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Trump, Pence stump for rival GOP gubernatorial hopefuls in Arizona

Former vice president Mike Pence and his wife Karen Pence, left, wave to the crowd with gubernatorial candidate Karrin Taylor Robson during her campaign event at TYR Tactical. (Patrick Breen/Arizona Republic)
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PEORIA, Ariz. — Former vice president Mike Pence, appearing here on Friday afternoon at a campaign event for Republican gubernatorial hopeful Karrin Taylor Robson, told a crowd that “there are those who want to make this an election about the past,” a possible reference to his former boss’s preoccupation with the 2020 election results.

Hours later, about 90 minutes north, former president Donald Trump held a rally for Taylor Robson’s opponent, Kari Lake, a local TV news anchor turned Make America Great Again allegiant who has spent the last year spreading the falsehood that the election two years ago was stolen.

The election was rigged and stolen, and now our country is being systematically destroyed because of it," Trump told the large crowd in Prescott Valley, Ariz. inside an arena that hosts concert and sporting events. He bragged about how many votes he received, then teased, “And now we may have to do it again.”

The competing campaign appearances by the two high-profile Republicans in a critical swing state that narrowly picked President Biden over Trump in 2020, foreshadowed a possible 2024 showdown as both Pence and Trump flirt with the idea of running for president. Advisers to the former president say he is considering announcing a campaign to reclaim the presidency as early as this fall. Pence allies say he is likely to run, regardless of whether Trump runs.

Donald Trump looks to fall launch for 2024, potentially upending midterms

Pence made two campaign stops in Arizona and didn’t make any direct reference to the controversial election, or his role in it, at either event. Instead he railed about border security, inflation and blamed Democrats for the high price of gasoline. About 300 people attended one of the events, held at a tactical-equipment business in the northwestern suburb of Phoenix, which hosted Pence in 2020 for a campaign rally.

The dueling Pence and Trump events also occurred in the aftermath of a prime-time hearing by the House committee investigating the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, when Trump supporters sought to stop Congress and Pence — in his role as president of the Senate — from accepting the election results. Thursday night’s hearing revealed the panic expressed by Pence’s security detail as they tried to safely move him away from the pro-Trump mob on the day of the insurrection.

As the angry rioters came within 40 feet of Pence, then-President Donald Trump was back in the White House watching it unfold on television, the committee showed. As his supporters ransacked the Capitol, Trump tweeted: “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done.”

Frantic Secret Service radio traffic show how close Pence was to danger

At the Trump rally, Elizabeth Liden, a 69-year-old retiree from Sun City West, frowned at the mention of Pence’s name. “You’re either for Trump or Pence now,” she said.

“Look at this crowd,” Liden said, who traveled with a friend for her first Trump rally. “Common sense tells you that Biden couldn’t have possibly gotten more votes, with the small crowds he drew.”

Earlier at the Pence event, Deanna Glaser, 68, a Republican who worked in the mortgage industry before her retirement, said she would likely vote for Trump in 2024, but could “possibly” support Pence, even though she believes the former vice president could have done more to stop Congress from certifying Biden’s win.

“I don’t think he was informed or educated on what he could do,” Glaser said. “There were five states that asked to recall electors and he didn’t honor that.”

Glaser said she worked on the 2021 Arizona ballot review, in which the GOP-led state Senate ordered a review of 2.1 million ballots cast in Maricopa County in the aftermath of Trump’s loss. She is convinced the election was stolen from Trump.

There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud in Arizona or anywhere in the country that would have changed the outcome of the election.

Pence’s appearance could serve as a clarifying moment for undecided GOP voters and independent voters, who were crucial to statewide wins by Biden and Sen. Mark Kelly (D) in 2020. Taylor Robson’s campaign seems to have accepted that hardcore election deniers who are likely to support Trump, will, by extension, back Lake.

During his remarks, Pence took a swipe at Lake, a former Democrat. “Look, I’m always happy to welcome converts to the Republican Party, but Arizona Republicans don’t need a governor that supported Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton,” Pence said, drawing loud applause.

He only mentioned Trump by name when he talked about the former president in connection to their political partnership. “I can tell you firsthand, no one worked harder for the Trump-Pence (ticket) in 2016 or in 2020 than Karrin Taylor Robson,” Pence told the crowd.

Taylor Robson, who helped raise $1.3 million for both of Trump’s campaigns, has said the 2020 election “was absolutely not fair” but did not say it was rife with fraud.

The top-tier candidates in Arizona’s gubernatorial GOP primary carry political brands that are strikingly similar to the men who now support them, Pence and Trump.

Taylor Robson, who has traveled in influential political circles, has sought to move on from litigating the 2020 results, instead trying to press the message that she is a capable conservative who wants to improve the state’s economy, reduce the staggering rate of inflation, and deal with water-policy issues in the drought-stricken region.

But much of her message has been drowned out because of questions over 2020.

Lake, a former local anchor for Fox News, is a political outsider just like Trump. She quit her media job in 2021, launched an insurgent bid for governor, and quickly secured Trump’s endorsement. She speaks with the former president often and visits him at Mar-a-Lago.

Lake has waged a legal battle against state and county officials largely financed by election denier Mike Lindell, the chief executive of MyPillow, over the use of vote counting machines in the 2022 elections. She said during a recent TV debate that she would not have certified Biden’s win in Arizona, as Gov. Doug Ducey (R) did, and described Biden as an illegitimate president, saying he “lost the election and he shouldn’t be in the White House.”

She is already laying the groundwork to make claims of a rigged election should she lose her race. Taylor Robson has said she would accept the results of her election.

Debbie Lenson of Dewey attended the Trump rally to see Lake as well as the headliner. She’s not bothered by the negative charges lobbed at Lake — that she previously donated to the Obama campaign and just recently joined the NRA. “People can change. I once was a Democrat myself. Back in the late 60’s, I was a liberal hippie. But I grew up, I became an adult," Lenson said.

The winner of the Aug. 2 primary will face either Katie Hobbs, Arizona’s secretary of state, or Marco Lopez, who has worked in both the public and private sectors, who are running in the Democratic primary.

Attendees at the first Pence event included a mix of local business leaders and owners, local elected leaders and state lawmakers, including Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers (R), who recently testified before the U.S. House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol about the pressure campaign exerted on him to help overturn Trump’s loss in Arizona.

The modest event contrasted against the one Trump headlined for Lake in the evening. It was a typical Trump rally with the president speaking for close to two hours, rehashing his grievance over the 2020 election, attacking illegal immigrants, mocking his political enemies and bemoaning investigations into his conduct, including the one underway by the Jan. 6 committee.

Earlier at the Pence event, Gilbert Valenzuela, 81, a Republican retiree from Sun City, came out to see the former vice president, but said he remains a Trump fan. He is undecided on who he will vote for in the Arizona gubernatorial race — and on who he might vote for if both Pence and Trump run for president in 2024.

“I like Donald Trump, he did a lot of good things for the country and I don’t think he would have the problems we have now if he was president,” he said. He is willing to “toss aside” some of the former president’s controversial behavior and maybe vote for him again if he runs.

Pence seeks distance from Trump as he considers 2024 presidential run

But he also doesn’t begrudge Pence’s actions on Jan. 6.

“I think that he did the right thing,” Valenzuela said. “I don’t think that he did anything wrong.”

Itkowitz reported from Washington. Jimmy Magahern contributed to this story from Prescott Valley, Ariz.

The 2022 Midterm Elections

Georgia runoff election: Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) won re-election in the Georgia Senate runoff, defeating Republican challenger Herschel Walker and giving Democrats a 51st seat in the Senate for the 118th Congress. Get live updates here and runoff results by county.

Divided government: Republicans narrowly won back control of the House, while Democrats will keep control of the Senate, creating a split Congress.

What the results mean for 2024: A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign shortly after the midterms. Here are the top 10 2024 presidential candidates for the Republicans and Democrats.