PRESCOTT VALLEY, Ariz. As Shardé Walter’s family cut back on everything from camping trips to Eggo waffles to balance out their inflation-stretched budget this summer, she grew increasingly fed up with the Republicans who have ruled Arizona for more than a decade.
“You have those hoity-toity Republicans, and then you have one like me — just trying to live,” said Ms. Walter, 36, as she waited for former President Donald J. Trump to arrive at a rally Friday for his list of candidates in the bitterly-fought Republican primary in Arizona.
“We’re breaking down,” she continued, “but we’re broke for no reason.”
The August 2 Republican primary in Arizona has been cast as a party-defining contest between traditional Republicans and Trump loyalists, with the power to reshape a political battleground at the heart of the struggle for suffrage and fair elections. Several leading Republican candidates in Arizona for governor, secretary of state, attorney general and United States Senate have made lies about the “stolen” 2020 election the centerpiece of their campaigns.
But the choice between traditional conservatives and Trump-backed flares also plays into the frustrations of working-class conservatives with a state economic and political system firmly controlled by Republicans, highlighting the divide between voters who have benefited from Arizona’s rising house values and tilted tax cuts to the rich, and those who feel left out and eager to punish the Republican establishment at the ballot box.
“It’s like ‘The Great Gatsby’ — old versus new,” said Mike Noble, chief of research at Phoenix-based polling agency OH Predictive Insights. “It’s a very telling moment for the GOP. Are they going the MAGA way, or the conservative McCain-Goldwater way that gave them dominance over the state?”
National polls of Republicans show that voters’ views on Mr. Trump and the 2020 election are diverging toward education.
A New York Times/Siena College poll released this month found that 64 percent of Republican primary voters without a college degree believed Mr Trump to be the legitimate winner of the 2020 election. voters with a bachelor’s degree or more said Mr. Trump was the winner.
Mr. Trump was still a clear favorite for Republican voters with a high school diploma or below, with 62 percent saying they would vote for him in the 2024 Republican presidential primaries if the election were held today. Less than 30 percent of Republican primary voters with college degrees said they voted for Mr. Trump would vote.
In the race for Arizona governor, the Republican establishment has united around Karrin Taylor Robson, a wealthy real estate developer who establishes herself as a competent leader who has been a staunch conservative since her days as a staffer in the Reagan White House.
The Trump wing of the party is locked up behind Kari Lake, a Trump-endorsed former news anchor who has fueled a rebellion against the establishment fueled by falsehoods about the 2020 election and provocations such as vowing to bomb smuggling tunnels on the southern border.
Ms. Robson has improved Ms. Lake’s early lead in the polls, but recent surveys suggest that Ms. Lake is still ahead.
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An upcoming poll of 650 Arizona Republican primary voters by Alloy Analytics found Ms. Lake a 10-point lead, largely on her strength with working-class voters, though other surveys show a much tighter race. Ms. Lake had a 15-point lead over voters whose families earn less than $50,000 a year. Republicans making more than $200,000 a year supported Ms. Robson by a margin of 14 points.
Ms. Robson has lent her campaign $15 million and covered local television with ads. She has amassed a long list of endorsements from law enforcement groups, Arizona’s three living Republican governors, and prominent national Republicans, including former Vice President Mike Pence and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
Both women are active as anti-abortion, pro-gun, pro-wall conservatives who pledge to mobilize law enforcement to deal with what they call a migrant invasion. Neither pass up an opportunity to berate President Biden and the Democrats for inflation, crime, or culture war flashpoints like critical race theory.
Each has tried to claim the mantle of the one and only conservative in the race. In a debate, Ms Lake attacked Ms Robson for refusing to join other candidates by raising her hand and – falsely – declaring that the 2020 election had been stolen. Ms Robson tells voters that 2020 was “not fair”, pointing to news media bias and pandemic-driven changes in voting rules. In a recent CNN appearance, she declined to say whether she would have certified the 2020 results, as Mr. Ducey did.
In an interview, Ms. Robson said Ms. Lake’s stance as a conservative “has no basis for the truth,” and her campaign attacked Ms. Lake for once supporting former President Barack Obama.
“She’s a really good actress,” Ms. Robson said. “We have real issues that we’re dealing with, from water to housing to inflation.”
Ms. Lake’s populist sermons and the story of a Trump-era political awakening resonate with nontraditional conservatives who say they feel left out of mainstream Republican politics. Mrs. Lake’s campaign yielded no interview.
Moderates say they just want a trustworthy Republican to take the governor’s seat, and are reassured by Ms. Robson’s piles of approvals and policy plans.
On Friday, the divisions between the two candidates came into sharp focus at competitive rallies where Ms. Robson was cheered on by Mr. Pence, and Mr. Trump appeared alongside Ms. Lake.
In Peoria, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix, the meeting felt to Ms. Robson like an oversized Chamber of Commerce luncheon.
Hundreds of voters in Casual Friday polo shirts and summer blouses were barbecuing at a factory that makes military-style tactical gear, while Mr. Pence and Governor Doug Ducey delivered speeches endorsing Ms. Robson as a conservative.
Later that evening at the Trump event, Ms. Lake mocked Mr. Ducey as a “weak” on border security and “do nothing Ducey.” Mr. Ducey has earned Mr. Trump’s ire for certifying Mr. Biden’s 10,000-vote victory in Arizona, even as he signed a new voter identification bill that Democrats oppose, and he supported far-right politicians like state senator Wendy Rogers.
The supporters of Mrs. Robson said they too were hurt by rising prices, but more importantly, they wanted their next governor to be an electable conservative rather than a bomb-throwing heir to Mr. Trump.
“The things she worries about, we worry about,” says Barb Leonard, 55, who works in software and lives in Scottsdale. “The border, the economy, the police.”
Some voters said they don’t believe the lies about voter fraud Mr. Trump and Ms. Lake have been peddling for months. Others said they wanted Republicans to stop fixating on the 2020 election and instead focus on border security, school funding and bipartisan laws to deal with growing droughts, water shortages and wildfires in Arizona.
Political analysts in Arizona said some voters seemed to align themselves with Ms. Robson as the least divisive choice for a general election. Democrats are expected to nominate Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, who has defended Arizona’s electoral system against attacks by Trump and his allies.
“I don’t want to raise kids in a country that hates each other,” said Derek Weech, 23, a Brigham Young University student and a supporter of Ms. Robson, who is in the process of starting his own business. “By focusing on the last election we will not win.”
So far this year’s Republican primary has been a mixed bag for Trump-approved candidates who have been running on election denial. JD Vance, the author of Hillbilly Elegy, won his primary for the US Senate in Ohio. Doug Mastriano won the Republican governor’s primary in Pennsylvania after taking charge of the 2020 election results there.
But last month, Republican voters in Colorado nominated a businessman who accepted the 2020 election results in a competitive US Senate race. In Georgia, voters delivered a painful defeat to Mr Trump by overwhelmingly backing the incumbent Republican governor and secretary of state, both of whom refused to undo the 2020 election results there.
In Prescott Valley, Trump’s anti-establishment message and crackdown were enough to lure thousands of supporters through the doors.
They poured into an arena, wearing their defiance and frustration on T-shirts that read “Trump Won,” “Jihadi Joe,” and “Let’s Go Brandon,” the thinly veiled profanity against Mr. Biden.
As Ms. Lake spoke to the crowd, she received effusive applause for each dig at Mr. Biden and her call to finish the border wall. But one of the biggest cheers came when she mentioned her plan to have high school students focus on learning a trade after their sophomore year.
That idea immediately won over Bruce Laughlin, a retired auto technician, and his wife, Cheryl, a dental assistant.
“Neither of us studied,” said Mrs. Laughlin.
“We need carpenters. We need plumbers,” her husband said. “They have been totally ignored.”
Janet Olson, 50, said the high gas, electricity and grocery bills made her feel like she didn’t share in Arizona’s wealth. She has just enough left over for one indulgence each month; on Friday, she pumped her last $9.95 into her truck and drove from outside Phoenix to the mountains to see Mrs. Lake and Mr. Trump.
“It’s harder every month,” Mrs. Olson said.
She said she felt alienated from the main Republican party in Arizona, but at home with the people queuing with her to buy bottled water for $4.50 and nachos for $5.
“We don’t want bow ties and caviar,” said Mrs. Olson. “We want corn dogs and funnel cakes. And Kari Lake.”
Will Davis contributed to the reporting.