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Trump and Pence duel in Arizona in fight for Republican future – The Guardian US

Eddie Palazuelos drove 200 miles and lined up for five hours under the baking sun to to see Donald Trump at a campaign event for candidates he is backing in the forthcoming Arizona Republican primaries.

It’s the fifth Trump rally the 27-year-old has attended since the former president lost the White House in 2020 – because Palazuelos vehemently believes the election was stolen. Any judge or lawmaker who concludes otherwise is “willfully ignorant”, he said, referring to the dozens of lawsuits and recounts nationwide which ruled out fraud.

“Fixing our election system is fundamental. That’s why Kari Lake is my No 1 for governor, because she won’t stop talking about the election,” said Palazuelos, an IT worker from Tucson, as Abba’s hit The Winner Takes it All blasted through the speakers. “Of course Trump’s endorsement means something.”

How much it means is the big question.

In Arizona’s gubernatorial race, candidate Kari Lake’s consistent and combative false claims about election fraud were rewarded with an endorsement from Trump back in January, which helped the former local Fox news anchor and Barack Obama supporter surge ahead in the race for the Republican nomination.

But Trump’s visit on Friday also took place as his former wingman Mike Pence spoke at two campaign events for Karrin Taylor Robson, Lake’s main rival in the key battleground state, who has stopped short of calling the election corrupt.

Trump and Pence squared off in Arizona the day after the congressional committee investigating the attempted coup on January 6 said that the then president’s refusal to call off the violent mob for over three hours amounted to a dereliction of duty. The duel signals a proxy war for the future of the Republican party, and follows revelations that Trump approved – or was at least nonchalant about – the mob chanting “hang Mike Pence”.

The duelling appearances underlines the importance of Arizona on the national stage, with the 2 August primaries likely to serve as a litmus test for Trump’s endorsement prowess ahead of the midterms, where the Republicans hope to win key state races and regain control of the Senate and House.

“Trump continues to have a tight hold over the Republican party in the state, but we’ll see whether the January 6 hearings have made enough of them decide that they want something less bombastic,” said Julie Erfle, a Phoenix-based communications consultant and political commentator.

The Trump-Lake event on Friday evening took place about 90 miles north of Phoenix in the Prescott valley, one of the reddest parts of the state, with deep seated undercurrents of racism, including the presence of white supremacy groups such as the Proud Boys, the Three Percenters and the Oath Keepers.

Friday was the hottest day of the year so far, and several people passed out and needed medical attention. Once inside, the mood was festive as exhausted supporters refueled on popcorn, cheesy nachos and small bottles of water that cost $4.50.

It was very much the Trump show, with appearances by several far-right conspiracy theorists, including the MyPillow boss Mike Lindell, former sheriff Joseph Arpaio, Trump’s attorney general candidate Abe Hamadeh, and Mark Finchem, a member of the militia group the Oath Keepers running for secretary of state. All of Trump’s endorsements have repeated the false claims about the stolen 2020 election.

Trump came on stage to rapturous applause, and repeated his usual baseless complaints about rampant election fraud by the so-called radical left. But the crowd seemed to hang on to every word.

Trump supporters at the rally in Prescott.
Trump supporters at the rally in Prescott. Photograph: Rebecca Noble/Reuters

“I’ll be voting for all of Trump’s endorsements, and for him in 2024. Pence? He’s a Rino and a traitor, not to be trusted,” said Kelly Ciccone, 58, referencing the shorthand for Republican In Name Only.

Earlier in the day, Pence appeared at Taylor’s relatively small but spirited campaign event in Peoria, a Phoenix suburb, alongside the outgoing Republican governor Doug Ducey. Taylor, a pro-gun, anti-choice, anti-immigration developer, is catching up fast in the polls after spending least $13.5m of her own wealth on the race.

It’s not the first time Pence has pitted himself against his former boss. In May, he backed Georgia governor Brian Kemp, who like Ducey has been repeatedly attacked by Trump for his refusal to overturn the 2020 results in his state. On that occasion, Kemp crushed Trump’s candidate David Perdue by more than 50 points.

It’s unclear whether Pence, who has been campaigning for candidates nationwide, plans to launch a 2024 presidential bid but as polls stand now, only Ron DeSantis, the hardline Florida governor, looks capable of challenging Trump.

The dozen Republican voters interviewed by the Guardian were more or less evenly split between Trump, Pence and DeSantis as their pick for 2024.

“I probably wouldn’t vote for Trump again because of his alleged involvement in January 6. The country needs a lot of fixing. I don’t think going back is the answer,” said Kevin Coles, 30, a cybersecurity expert at the Taylor event.

It’s all to play for in Arizona. Coles is among around 20% of voters who are still undecided in the gubernatorial race, but the momentum is with Taylor, and her backer Ducey, who is also co-chair of the Republican Governors Association, has seen his approval ratings rise to 60%.

Pence did not criticise Trump – in fact, he boasted about their joint achievements in the White House. But backing Taylor against Lake will likely be seen as a combative move.

Next week, the former allies will take the fight to Washington with speeches about the post-2024 Republican agenda at rival conservative think tanks on Tuesday. It will be Trump’s first public appearance in the capitol since he left the White House on Biden’s inauguration day on 20 January 2021.

“Nationally, this signals what we’re going to see in the Republican presidential primary for 2024 – a contest between the Trump and Pence factions of the party,” said Erfle.

“The two sides are not all that different on misogyny, racism and far-right nationalism. It’s more about choosing a cult of personality that revolves around Trump or continuing democracy in some form.”

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