PRESCOTT, Ariz. — Pamphlets, buttons and American flags for political candidates littered booth after booth at a conference center in Prescott, Ariz., this month. But the table was empty for Ron Watkins, a Republican congressional candidate who gained notoriety for his ties to the QAnon conspiracy theory.
“I thought it started at 11:30,” said Orlando Mungoya, Mr. Watkins’ campaign manager, who arrived about 30 minutes after the event began and hastily put away campaign equipment without a candidate.
Mr. Watkins, a computer programmer in his 30s, is running into the same reality that many other QAnon-affiliated candidates have faced: Affiliation with a conspiracy theory doesn’t automatically translate to a successful political campaign.
There are more established Republican rivals Largely drawn out Mr. Watkins in the Second District of Arizona. Two other congressional candidates in Arizona have expressed some support for QAnon. Outpace your competitors In fundraising Before the August 2 primary. A fourth Arizona candidate with QAnon ties has suspended his House campaign. The same trend is going on at the national level.
Their bleak prospects reflect the changing role that conspiracy theories play in American politics. The Republican Party flirted with QAnon in 2020, as several Q-affiliated candidates sought high office and Q merchandise appeared at rallies across the country for then-President Donald J. Trump. Yet identification with the movement emerged as a political responsibility. As they have done throughout this election cycle, Democrats attacked Q-aligned candidates as extremists, and all but two — Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Green and Colorado’s Lauren Bobert — lost their races.
But many QAnon themes have seeped deeper into mainstream Republican politics this year, experts say, including the false belief that “evil” deep-state operatives control the government and Mr. Trump against them. Fighting a war. Savvy candidates have found ways to tap into that enthusiasm — all without mentioning the obvious conspiracy theory.
Indeed, just a few booths away from Mr. Watkins in Prescott, other campaigns were suggesting that election results could not be trusted, an idea that QAnon helped popularize.
“The original image and branding of QAnon has really fallen by the wayside,” said Mike Rothschild, a conspiracy theory researcher and the author “The Storm is Upon Us: How QAnon Became a Movement, Cult, and Conspiracy Theory of All Things”” “People no longer identify themselves as QAnon believers.
“But QAnon’s views are largely mainstream,” he added.
On the campaign trail, Republican candidates avoid talking about the idea that a group of pedophiles is preying on children, a core tenet of QAnon. But they embrace the false claim that liberals “The groomChildren with progressive sex education. When criticizing the Covid-19 restrictions, many Republicans poke fun at QAnon’s belief that a “deep state” of bureaucrats and politicians wants to control Americans.
More than a challenge to democracy
The most prominent talking point with echoes of QAnon, though, is the false claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Mr. Trump. The movement pushed the idea long before it was voted on, and before Mr. Trump took the claim into the mainstream.
At least 131 candidates who announced bids or filed to run for governor, secretary of state or attorney general this year supported false election claims. According to States United Action, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization focused on elections and democracy.
By comparison, so far Only 11 out of 37 Congress candidates According to Media Matters for America, a liberal watchdog group, QAnon has progressed from primaries to general elections with some history of promotion. Only one of them, JR Majewski in Ohio’s 9th District, has a chance to increase QAnon’s representation in Congress. In total, media cases have linked 65 current and former congressional candidates to QAnon so far this year. Compared to 106 During the 2020 election
JR Majewski and Mr. Watkins did not respond to requests for comment.
Experts point to Leake, a former news anchor considered a front-runner in the Republican primary for governor of Arizona, as a model for Republicans who deftly spin conspiracy theories for political gain. are running
But on a recent campaign stop, it was election fraud that got everyone’s attention. In Tucson, hundreds of Trump supporters thronged an upscale country music bar. No one in the crowd was seen wearing QAnon shirts or hats, items often seen at Trump rallies. A woman selling flags and bumper stickers outside the event also didn’t have any Q merchandise.
“Many people like Curry Lake don’t directly believe in Q or QAnon,” said Mike Raines, a QAnon expert who hosts “Adventures in HellwQrld.” A podcast Motion tracking. But by pushing the narrative of election fraud, Ms. Lake “gains support without really knowing the inner workings of the movement.”
Ms. Lake was introduced at the event by Seth Cashel, a former Army captain. Country tour Pushing false claims about the 2020 elections.
“Everybody knows Arizona didn’t go to Joe Biden,” he said falsely, before calling for “citizen soldiers” — a term reminiscent of QAnon’s “digital soldiers” — to guard ballot drop boxes. of the.
The crowd roared as Ms. Lake took the stage. Soon she was repeating lies about the election. “How many of you think this was a rotten, corrupt, fraudulent election?” he asked to cheer up.
A spokesman for Ms Lake declined to comment.
According to a 2021 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, polling shows that QAnon is popular, with about 41 million Americans believing the basic tenets of the conspiracy theory. But stories of election rigging are even more popular.
Among Arizona Republicans who support Mr. Trump, 27 percent believe QAnon’s theories are mostly true, according to OH Predictive Insights, a political research group in the state. This compares with 82 percent who believe the election was rigged.
Among Arizona Republicans who are more loyal to the Republican Party than Mr. Trump, only 11 percent believe QAnon’s views are mostly true and about half believe the election was stolen.
A disinformation watchdog has warned that a slate of candidates supporting election fraud claims in Arizona could win three key races that control elections: governor, secretary of state and attorney general.
Mark Fincham, a leading candidate for state representative and secretary of state, also centered his campaign on election fraud. He participated in the January 6 rally. said Arizona should Keep the election results aside From the counties it is considered. “Incredible compromise.”
Mr. Fincham addressed. A conference in Las Vegas A QAnon influencer held one last year where Mr. Watkins also spoke. On his campaign signs at crowded intersections across the state, one of his slogans reads, “Protect Our Children,” a take on the popular QAnon catchphrase, “Save the Children.”
“The broader culture war picked up some of the more conspiratorial tendencies that come with QAnon,” said Jared Holt, a QAnon expert and senior research manager at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. “To some degree, there was an integration.”
Arizona attorney general candidate Ibrahim Hammadi surged in the polls after a late offer of support from Mr. Trump. He and other candidates for Attorney General said During the debate in May They may not have signed the certification of the state’s 2020 election results.
Mr. Hamadia and Mr. Fincham did not respond to requests for comment.
There was no shortage of election denialists in the race for Arizona’s second congressional district, either, where Mr. Watkins is running his long-term campaign. During one The Weirdest Television Debate In April, he distanced himself from QAnon, is saying: “I wasn’t Q, and I’m not.” He turned to electoral fraud conspiracy theories, noting that Mr Trump retweeted. on this topic. But he lagged behind his competitors.
“The election was stolen. We understand it, and we know it,” Walt Blackman, A Republican said during a debate in the Arizona House of Representatives.
Mr. Holt said Mr. Watkins may believe Arizona’s embrace of conspiracy theories could take him from online celebrity to real-world politician. But it proved difficult to stand out in a race where no one aligned with QAnon and almost everyone supported the election fraud conspiracy theory.
“Every once in a while, someone on the right wing of the conspiratorial mind gets attention online and they think that means they’re popular,” Mr Holt said. “So they try to run for office or have a personal event somewhere, and it’s just a sad crash and burn.”