Arizona Republicans worry about consequences from election audit: 'This is turning into a mockery'

The ongoing spectacle of the Arizona ballot audit is raising political pressure, but it's some Republicans who are feeling the squeeze.

The slow tally of 2.1 million Maricopa County presidential ballots has former President Donald Trump's approval, but it is deepening divisions within the GOP and is helping fuel a Republican-led rollback of voting rights in other states.

It has riveted the attention of the former president, who is bent on overturning the results. And it has drawn concern from the U.S Justice Department, which is worried about the security of ballots and potential voter intimidation. 

News of volunteers searching for evidence of conspiracies linked to bamboo fibers and ultraviolet lights has made Arizona the punch line in late-night comedy. 

But the stakes of this exercise should not be downplayed, election experts warn. 

Michael McDonald, a political science professor at the University of Florida and an expert on election processes, said America held fair elections in the midst of a pandemic. But Republicans incensed about Trump’s loss are damaging the process moving forward in a way that foreign nations had sought to do.

“We should be very proud of ourselves as a country and instead we're still litigating over who won,” he said. “There's plenty of evidence that Russian intelligence was behind promoting election-fraud stories. … We have people from within our own country who are looking to undermine our democracy because one person can't accept that he could ever lose an election.”

The audit by a private firm at the behest of the Republican-controlled state Senate is boosting unfounded conspiracy claims to cast President Joe Biden’s win as stolen and being used to justify a wave of voter-suppression laws across the country. It’s also serving as another key test of ideological unity for the GOP that has some Republicans worried the party can’t unite or build its appeal. 

Trump-allied candidates are calling for “a vote audit like Arizona’s” in their own races and key pro-Trump figures have formed an organization dedicated to examining election integrity in eight states, including Arizona. 

Meanwhile, Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., who has prominently dismissed allegations of a stolen election, could be the next casualty in the intraparty battle over continued loyalty to Trump. She is expected to lose her GOP leadership role in the House of Representatives this week.

In Arizona, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey angered Trump for accepting Biden’s win, cementing the sense of betrayal felt by many on the far right and complicating his political ambitions after his term ends in 2023.

For Republicans, and especially those familiar with Arizona elections, the audit and its associations with right-wing conspiracies are doing serious damage.

“I just want it over. I think Arizona needs to move on and not be the center of more of this political gossip,” said Betsey Bayless, the former Republican secretary of state for five years beginning in 1997.

Jan Brewer, the former Republican governor and Trump surrogate who served as the state’s election czar before her ascent to the governor’s office, typically speaks her mind. She didn’t want to talk about the audit. Neither did former GOP Secretary of State Michele Reagan, who cited her role as a justice of the peace. 

For his part, Ducey avoided the subject in questions from reporters. 

“Let this be completed, and then we can talk about what the findings are,” Ducey said Thursday. Later, he added that he was “focused on my day job."

"No one has been a more vocal advocate for Arizona elections than the governor — from the state Capitol to the Oval Office," said CJ Karamargin, a Ducey spokesperson. "The Senate is a separate, co-equal branch of government and has been granted the ability to examine the ballots by the court, another separate and co-equal branch of government. The executive branch has not been involved in the process."

Former U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, who rose to become the No. 2-ranking Republican in the chamber, made clear he’s not associated with the audit, and sees little upside to it. 

“It is always the case that when there are serious controversies within a political party, it doesn’t do the party any good,” Kyl said during a phone interview. “And I think the divisions within the Republican Party will not reflect well on the party's chances of success in the next election. That's pretty obvious.”

The candidate fields are already taking shape for 2022’s races, which will draw hundreds of millions of dollars and national attention as Republicans hope to maintain control of the governor’s office and state Legislature, and unseat U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., in a race that could decide control of that chamber. 

“The Legislature should be focused on the challenges facing the state,” Kelly told The Arizona Republic on Thursday while speed walking to his car from an event as he was asked about the potential consequences of the audit. 

Arizona’s return to the glare of the national political spotlight was a predictable one.

For one, all four of the state’s U.S. House Republicans played varying roles in trying to set aside the election results and undermining public confidence in the results. That was despite the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency declaring the election the “most secure in American history.”

For months after the election, U.S. Reps. Paul Gosar and Andy Biggs helped promote the narrative of a stolen election. Gosar repeatedly touted “Stop the Steal” events. Biggs called the results in Pennsylvania “fraud, pure and simple.”

Rep. Debbie Lesko and 100 other House Republicans joined a lawsuit brought by Texas officials in December seeking to block the election results in four states. The Supreme Court quickly dismissed the case.

Hours after the deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, Rep. David Schweikert joined 146 other House Republicans in voting to set aside election results in Pennsylvania. Unlike his three Arizona GOP colleagues, he did not seek to set aside his own state’s results.

Arizona election audit: Recruitment of ballot counters raises partisan concerns

Beyond that, Arizona’s state government remains in Republican control. Biden’s margin in Arizona, about 11,000 votes, was the narrowest in the country

With Trump claiming widespread fraud, it was perhaps inevitable that his supporters in a GOP-controlled state would dig into the issue. Similarly, Georgia, the closest state by percentage differential and also in GOP control, already has passed a raft of new voting restrictions.

By contrast, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, three other key presidential battlegrounds, have Democratic governors and always were unlikely to indulge Trump’s conspiracy claims.

While state GOP lawmakers are aligned with Trump, Ducey’s relationship with the former president is fraught. 

He memorably ignored a phone call from Trump while he certified Biden’s victory. The public snub came as Ducey’s political ambitions appear to lie outside Arizona. 

As head of the Republican Governors Association, Ducey is leading the effort to help the party in the next cycle in 38 gubernatorial races across the nation, a post that puts him in the room with some of the party’s most influential donors. 

Back home, he has done little to publicly shape or condemn the effort to recount the Maricopa County ballots. There is no public indication Ducey sought to dissuade state Senate President Karen Fann from pursuing the recount.

Asked by a reporter on Thursday for his response to how the audit is reverberating nationally, the governor inaccurately responded, “This is an issue in every state and it’s been an issue in the last several elections.” 

It has reignited the tensions from the immediate aftermath of the 2020 election, when Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, who has been critical of the audit, was fearful for her safety. On Friday, the governor ordered state police protection for Hobbs and her family after she received death threats. 

Maricopa County Supervisor Steve Chucri, a Republican, said he supported initial reviews of the county's tallies because it seemed important to upholding public confidence. The ongoing audit, however, isn't doing that, he said. 

"Your average citizen says this is turning into a mockery," he said, noting the various inconsistencies on timing and methods. "I just don't know who's in charge or how it's going. ... I'm not sure this is giving people confidence."

Though the audit has riveted Trump's attention and rocketed the state back into the all-too familiar late-night comedy lineup, some Republicans maintain its significance is being overblown.

“I literally think that very few people are paying attention,” said former U.S. Rep. Ben Quayle, R-Ariz. 

“I’m very politically involved, and I’m not paying attention to this audit," he said. "You guys are paying attention to it because you have to, but nobody else is paying attention to this.” 

Asked what the potential long-term consequences of the audit could be, state Sen. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, said, “Hell if I know. … I haven’t given it much thought. I’ve honestly been too busy to care.”

Have news to share about Arizona politics? Reach the reporter on Twitter and Facebook. Contact her at yvonne.wingett@arizonarepublic.com and 602-444-4712.

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