PRESCOTT, Ariz. — Pamphlets, buttons and American flags cluttered booth after booth for political candidates at a conference center in Prescott, Ariz., this month. But the table for Ron Watkins, a Republican candidate for Congress who rose to prominence for his ties to the QAnon conspiracy theory, was empty.
“I thought it started at 11:30 a.m.,” said Orlando Munguia, Mr Watkins’ campaign manager, who arrived about 30 minutes into the event and hastily prepared campaign materials without him. candidate in tow.
Mr. Watkins, a computer programmer in his thirties, faces the same reality that many other QAnon-linked candidates have faced: Having conspiracy theory ties does not automatically translate into a successful political campaign.
More established Republican rivals have largely passed Mr. Watkins in Arizona’s second district. Two other congressional candidates in Arizona who have shown some support for QAnon are also trailing their competitors in fundraising ahead of the Aug. 2 primary. A fourth Arizona candidate with ties to QAnon has suspended his House campaign. The same trend is playing out nationally.
Their grim outlook reflects the changing role that conspiracy theories play in American politics. The Republican Party flirted with QAnon in 2020, as several Q-linked candidates sought higher positions and Q merchandise appeared at rallies for then-President Donald J. Trump across the country. However, identification with the movement appeared to be a political handicap. As they have this election cycle, Democrats attacked Q-linked candidates as extremists, and all but two — Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Lauren Boebert of Colorado — lost their races.
But many of QAnon’s themes have sunk deeper into mainstream Republican politics this year, experts say, including the false belief that ‘evil’ Deep State agents control the government and that Mr. Trump is waging a war. against them. Savvy contestants have found ways to tap into that excitement — all without explicitly mentioning the conspiracy theory.
Indeed, within a few stands of Mr. Watkins in Prescott, other campaigns were suggesting that election results could not be trusted, an idea that QAnon helped popularize.
“The actual iconography and branding of QAnon has really fallen by the wayside,” said Mike Rothschild, conspiracy theory researcher and author of “The Storm Is Upon Us: How QAnon Became a Movement, Cult, and Conspiracy Theory of Everything”..” “People don’t really identify as QAnon believers anymore.
“But QAnon’s views are overwhelmingly mainstream,” he added.
During the campaign trail, Republican candidates avoid talking about the idea of a pedophile cabal preying on children, a core tenet of QAnon. But they accept false claims that liberals are “preparing” children with progressive sex education. When criticizing Covid-19 restrictions, many Republicans challenge QAnon’s belief that a “deep state” of bureaucrats and politicians wants to control Americans.
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The biggest talking point with echoes from QAnon, however, is the false claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Mr. Trump. The movement pushed that idea long before votes were cast, and before Mr. Trump catapulted the claim into the mainstream.
At least 131 candidates who have announced or filed nominations for governor, secretary of state or attorney general this year have backed the false election claims, according to States United Action, a nonpartisan nonprofit. focused on elections and democracy.
By comparison, so far only 11 of 37 congressional candidates with QAnon-enhancing records have made it from the primaries to the general election, according to Media Matters for America, a liberal watchdog group. Only one of them, JR Majewski in Ohio’s Ninth District, has a chance of adding to QAnon’s representation in Congress. Overall, Media Matters has linked 65 current and former congressional candidates to QAnon so far this year, up from 106 in the 2020 election.
JR Majewski and Mr. Watkins did not respond to requests for comment.
Experts point to Kari Lake, a former news anchor who is seen as the Republican primary front-runner for Arizona governor, as a role model for Republicans who deftly navigate conspiracy theories for political gain.
But in a recent campaign stop, it was voter fraud that captured all the attention. Hundreds of Trump supporters thronged a loud country music bar in Tucson. No one in the crowd appeared to be wearing a QAnon shirt or hat, items frequently seen at Trump rallies. A woman selling flags and bumper stickers outside the event also had no Q merchandise.
“A lot of these people like Kari Lake don’t directly believe in Q or QAnon,” said Mike Rains, a QAnon expert who hosts “Adventures in HellwQrld,” a podcast chronicling the movement. But by pushing the voter fraud narrative, Ms Lake is “getting their support without having to actually know the inner workings of the movement”.
Ms Lake was introduced at the event by Seth Keshel, a former army captain who travels the country pushing debunked claims about the 2020 election.
‘Everyone knows Arizona didn’t go to Joe Biden,’ he said, erroneously, before calling ‘citizen soldiers’ – a term reminiscent of QAnon’s ‘digital soldiers’ – to guard the ballot boxes.
The crowd roared as Ms. Lake took the stage. Soon she was repeating lies about the election. “How many of you think it was a rotten, corrupt and fraudulent election?” she asked to cheers.
A spokesperson for Ms Lake declined to comment.
Polling shows QAnon remains popular, with an estimated 41 million Americans believing the basic tenets of the conspiracy theory, according to a 2021 poll from the Public Religion Research Institute. But stories of voter fraud are even more popular.
Among Arizona Republicans who support Mr. Trump, 27% think QAnon’s theories are mostly true, according to OH Predictive Insights, an in-state policy research group. This compares to 82% who think the election was stolen.
Of Arizona Republicans who are more loyal to the Republican Party than Mr. Trump, only 11% believe QAnon’s theories are mostly true and about half believe the election was stolen.
Disinformation watchdogs are warning that a slate of candidates supporting tales of voter fraud in Arizona could win three key races that control the election: governor, secretary of state and attorney general.
Mark Finchem, a state representative and leading candidate for secretary of state, also focused his campaign on voter fraud. He attended the Jan. 6 rally and said Arizona should set aside election results of the counties he judged “irretrievably compromised”.
Mr. Finchem spoke at a conference in Las Vegas last year hosted by a QAnon influencer where Mr. Watkins also spoke. On his campaign signs at crowded intersections across the state, one of his slogans reads, “Protect our children,” evoking a popular QAnon slogan, “Save the Children.”
“The broader culture war has picked up on some of the more conspiratorial tendencies that come with QAnon,” said Jared Holt, QAnon expert and senior research director at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. “There was, to some extent, a merger.”
Abraham Hamadeh, a candidate for Arizona attorney general, surged in the polls after Mr Trump offered his belated endorsement. He and other attorney general candidates said during a debate in May that they would not have signed the certification of the state’s 2020 election results.
Mr. Hamadeh and Mr. Finchem did not respond to requests for comment.
Nor was there a shortage of Holocaust deniers in the race for Arizona’s second congressional district, where Mr. Watkins is waging his long campaign. During an awkward TV debate in April, he distanced himself from QAnon, saying, “I wasn’t Q, and I’m not.” He turned to voter fraud conspiracy theories, noting that Mr Trump had retweeted him on the subject. But it was overwhelmed by its competitors.
“The election was stolen. We understand that and we know that,” Walt Blackman, a Republican in the Arizona House of Representatives, said during the debate.
Mr. Watkins may have believed that Arizona’s embrace of conspiracy theories could propel him from online celebrity to real-world politician, Mr. Holt said. But it’s proven difficult to stand out in a race where no one aligned with QAnon and almost everyone backed the voter fraud conspiracy theory.
“Once in a while, someone from the right wing of the conspiracy mastermind gets a lot of attention online and thinks that means they’re popular,” Mr. Holt said. “So they try to run for office or have an in-person event somewhere, and it’s just a miserable crash and burn.”