5 things we learned from Trump's 1st post-presidential visit to Arizona

Ronald J. Hansen
Arizona Republic

Former President Donald Trump returned Saturday to Arizona, a state that has been central to his political rise and fall.

Trump focused on casting doubt on his electoral loss and lobbed barbs at his political foes — Democrats and Republicans alike. Meanwhile, most Republican contenders for the U.S. Senate, governor and secretary of state races sought to impress Trump voters as they talked to the nearly 5,000 in attendance at the Arizona Federal Theatre in Phoenix.

Here are five things we learned from the event, which was hosted by the conservative, Phoenix-based Turning Point Action.

Trump hasn’t moved on

The former president spent a lot of his 107-minute speech questioning the election results in Arizona and elsewhere. He also talked about what he views as a dangerous lapse in border security and a rise in inflation under President Joe Biden.

He didn’t comment on running for president again in 2024, though signs in the crowd made clear many hope he will.

If Trump’s political career is over, he isn’t talking that way. His words were not the ones of a detached ex-president offering policy observations or someone looking to transfer his support to the next generation.

Six months out of office, Trump packed bitterness and a familiar America-in-chaos theme into his words. Gauging by the enthusiastic agreement from those on hand, Trump is still in sync with his base.

Unlike other Trump events, however, it was less clear what Trump wants from his supporters. 

He wasn’t asking for their votes, and he didn’t make any endorsements from the stage. He supports the ongoing review of Maricopa County ballots by the Arizona Senate, but that is happening anyway. He claimed credit for the rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines, blamed Biden for botching the rollout, and didn’t urge the audience to get their shots.

The crowd reinforced Trump’s views with long, loud applause, and maybe that’s all either needed.

Kari Lake one to watch in governor's race

Kari Lake, a former Phoenix TV news anchor, was one of the four GOP gubernatorial candidates onstage Saturday, but she clearly got the loudest applause and had the lines that drove crowd reaction the most.

Trump named all of the candidates who appeared in person at the event, but Lake was the only one to get a prolonged ovation. Even Trump noticed.

“Wow,” he said. “This could be a big night for you.”

Lake is new to politics, but she’s a familiar face, and her first big event hit the right notes with a pro-Trump crowd.

She identified herself as a “proud, conservative and unapologetic Trump Republican.” 

Then Lake shredded “dirty politicians sitting at home” in a dig that might have been aimed at Gov. Doug Ducey or Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, two people not at the event, not running against her, but whom Trump has hit.

“These are … the backstabbers, the ones who turned their back on President Trump on Nov. 4, and they told us to forget about the November election, that nothing went wrong and we should get on with our lives. We’re not going to do that.”

Supporters across the theater chanted her name.

Kari Lake, the former Fox 10 news anchor and Republican candidate for Arizona governor, speaks during the Turning Point Action event at the Arizona Federal Theatre in Phoenix on July 24, 2021. Former President Donald Trump spoke later during the event. This is Trump's first post-presidency visit to Arizona.

By contrast, the three other candidates, businessman Steve Gaynor, state Treasurer Kimberly Yee and former U.S. Rep. Matt Salmon, each generated what seemed to be polite approval. 

It’s not that they said anything especially different than Lake. They each said things that appealed to the audience at different times.

Yee, for example, said voters can’t elect any more Republicans like U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., who was bounced from GOP leadership earlier this year.

Gaynor warned that his loss for secretary of state in 2018 should have been a warning about the need for election reforms.

Salmon echoed Trump’s complaints against the “fake news” and seemed to get his own dig in at Lake, who switched to voting in Democratic races for years beginning in the Bush era.

Salmon warned: “We have people pretending to be conservatives while they support liberals.”

The heat is on Mark Brnovich

On the other end, Brnovich stood out among the U.S. Senate contenders mostly because Trump seemed to put a big carrot — and stick — out there for anyone wanting his endorsement.

During his first post-presidency visit to Arizona, former President Donald Trump speaks at the "Rally to Protect Our Elections!" sponsored by Turning Point Action in front of a capacity crowd at the Arizona Federal Theatre in Phoenix, July 24, 2021.

Brnovich didn’t attend the event, citing an undisclosed “long-standing family commitment.”

He seemed mostly unscathed by the onstage comments from the three other men running against him: solar power executive Jim Lamon; Blake Masters, the financial aide to billionaire Peter Thiel; and Michael "Mick" McGuire, the retired adjutant general of the Arizona National Guard.

But Trump said the state Senate-ordered ballot review was turning up compelling evidence of an "election scam," and he then put the squeeze on Brnovich.

"We have to hold these people accountable," Trump said. "Hopefully — and I say this, and I have confidence in it — hopefully, your attorney general, Mark Brnovich ... will take this incredible information given by these incredible warriors and patriots, and he's going to take it and he's going to do what everybody knows needs to be done."  

The other GOP Senate candidates got name-checked during the speech and received polite applause with no special focus on any of them from Trump.

Michelle Ugenti-Rita bombed

If the Trump primary ended with pressure on Brnovich, it was a disaster for state Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, who is running for secretary of state.

Ugenti-Rita has been assembling a legislative record on voting legislation for years all building toward her 2022 statewide run. She has also criticized the Senate's ballot review.

Within seconds of taking the stage at the rally, boos from seemingly every seat in the theater drowned out everything she tried to say.

Afterward, Ugenti-Rita defended her position in a series of tweets.

"I supported the audit, but I do not support the Trump audit any longer," she said. "I wanted to review our election processes and see what, if anything, could be improved.

"Sadly, it’s now become clear that the audit has been botched. The total lack of competence by (Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott) over the last 5 months has deprived the voters of Arizona a comprehensive accounting of the 2020 election. That’s inexcusable, but it shows what can happen when Republicans do not take election integrity deadly serious."

In Trump's GOP, follow or be gone

Kelli Ward, the chair of the Arizona Republican Party, seemed to capture the attitude of many in the GOP when she defended a hands-on approach to holding her party to account. That seemed pointed at Ducey. 

"It is not my job as the chairwoman to give cover to mamby-pamby, wimpy, fake Republicans," she said, adding that it's her job to make them be better Republicans.

"In other words, I am the butt-kicker in chief, not the butt-kisser," she said. "And if there's anybody out there that doesn't like that, sorry, not sorry."

It was the kind of tough talk Trump used as he criticized other Republicans, such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb.

Charlie Kirk, co-founder and president of Turning Point Action, speaks at the "Rally to Protect Our Elections!" at the Arizona Federal Theatre in Phoenix, July 24, 2021.

Charlie Kirk, a conservative commentator who founded Turning Point Action, joked during his remarks that Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., is more of a Republican than the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was.

Later, Kirk railed against "ribbon-cutting Republicans" who welcome companies like Google to Arizona.

Reach the reporter Ronald J. Hansen at ronald.hansen@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-4493. Follow him on Twitter @ronaldjhansen.

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