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How a fight over Trump’s endorsement, white nationalist online trolls, and a Holocaust denier has upended an Arizona GOP state Senate primary

Arizona Republican State Sens. Kelly Townsend (left) and Wendy Rogers (right).

Kelly Townsend/Courtesy and Thomas McKinless/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

  • Kelly Townsend and Wendy Rogers, two far-right Arizona state senators, are facing off in a GOP primary.
  • Rogers has been endorsed by Trump and has ties to white nationalists known as “Groypers”.
  • Townsend says she gave up Trump’s endorsement for a congressional bid in order to make a statement about Rogers.

APACHE JUNCTION, Arizona — At a town hall-style event held by the Superstition Mountain Republican Club last Thursday evening, a state legislative primary that may be Arizona’s most contentious took center stage.

Two ultra-conservative state senators, both of whom have aggressively promoted the idea that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from former President Donald Trump, made their case to an audience of roughly 100 middle-age and elderly voters at a charter elementary school on the eastern edge of the Phoenix metro area.

“I wanted to say hi to my colleague, Sen. Kelly Townsend,” said state Sen. Wendy Rogers, who is a member of the Oath Keepers militia, with a hint of sarcasm as she began her pitch. 

Addressing the room after remarks by US Senate candidate Blake Masters, Rogers took a minute to thank her supporters, reading off a list of names from her phone that included “Wendy’s Goon Squad” and a “troll army.” Met with silence, she set down the phone and launched into her stump speech. 

Townsend, a fellow Republican state senator and Rogers’ opponent in the August 2 primary, sat in the front row as Rogers sold herself as a bike-riding, truck-owning workhorse. “I should be a poster girl for Toyota, but they’re too woke for me,” said Rogers. 

With less than two weeks to go until the primary election — and with scores of mail-in ballots being returned each day — the race between the two pro-Trump legislators now hinges largely on whether GOP voters will tolerate Rogers’ embrace of Nick Fuentes, a 23-year-old far-right political commentator who the FBI has identified as a white supremacist and with an online following known as “Groypers.” 

Townsend, who abandoned a nascent congressional bid in March to challenge her one-time ally in their newly-combined 7th legislative district, has made Rogers’ ties with Fuentes a key issue in the final weeks of the race.

—Senator Kelly Townsend 🇺🇸 (@AZKellyT) July 18, 2022

 

“I was not familiar with who Nick Fuentes was,” Townsend told Insider in a phone interview on Friday. “I went and watched a compilation video that someone showed me, and I was horrified.” 

Townsend says she gave up one of the most coveted commodities in GOP politics today — a Trump endorsement — in order to run.

A yard sign for Sen. Kelly Townsend's re-election campaign outside an elementary school in Apache Junction, AZ on July 14, 2022.A yard sign for Sen. Kelly Townsend’s re-election campaign outside an elementary school in Apache Junction, AZ on July 14, 2022.

Bryan Metzger/Insider

‘I truly respect Nick’

It all began in late February of this year, when Rogers, a perennial candidate who finally won a state Senate seat in 2020, delivered a video address before the America First Political Action Conference (AFPAC), a gathering of white nationalists organized by Fuentes. 

Rogers greeted the audience as “fellow patriots” while arguing for the use of a “newly built set of gallows” to “make an example of these traitors who have betrayed our country.”

“I truly respect Nick, because he’s the most persecuted man in America,” she said of Fuentes during her address. “Nick, and the other patriots in attendance at AFPAC: please keep doing what you’re doing. I admire you, and I so appreciate how you never give up. We need more strong Americans like you.”

Fuentes did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.

Rogers also posted an image of herself, Fuentes, and Andrew Torba — founder of the right-wing social media site Gab — behind a slain rhinoceros with a Star of David set against the logo of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).

—Nick Martin (@nickmartin) March 1, 2022

Days later, Rogers was censured by the Arizona Senate for the violent rhetoric, though the motion did not mention anti-Semitism or white nationalism. 

Townsend, who said she missed the March 1 vote because her daughter had a medical issue, says she called Rogers that day and pleaded with her to denounce Fuentes directly. She says Rogers told her that she “shouldn’t have to do that.”

“I was just begging her, I’m like ‘I need you to be strong, Wendy,'” said Townsend. “I mean, don’t you believe in the Bible?”

But Rogers wouldn’t denounce Fuentes, and still hasn’t.

“I was just sick to my stomach. I spent the night in prayer. I cried,” said Townsend. At the time, Townsend was just over one month into a campaign for a US House seat currently held by retiring Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick. “I had just gotten a Trump endorsement,” she says.

Townsend ended her congressional campaign days later and announced that she would instead run for re-election, challenging Rogers in her home senate district, which they now shared as a result of redistricting.

“I have to make the statement that this is not who we are,” she added. “And I’m going to just run off my record and see what happens.”

She added of Rogers: “I don’t care what she does to me.”

A yard sign for Sen. Kelly Townsend's re-election campaign outside an elementary school in Apache Junction, AZ on July 14, 2022.A yard sign for Sen. Kelly Townsend’s re-election campaign outside an elementary school in Apache Junction, AZ on July 14, 2022.

Bryan Metzger/Insider

‘Why wouldn’t you speak out against that?’

Townsend released a statement in early March blaming her exit from the congressional primary on the fact that the Trump endorsement had “still not materialized.” But she told Insider that a Trump aide told her that the former president would endorse her. 

“I’ve got it on my phone,” she told Insider.

Insider viewed a series of text messages between Townsend and Kurt Olsen, a lawyer who worked on behalf Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election, in which Olsen seemingly confirmed that a Trump endorsement was coming. 

“He says, you know, it’s done. It should be out soon,” said Townsend. “He said to go and fight hard.”

But before the expected endorsement was published, Townsend announced her primary against Rogers, who was herself endorsed by Trump in November 2021. While Townsend says she didn’t want to make Trump have to choose between the two of them, she also said she’s “disappointed” in the former president for backing a candidate aligned with white nationalists and no longer wants his support.

“I don’t know that his endorsement is going to help me,” said Townsend. “If he’s unwilling to speak out against Nick Fuentes, then why would I want an endorsement from somebody who can’t do that?”

“I’m like… don’t you have a daughter-in-law, or a son in law or something, who’s Jewish? Why wouldn’t you speak out against that?,” she added, referring to Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump. “I’m just disappointed that President Trump didn’t put a kibosh to that kind of rhetoric.”

Townsend’s odds are not great; according to the most recent campaign finance disclosures, Rogers has brought in more than $3 million in contributions this year, while Townsend has raised a little more than $65,000. 

The Apache Junction Republican insists that she has an advantage among GOP voters who are “paying attention,” and she indicated that she’s received support from people who usually don’t agree with her MAGA-aligned views.

Sen. Kelly Townsend (left) cheers on Trump as he addresses supporters at a Turning Point Action event on July 24, 2021, in Phoenix, AZ.Sen. Kelly Townsend (left) cheers on Trump as he addresses supporters at a Turning Point Action event on July 24, 2021, in Phoenix, AZ.

AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

“It’s uncomfortable, because all these people are coming out of the woodwork saying ‘please save us from Wendy Rogers, please, you have to win this race,'” she said with a chuckle. 

But she also worries that the average Republican voter in her district just doesn’t know enough about Rogers’ controversies, most of which stem from statements on Twitter and other right-wing spaces online.

“They see a Trump endorsement, they don’t know any different,” she said. “Or, they may ascribe to what she believes.”

MAGA versus “Groyper”

While Townsend speaks of Nick Fuentes’ anti-Jewish rhetoric with a sense of urgency and righteousness, she’s ultimately more similar to her primary opponent than not.

“There’s a lot of similarities when it comes to how we vote. But there are some stark differences on our leadership style, on our professionalism, on who we are as a person,” said Townsend. “There’s a side of Wendy that some people have never seen.”

But asked whether she believed Rogers’ frequent invocations of George Soros are anti-Semitic, Townsend herself invoked a trope broadly understood to be anti-Semitic, saying critiques of the liberal megadonor have “nothing to do with the fact that he’s Jewish” but “everything to do with the fact that he’s trying to destroy sovereign states.”

“I’m not criticizing his faith, I’m criticizing his actions of coming against our country and our republic,” Townsend said of Soros. “He wants socialism. He wants a one world government, if I’m correct… I’m pretty sure that’s what he wants.”

Townsend has also posted anti-Semitic caricatures on Twitter herself, and faced criticism from the Anti-Defamation League for posting a meme comparing COVID-19 vaccinate mandates to the Holocaust.

And Townsend has trafficked in false claims and conspiracy theories about the 2020 election, calling this spring for “vigilantes” to monitor ballot drop boxes — the locus of many election-related conspiracy theories — across the state.

She recently bragged about receiving a subpoena from the FBI in connection with an investigation into the January 6 Capitol riot, suggesting on Twitter that Rogers “wasn’t subpoenaed” because she “wasn’t involved but she claims she was [an] election audit champion.”

And in an endorsement research packet signed by Trump that Townsend shared on Twitter, her support for the “Stop the Steal” movement is listed under “Positives.”

Meanwhile Rogers, an Air Force veteran with a large online following, associates herself with a group of white nationalist online trolls known as “Groypers.” Following a mass shooting at a grocery store in Buffalo, NY, she said that “Fed boy summer has started in Buffalo,” suggesting that shooting was a false flag operation instigated by the federal government. That led to a short-lived ethics investigation by the Arizona Senate. 

She also faced an ethics complaint in 2021 regarding her treatment of staff that was later dismissed along party lines.

Rogers did not respond to Insider’s request for either comment or an interview.

Arizona state Sen. Wendy Rogers speaks at a Trump rally in Florence, Arizona on January 15, 2022.Arizona state Sen. Wendy Rogers speaks at a Trump rally in Florence, Arizona on January 15, 2022.

AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

Sparks fly at the Republican club

Fifteen minutes into Rogers’ speaking slot at the Superstition Mountain Republican Club, the topic of Fuentes came up. 

An attendee asked Rogers about a flyer from the Townsend campaign calling attention to Rogers’ ties to the 23-year-old, highlighting the fact that he has denied the Holocaust, compared its victims to cookies in an oven, and questioned laws regarding the age of consent for sexual relationships .

“If, by some chance, you did manage to defend him,” said the man, an Apache Junction native who works in construction, “how exactly would you justify it?”

Rogers evaded the question.

“I don’t have to justify anybody else’s speech,” she shot back at the attendee. Rogers condemned what she described as “guilt by association,” which she said was “not part of the First Amendment.”

“No matter what Nick Fuentes says, or you say, if you go out and commit a crime tonight, and someone has a video of me talking to you, all of the sudden I’m bad, because you and I talked?” she added. “It’s not up to you or me to quell someone’s freedom of speech because you find it abhorrent, whether you do or not.”

“Well I do find it abhorrent, yes,” the attendee quipped before asking her once again whether she disavowed Fuentes’ statement. 

“That’s not the point,” she responded. “It does not matter what someone else says. They have the freedom to say it. That is what I stand on. You have the freedom to say it.”

Rogers addresses attendees of the Superstition Mountain Republican Club at an elementary school in Apache Junction, AZ on July 14, 2022.Rogers addresses attendees of the Superstition Mountain Republican Club at an elementary school in Apache Junction, AZ on July 14, 2022.

Bryan Metzger/Insider

“So much for that,” said the man as he sat back down. A woman sitting nearby told the man that Rogers “didn’t answer your question,” while another man at the event pointed knowingly towards an AZ Mirror article on his phone about Rogers’ speech at AFPAC.

Later that evening, Townsend had the opportunity to make her own pitch to voters.

“How many of you saw 2000 Mules?” she asked the attendees in the midst of her speech, referring to a widely-debunked Dinesh D’Souza film that purports to reveal rampant fraud in the 2020 election. “The drop boxes are a disaster.”

But at the close of her pitch to voters, Townsend sought to clarify the choice between her and Rogers, saying while she “absolutely” supports individuals like Fuentes’ right to say objectionable things, she will “never, ever be silent” about the hateful rhetoric.

“I’m going to say no to hate,” she continued. “No, it does not belong in our party, it does not belong in our state, it doesn’t belong in our hearts.”

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