MESA, Ariz. — On paper, there’s not a lot that separates the two Republicans running for an open state Senate seat in the sprawling desert east of Phoenix.
At one point in the mid-1990s, they found themselves sitting next to each other at desks on the floor of the Arizona House of Representatives. They would exchange pleasantries from time to time, but they rarely partnered on legislation of consequence. Bowers, an artist, slipped a doodle to Farnsworth, a small-business owner.
Both voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020 — then, they diverged.
Bowers is convinced Trump lost the election. Farnsworth is convinced he did not.
Bowers traveled to Capitol Hill in June to testify about extensive efforts by Trump and his allies to pressure him to undo a narrow loss in Arizona. Farnsworth, who aided Trump’s efforts to challenge the results, traveled to Prescott Valley on Friday to rally with the former president, who called Bowers a “RINO coward.”
Although there’s no public polling, Farnsworth, 71, is thought to be gaining momentum ahead of Tuesday’s Republican primary, likely thanks to Trump’s support.
The former president has endorsed dozens of election deniers running for office, not just at the federal and statewide level but also in local races like this one, the outcomes of which could have great influence on the day-to-day lives of many Americans. This is especially true in Arizona, where the GOP-controlled legislature has exerted its enormous power to reshape a wide variety of laws, including those governing future elections and the state’s water supply in the drought-stricken region.
As House Speaker, Bowers, 69, has played a leading role in blocking fringe ideas from overrunning the chamber, such as preventing efforts to reverse Trump’s loss and, this year, killing a measure pushed by former Trump adviser Boris Epshteyn to abolish the 2020 election results in three Arizona counties. Because of term limits, Bowers cannot run for his House seat again.
Days after Bowers testified, Farnsworth said he spoke with Trump for seven minutes and learned the former president would endorse him. Trump released a statement that slammed Bowers as “far worse than the Democrats” and praised Farnsworth for fighting “tirelessly on the 2020 Presidential Election Scandal.”
Bowers has raised more than $323,000 for the race, drawing on decades-long relationships in the community and with Capitol influencers, state campaign finance records show. Farnsworth, by comparison, has loaned his campaign $40,000 and has raised nearly $30,000, including donations from four Republicans who were part of a fake-electors strategy intended to deny certification of Joe Biden’s win on Jan. 6, 2021.
Farnsworth quickly added “Endorsed by Trump” to his roadside campaign signs. If he loses on Tuesday, he’s left open the possibility of challenging the results.
Bowers drives past the giant signs nearly every day, lugging around a blue plastic bin filled with reams of legislation and notes on the steps he took to address concerns about the election process. He’s bracing himself for a loss even as he tries to make the case to voters that he’s done the right thing.
It will take a miracle to win, he said one night, about an hour before the executive committee of the state Republican Party — run by Trump supporters — censured him.
“There’s a slow movement towards what is seemingly the inevitable,” he told The Post. Days later, he was more hopeful and said party leaders’ “desire to put the nail in my coffin with that thing” has generated new support.
“This has made them so mad,” he said, “the unfairness of it all.”
Many of the 151,000 registered voters in the district are White, Republican and older. The district, which was redrawn after the 2020 Census, has a mix of fixed-income, working-class and upper-middle-class residents, many of whom live in retirement communities or gated neighborhoods, complicating efforts for candidates to go door-to-door.
Had the district’s new boundaries been in place during the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, Republican voters would have voted for Trump by a double-digit margin, according to a data analysis by the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission.
Several voters say they see this primary as a choice between litigating the past or moving on.
Carol Margetich and her husband, Brad, voted for Bowers in years past but lost faith in him. They want more done to stop illegal immigration and investigate the 2020 election.
Carol, 62, who worked in corporate human resources before retiring, is convinced Trump won because everyone she’s talked to in her neighborhood voted for him.
“We don’t know anybody that voted for Biden, and I just find it very hard to believe,” she said, sitting outdoors, drinking coffee. Either way, she said, they’re following Trump’s lead in the state Senate race and are voting for Farnsworth.
“Rusty Bowers needs to go. … It’s time for a change,” Brad Margetich said.
Michele Larson, 60, a lifelong Republican, now automatically disqualifies any candidate who challenges the legitimacy of the 2020 election. She’s voting for Bowers.
“At the risk of losing the election, he went out and said, ‘This is the truth, Donald Trump didn’t win this election,’” said Larson, while grocery shopping one evening in the heart of the district.
“We have to move forward.”
Larry Norris, an independent voter who planned on requesting a GOP primary ballot, isn’t sure which way to turn. He voted for Bowers previously and was sure the election was stolen from Trump but changed his mind after the evidence never emerged.
“I can’t really tell which way to go with these guys,” the 61-year-old said while fixing a bike tire outside of a hardware store. “They don’t really have a whole lot of differences, and that’s the trouble I always have with these elections.”
Bowers and Farnsworth both began their political careers in the mid-1990s. Although they’re both longtime Republicans who have agreed on a lot of the same issues, these days, they are at opposite ends of the party.
Farnsworth — who has worked in home improvement, real estate, auto sales and as a diesel mechanic in an underground copper mine — developed an interest in the legislature as a way to advocate for his vision of freedom and good government. Bowers was looking for a way to pay the bills at a time when commissions he earned as an artist didn’t always cover his family’s expenses.
Arizona State University had just rejected Bowers’s art portfolios for its master’s program, a disappointment that ended his hopes of teaching at Brigham Young University. He was first elected in 1992, and his profile quickly rose at the state Capitol, where he soon chaired the powerful appropriations committee for a time and tackled issues including transportation and natural resources.
In 1994, Farnsworth won a race for the state House of Representatives, then ran for the state Senate and lost. About a decade later, Farnsworth was appointed to a seat in the Senate, where he represented a Mesa-based district, sat on government and finance committees, and was known as an ultraconservative Republican.
He delved into powers held by homeowners associations and rebelled against the federal government’s reach. He frequently told colleagues seeking his support on bills that he couldn’t do so because he hadn’t read them. In more recent years, he clashed with colleagues over his claims that hundreds of children in the state’s foster care system had disappeared and might have been victims of a global trafficking operation, a claim even he said he had no proof of.
In 2019, with Trump in the White House, Bowers fended off a challenge from the far right to serve as speaker. He led with a firm hand but watched warily as critics sought to undermine his leadership through a pandemic, a failed attempt to oust him from office, and an election that narrowly saw Trump’s loss.
In the days after the 2020 election, Bowers found himself at the center of the “Stop the Steal” storm. He took two calls from Trump, met with the president’s attorneys, and fielded constant requests from his own members who demanded he do more to help overturn Trump’s defeat. Bowers refused, viewing the requests as immoral, unconstitutional and a violation of his oath of office.
Farnsworth, meanwhile, said he asked Senate President Karen Fann (R) “multiple times” to let him hold a hearing as chair of the Committee on Government to look into allegations of widespread voter fraud. That hearing never happened, but Fann would eventually hold a meeting in another committee and go on to launch a ballot review of 2.1 million votes cast in Maricopa County.
In mid-December, before he left office, Farnsworth signed his name to a resolution coordinated by a fellow GOP lawmaker, then Sen.-elect Kelly Townsend (R), that asked Congress to accept alternate electors for Arizona more favorable to Trump “or to have electoral votes nullified completely until a full forensic audit can be conducted,” according to records obtained by watchdog group American Oversight. The Justice Department has issued subpoenas to Fann and Townsend as part of its criminal investigation into the events leading up to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Farnsworth wants voters to know he wanted to “find the truth” about 2020. State and county elections officials said they do not recall him reaching out with any substantive questions.
“That’s really the crux of the race between Rusty and I is the fact that, in my opinion, he had the authority and responsibility and obligation to look into the election, whether he believed it was legitimate or not,” Farnsworth told The Washington Post.
He thinks Bowers, who talked extensively with elections officials, scholars, attorneys and other elected officials in the weeks after the election to assess the assertions of improprieties, should have held a formal legislative hearing in the state House “to seek the truth.” Bowers and congressional investigators have said efforts to hold such a meeting were part of an effort by Trump and his allies to try to overturn the state’s election results.
“The big question everybody’s asked me is, ‘What happened to Rusty?” Farnsworth said. “I presume that he didn’t want to rock the boat.”
The way Bowers sees it, he fully fulfilled his constitutional duties, no more, no less.
“Anybody that gets in their way, anybody that says no, anybody that questions whether or not it’s true, those people are traitors,” Bowers said of some Trump supporters.
At one recent campaign event, Bowers touted his work on a bipartisan $18 billion state budget, a massive water conservation bill and an expansive school-choice law.
But much of the conversation centered on the 2020 election. Voters asked him broadly about “suspicious things” that happened last cycle. Bowers, laughing, said he hadn’t seen evidence of one theory that included “piles of unopened ballots.” Passing around fliers from his blue bin, he recounted new laws he helped advance that tighten up election procedures and are intended to strengthen voter confidence in the system.
“I’m sufficiently convinced that I feel safe voting and that my vote will be counted,” he said.
For his stance, Bowers was ostracized from the state Republican Party.
Kelli Ward, the chair of the Arizona Republican Party, which traditionally stays neutral in primary races, ridiculed him as “Rusty Bowels” and endorsed Farnsworth.
So did U.S. Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), a Trump ally who has promoted false claims of fraud. Shortly before rioters overtook the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, Biggs called Bowers to ask if he would support decertification of Arizona’s electors. Bowers told him he would not.
“I know that a lot of the majority of the support that’s coming to me is not because they’re so much in love with me, as they are very frustrated with Speaker Bowers because of his lack of action,” Farnsworth told The Post.
Both said they want the race, which has caused tensions in each of their families, to be over, even as they ponder what 2024 might bring.
Farnsworth wants Trump back in the White House.
Bowers, who thinks Trump did good things for the country, told The Post, “I don’t want Donald Trump to be the next president.”
At a recent debate, the candidates broadly agreed on issues like school choice and rejoiced in the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. But they disagreed on nearly everything else. Reflecting back on the 2020 election, both spoke in biblical terms.
“This is much larger than just the 2020 election,” Farnsworth said. “This is a real conspiracy headed up by the Devil himself, and this may sound crazy, I realize, to some people, but when I used to talk about it 25 years ago, people would shake their head and they thought I was crazy. But nowadays people are saying, ‘Wow, we’re talking about the swamp.’ It’s deep and it’s wide, and it’s been going on for a long time.”
Bowers took a different approach and referenced the parable of the good Samaritan who helped those in need: “If I have to live with the Samaritans and hang out with the Samaritans while the priest and the Levite go on the other side of the road, I’m happy to do it, and I just hope I’m a good one.”