PRESCOTT VALLEY, Ariz. — It was billed as a split-screen proxy war in the wilderness: Donald Trump versus Mike Pence in a midterm election skirmish that would provide an early indication of the future of the GOP.
It ended more like a college-JV scrimmage.
The landscape of the GOP, at least in Arizona, remains heavily tilted toward Trump. And those who came to see the former president speak seemed to know it.
They gathered Friday in a pennant-covered stadium wearing T-shirts that read “I’m still my president,” offering wild conspiracies about the last election and the certainty that Trump would win the next one.
For them, Pence, and every vestige of the old established wing of the Republican Party, is in the past.
“He was a good guy,” said one of the attendees.
“I don’t have an opinion on [Pence]said another, who was eager to persuade Trump to “head a sell-off of the federal government” if elected.
Leaving the rally with her 11-year-old grandson and stopping for a T-shirt that was too big for her but said she could tuck it in, Georgianna Bruso said she “didn’t even know” Pence was in state.
Pence was, in fact, there, having come to the state to support Karrin Taylor Robson, who is running for the GOP nomination for governor against Trump-backed Kari Lake, who still insists, falsely, that Trump won the 2020 election. .
But even the stoppage setup underscored just how tilted this “power battle” would be.
The former vice president appeared with Robson in Maricopa County, where Trump supporters conducted an “audit” of the last election that honest observers derided as a sham.
It is the largest county in Arizona, the state where Ron Watkins, a celebrity in the QAnon conspiracy world suspected of being Qis running for Congress.
Earlier this week, the state Republican Party censured Republican Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers, for testifying before the January 6 committee about Trump’s efforts to nullify the election. Walt Blackman, a Republican state legislator running for Congress, recently made headlines for his suggestion that abortion is linked to efforts to exterminate blacks.
In parts of Arizona, said Chuck Coughlin, a veteran Phoenix-based Republican strategist, “you can say some crazy things” and still be viable.
Or win a statewide party primary.
For Trump supporters, it doesn’t matter how much damage was inflicted on the state party during his tenure. Republicans lost two Senate seats and a presidential race for the first time since 1996.
It was the possibility that he would run again that they were cheering for when they arrived. And it wouldn’t change Trump supporters’ opinion of him if their preferred gubernatorial candidate, Lake, loses to Pence’s pick in the Aug. 2 primary.
Some said they wouldn’t believe it if he did. Lake herself has suggested that he might not accept the results of his election – a line derived from the Trump playbook.
In the lead up to Trump’s rally with Lake, Stan Barnes, a former state legislator and longtime Republican consultant, described the appearances of Trump and Pence in Arizona as “sort of an alignment of celestial planets that you witness every millennium… That’s what it feels like on the ground in Arizona.”
What was happening, he added, was a “real-time, slow-motion tearing of the fabric of the GOP that is there for us to see. We’ve got Donald Trump doing his thing with his candidate… GOP voters in Arizona may not know this yet, but they don’t just pick one candidate to represent the party in the general election. They are choosing the real direction of the party.”
But when asked if Trump could lose out either way, Barnes said, “No, I don’t think so.”
Robson, the wealthy real estate developer and former member of the state’s board of regents, has refused to say the 2020 election was stolen. But in a nod to Trump, he has said she doesn’t think the election was fair. She has reached out to Lake, the first female candidate in the primary, not by criticizing her for falsehoods about the 2020 election, a centerpiece of Lake’s campaign, but instead by portraying her as a bogus conservative.
On Friday, he criticized Lake for donating to Barack Obamawhile Pence, who appeared alongside her, said, “Arizona Republicans don’t need a governor who supported Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.”
For the most important schism in the GOP, between its pro-Trump and pro-democracy wings, that’s not much of a litmus test.
“Has this been a full-throated defense of the election that took place in the state of Arizona in 2020?” asked Bill Gates, a Republican Maricopa County supervisor. “No, that is not what she has done. I think she has thrown some red meat at people, but on purpose she hasn’t gone in and out of the background.”
Even that, he said, “is important, because I think most of the candidates in our party have done it.”