Mo Brooks is locked in a a tight contest against Katie Britt, who was retiring Senator Richard Shelby’s chief of staff.
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“If you’re any candidate in this race for Senate, you want his endorsement,” said Chris DeRose, a lawyer and former Brnovich staffer in the state attorney general’s office. “Do you need it to win? No. But you’d be crazy not to want it.”
In November, Trump attended a fundraiser that Masters held at Mar-a-Lago. Masters, who is the president of billionaire Peter Thiel’s foundation and holds a Stanford law degree, told CBS News that winning the race becomes “a lot harder” without Trump’s endorsement, but he’s sure the former president won’t back any of his opponents.
Brnovich has been the front runner in the race and his supporters are counting on his record on immigration to help him in the primary. A source familiar with the race said that Trump and Brnovich speak regularly, and Brnovich could visit Mar-a-Lago soon. Over time, Trump has become less pointed in his criticism of Brnovich over Arizona’s election results.
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Days after the 2020 election, Brnovich told Fox Business “there is no evidence, there are no facts that would lead anyone to believe that the election results will change” and said Trump had lost because voters split their tickets. Months later, Trump was still not acknowledging his defeat and attacked Brnovich for not trying to prove the election had been stolen from him. In May, he labeled Brnovich “lackluster” and said he was “nowhere to be found” regarding the 2020 election.
Democrats say Trump is “creating chaos” in the Republican primaries, “elevating deeply flawed GOP candidates, escalating Republicans’ infighting, and forcing their candidates to attack each other over who can suck up to Trump the most,” said Jazmin Vargas, a spokesperson for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
“A tightrope of floss”
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One issue Republicans will have to navigate is the review of the 2020 election that Arizona Senate Republicans ordered in Maricopa County. The review, which was widely criticized by election experts, ultimately showed a wider margin of victory for President Joe Biden.
Maricopa County has denied the report’s claims of counting invalid ballots and election administration errors, saying the review was plagued by “faulty analysis, inaccurate claims, misleading conclusions, and a lack of understanding of federal and state election laws.”
“The audit issue, especially for Republicans on the ticket this year, it’s like walking a tightrope of floss,” said Mike Noble, chief of research at the nonpartisan polling firm OH Predictive Insights.
Lamon is leaning into the Maricopa review and said it highlighted enough issues “to move that election into President Trump’s column” in Arizona. He and other Republicans sent a document to Congress falsely claiming they were the state’s electors. He told CBS News that he didn’t regret this because slates of electors have to be submitted by a certain date, and he claimed Republicans wanted to be prepared “if in fact this election was decertified.”
Masters said in November that he thinks Trump won the 2020 election.
“Joe Biden is president right now,” Masters told CBS News. “Do I think he won a free and fair election? I don’t. I don’t think we had a free and fair election in 2020. If we did, I strongly suspect, truly believe that President Trump would still be president.”
He faults mail voting practices expanded by COVID and social media companies for quashingnegative stories about the Bidens.
McGuire, the retired major general, told CBS News that “there is no constitutional remedy or dispute about the fact that Joe Biden received more than 270 electoral votes.” When asked if he believed Biden won the election fairly, McGuire said he looks forward to what comes from Brnovich’s review of findings that were turned over to the attorney general’s office. And he’s not the only one in the race targeting primary front runner Brnovich over the 2020 election.
Lamon rallied outside of Brnovich’s office in December, calling for more action. Masters said Brnovich “needs to hold people accountable where laws were broken” and thinks Brnovich is trying to “kick the can past the primary so that he can pretend to be tough on election integrity.”
“It’s always easy to take cheap shots from the cheap seats,” a Brnovich campaign spokesperson said in a statement. “Attorney General Brnovich remains focused on doing his duly elected job and will present the findings when his office concludes the investigation.”
Brnovich’s allies point to his victory at the U.S. Supreme Court in a case challenging Arizona voting laws about ballots cast in the wrong precinct and a ban on “ballot harvesting” and his office’s demand that the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors comply with a subpoena related to the state Senate-ordered review of 2020.
Views of the audit and 2020 election may impact moderate suburban voters in Arizona who helped carry Democrats to victory in 2020, Noble said, but other issues may be more pressing in November.
“If people are feeling pain points with the economy, inflation, things of that nature, that’s going to supersede social issues, or an audit is going to feel very distant in the voters’ memories,” Noble said.
Immigration and the economy were the top issues for Republicans in a November poll by OH Predictive Insights. Migrant encounters in the Tucson sector were up 72% in October and November, over the same time period in 2020, while encounters in the Yuma were up by 2,400%, according to Customs and Border Protection data. Encounters along the southern border were very low during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There has always been an issue with lawlessness and misconduct at the border, but I have never seen it like it has been since the 20th of January,” said McGuire, who served as Adjutant General of the Arizona National Guard from 2013-2021.
Lamon says he supports legal immigration, but worries border patrol agents are struggling to keep up with the spike in border encounters, which he deemed “an invasion.”
“They’re coming from around the world,” Lamon said. “America really needs to understand that. This is a border control issue.”
Masters, who worked with Thiel, wants to see stricter regulations on major technology companies.
“When they control the flow of information in a free society, when they have motive and opportunity to swing elections, I think that’s something we ought to take a look at. Right now the attitude is just complete laissez-faire,” Masters said.
Lamon was the only candidate to bring up working with his counterpart in the Senate if he wins, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema. “We could be a juggernaut, Republican and Democrat, working together,” he said.
Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, who has been repeatedly attacked by Trump, has said that he is not interested in running for Senate, but some allies still hope he’ll change his mind.
“He will never have my endorsement or the support of MAGA Nation!” Trump said in a statement Friday after Politico reported that Ducey is still open to entering the race.
Trump has also not endorsed in competitive primaries in Missouri or Ohio. And he hasn’t endorsed in Pennsylvania since his preferred candidate, Sean Parnell, suspended his campaign.
“Arizona, Ohio, Missouri and Pennsylvania are all states that are a lot more complicated — there’s no clear candidate and you might as well let it play out a little bit,” a Trump adviser said.