PAULDEN, Ariz. — Midway through her statewide bus tour, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Kelli Ward alights at a desert shooting range and spends a few minutes firing an AR-15 for the benefit of several dozen supporters, volunteers and news crews in her entourage.
Her newly minted campaign surrogate, the professional conspirator and far right Internet presence Mike Cernovich, is on the other side of a clearing — about as far from Ward’s photo op as he can be without actually abandoning the event.
Between volleys of gunfire, he tries to explain the difference between the conspiracy theories and far-right memes he has helped send viral, and those he actually believes in. It’s usually a hazy distinction.
“The Clintons were running a pedophile ring” is what Cernovich tweeted in late 2016, for example — when he was regularly promoting the false #Pizzagate rumors that led a man to fire a gun inside a Washington pizza place, thinking it was some sort of child sex dungeon.
Now, on the Friday before Arizona’s primary election, Cernovich no longer overtly claims that a massive network of pedophiles has infiltrated the U.S. government. But “there has to be some nefarious thing going on,” he says. “There’s no other explanation.”
There’s no end of tweets for him to explain. When shown one from 2012 in which he wrote “date rape does not exist,” Cernovich invents a new conspiracy to deny it. “I don’t even remember tweeting that out,” he says, half-smiling and sweating in the heat. “That’s probably fake.”
Once, a candidate would run from appearing with a surrogate like Cernovich. But Ward is blunt about why she invited such a man to join her struggling primary campaign against former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio and Rep. Martha McSally. (The Senate seat is currently held by the retiring Republican Jeff Flake.)
“To get you guys to come on out,” she tells reporters. “So thanks for coming. I’m glad that the hooks are working.”
The hook, apparently the idea of a staffer, did work, for better or worse: Reporters for The Washington Post, CNN, Politico and the Atlantic are all at the gun range, waiting to board the campaign bus and spend a long ride to the next event crammed in with Ward, Cernovich and a long list of uncomfortable questions for the candidate.
When Cernovich stepped off the bus at the gun range, Ward’s emcee introduced him as “a gentleman who has lots of followers on the Internet.”
The emcee did not specify for the cowboy-hats-and-jeans crowd that Cernovich has nearly half a million Twitter followers by virtue of flogging conspiracy theories such as Pizzagate, or his later assertions that last year’s chemical weapons massacre in Syria was “sponsored by the deep state.”
This is Cernovich’s first political appearance, and rural Arizona is clearly not his natural element. As he walks up a gravel road toward the bus, Cernovich seems unconcerned about whether he helps or hurts Ward’s campaign, even if helping it would seem to be the point.
“For me this is just a gonzo thing, and I’m here for the ride, to encounter the world I maybe otherwise wouldn’t encounter,” he says. “And so whether I’m being used, or it’s just some kind of ploy, I just don’t care.”
Cernovich is in back with the other campaign surrogates — out of sight — when the reporters climb aboard to find Ward and an aide in the bus’s front cabin, ready to field questions.
Most polls have McSally comfortably in the lead. Ward doesn’t believe them. They were designed “to mislead the voters and tamp down the amazing surge we’re seeing everywhere,” she told The Post at an earlier event attended by about 100 people in her hometown of Lake Havasu City.
On the bus, Ward is also asked about Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), whom she infamously said should resign when he was diagnosed with brain cancer last year, and who announced that he has stopped his treatments just as Ward set off on her bus tour.
“Well, I’m sorry he’s sick,” she tells the reporters. “That’s a horrible thing, but it doesn’t make his policies good.”
The bus ride to Phoenix will take more than 2.5 hours, and it’s only a few minutes before a reporter brings up Cernovich — the man in the back.
“He’s been out there kind of exposing some of the things that go on in the United States that many times people in the mainstream media won’t talk about,” Ward says carefully.
“Conspiracy theories,” says the CNN reporter.
“Well, you’ll have to talk to him,” Ward says.
About the Syrian gassing being a hoax, she offers, “there is evidence out there we have to explore.”
Ward eventually goes to the back of the bus to interact with her surrogates, but it takes a while before she finds anything to say to Cernovich, who is seated in the corner, alternately twiddling his thumbs or looking at his phone.
“This is the year of the woman,” Ward tells another surrogate, Fox News commentator Tomi Lahren. “But I see a lot of women, they are pink-hat men-hating women.”
Finally, she turns to Cernovich in what may be his first public interaction with a national politician.
“You’re the guy the media loves to hate, and I think some of it’s because you don’t selectively report,” Ward says. This sends Cernovich off on a profanity-laced speech about victims of certain wars he believes were waged based on lies spread in the news.
“There’s thousands, no question about it,” he says. “That’s why they hate us. They hate live-streaming. Because they can marginalize us.”
Ward nods and says, “I get that all that time.” Then she leaves to greet some supporters who have waved down the bus.
For the remainder of the trip to Phoenix, they do not speak. Ward stays mostly in the front room, chatting with Lahren about veterans’ medical care and how, she says, “I want to be somebody people believe in.”
Cernovich sits mostly in the back, fighting stage fright for the speech he’ll have to give in Phoenix, and wondering aloud why people keep bringing up old tweets he has forgotten writing.
“The only tweets I feel bad about are the fat-chick ones,” he says, referring to one of his pre-Pizzagate incarnations — when he was involved in the “Gamergate” movement, which attacked female video-game developers.
During his introspection, Cernovich checks his Twitter feed to see that a leading proponent of the viral QAnon conspiracy theory has just posted a photo taken with President Trump in the Oval Office.
He laughs for a long time.
Cernovich does not subscribe to QAnon, even though it is partly an outgrowth of the Pizzagate-pedophilia ring rumors he once actively promoted.
And yet, to see QAnon spread from the fringes of the Internet into the Oval Office gives Cernovich the same sort of thrill as, say, riding a senatorial campaign bus through the desert to promote a candidate who is openly using his reputation to attract media attention.
“I tend to see this as a plot in the movie,” Cernovich says as the bus approaches Phoenix, where he will speak before an enthusiastic crowd about how Ward should be a senator because she is fighting mainstream media and the agents of political terrorism.
He thinks for a moment and concludes: “But I can understand people would be terrified.”