Kelly Townsend was serving her first term as a member of the Arizona state House in April 2014 when she traveled to Bunkerville, Nev. to support the Bundy family in their fight with the federal Bureau of Land Management.
The standoff galvanized the far right as hundreds of armed supporters streamed to Nevada to support the Bundys, along with organizations like the Oath Keepers and the Constitutional Sheriffs & Peace Officers Association, or CSPOA. The armed supporters ultimately forced the Bureau of Land Management to abandon its plan to round up Cliven Bundy’s cattle in response to his refusal to pay fees for the privilege of grazing his herd on federal land. Townsend and a handful of other Arizona state lawmakers was at the Bundy ranch two days later to celebrate the federal government’s retreat.
Townsend was one of seven state legislators summoned to Bunkerville in 2014 by CSPOA. The group also included Kelli Ward, who currently serves as chair of the Arizona Republican Party, and who like Townsend has pushed various bogus "audits" of the 2020 election. At the time, CSPOA trumpeted support from then-state Senate Majority Leader Andy Biggs, who would become a key congressional ally in Trump's scheme to overturn the 2020 election, although by all accounts Biggs did not go to Bunkerville.
Earlier this month, as a member of the state Senate running for Congress in Arizona’s new 6th District, Townsend warmed up a crowd waiting to hear Donald Trump in Florence. Townsend laid out four issues: educational “indoctrination” (she touted vouchers so parents “can get your kids out of these cesspools”), border security, “medical tyranny” and “election fraud.”
“They meant to harm us,” Townsend said. “And they did for a little time. But you know what we’ve gotten out of this? We now know what is going on. America’s eyes are open. And no more are they going to get away with this kind of deception, this kind of fraud and illegal activity. Not only people in general, but the election workers. We want indictments of the election workers, so they don’t continue to do this.”
An ardent election denier, Townsend electrified a crowd already persuaded that the act of simply administering elections amounted to criminal activity, on the basis of false claims of fraud.
“What do we want?” she asked.
“Indictments,” they thundered back.
“When do we want them?”
When Trump took the stage, he rewarded Townsend’s fervent support for his false claim of election fraud.
“Another woman who’s been with me from the beginning — Kelly Townsend, who I hear will be running for Congress, and she will be incredible,” Trump said. “Kelly, wherever you may be, good luck.”
Townsend’s presence at Bundy ranch in 2014 put her in close proximity with the Oath Keepers and its founder, Stewart Rhodes, who now faces a charge of seditious conspiracy along with 10 other members of his group, and CSPOA. Cliven Bundy's refusal to accept the authority of the federal government in 2014 would be echoed almost seven years later by Trump supporters who assaulted the US Capitol under the pretense that Congress had forfeited its legitimacy by certifying Joe Biden as the duly elected president.
In the past, Townsend has included the descriptor “Oathkeeper” on her Twitter bio, but her relationship with the conspiracy-minded anti-government group remains unclear. In April 2021, a left-leaning Twitter account in Arizona tagged Townsend with a screengrab of her old bio that included the “Oathkeeper” descriptor. Townsend replied with a response that suggested she considers herself an oath keeper in the generic sense, without explicitly denying membership or denouncing the organization, several of whose members were already facing charges related to the Jan. 6 assault on the US Capitol by that point.
Hello friend. I am an oath keeper, despite the various groups out there. My actions today should underscore that. I will never bend from keeping my oath to the Constitution.— Senator Kelly Townsend (@Senator Kelly Townsend) 1619122019
“I am an oath keeper, despite the various groups out there,” Townsend. “My actions today should underscore that. I will never bend from keeping my oath to the Constitution.”
The original poster continued to press the point, writing, “I don’t think that being part of an anti-government right wing militia group with ties to the #January6th terrorist attack on our country is really upholding the constitution, but do you.” But Townsend refused to budge, writing, “Yes, I KEEP my oath. Next?”
Townsend could not be reached for this story.
Stephen Piggott, a program analyst and trainer at the Oregon-based Western States Center, told Raw Story that Townsend is only one among “a number of Trump-supported candidates scattered across the country whose ties to paramilitary and anti-democratic groups that are a major concern.”
The Bundy ranch standoff had a galvanizing impact on the far-right movement in 2014 — just one year before Trump announced his candidacy for president.
“It was a seismic event that resulted in attracting a lot more people to the cause and the broader paramilitary movement,” Piggott said.
At least two candidates for public office also hold ties to the Bundy ranch standoff. Ammon Bundy, the son of rancher Cliven Bundy, is currently running for governor of Idaho. And Eric Parker, who is depicted in an iconic photo training a rifle on federal agents while lying prone on the highway overpass during the standoff, is a candidate for state Senate in Idaho. Parker, who beat felony charges related to the Bundy ranch standoff, is the leader of the Real 3%ers Idaho.
Richard Mack, the founder of CSPOA and formerly the sheriff of Graham County in southeastern Arizona — part of which is included in the new Republican-leaning congressional district Townsend seeks to represent — told Raw Story that as far as he knows, Townsend has never been a member of the Oath Keepers. He said definitively that she is not a member of CSPOA.
Townsend’s presence at Bundy Ranch, along with a handful of other state lawmakers, in April 2014 was well documented in the news media at the time, but Raw Story has learned that CSPOA arranged the trip and paid for the state lawmakers’ hotel rooms.
CSPOA alerted its members in a mass email sent on April 10, 2014 that “Sheriff Mack is leaving early Saturday morning for an emergency trip to Bunkerville, Nevada, along with other members of the CSPOA (hopefully that’s some of you!) to stand vigil and find a peaceful resolution to this conflict (i.e., the feds going home).”
The next paragraph of the email announced some “late-breaking news” attributed to a CSPOA member named Lyle Rapacki.
“State Senate President Andy Biggs and House of Reps Speaker Dave Livingston have both agreed that Arizona should be involved in supporting CSPOA and Oath Keepers in going to Bunkerville, NV to support the movement for freedom there with the Cliven Bundy family,” the email reads. “State Senators Al Melvin, Chester Crandall, and Kelly Ward [sic] along with State Reps Brenda Barton, Bob Thorpe, Kelly Townsend and Warren Peterson are all planning to be at the Bundy ranch by Sunday morning. Furthermore, they are all planning to attend the Press Conference Monday afternoon with the CSPOA and Oath Keepers along with the Bundys and other sheriffs and public officials from across the country.”
Mack confirmed to Raw Story during an interview on Tuesday that Rapacki was a member of CSPOA at the time of the Bundy ranch standoff in 2014 and remains so today.
“He kept in close touch with me about get the legislators there,” Mack said. “He got them there. I paid for their hotels.”
Mack noted that in addition to leading CSPOA he was also a member of Oath Keepers at that time, but left the organization about 18 months later, telling Raw Story: “Tying the two of us together like Lyle did is sort of reasonable.”
Rapacki could not be reached for comment by Raw Story, but his LinkedIn page identifies him as an “intelligence and threat assessment specialist” currently residing in Denton, Texas.
“Since June 2010, I have provided selected members of the Arizona Legislature [with] intelligence briefings on border security and threats to Arizona sovereignty,” Rapacki’s LinkedIn page says in a description of his current position. “I also receive, analyze and disseminate critical intelligence and policy information from and to law enforcement, intelligence and governmental communities.”
Rapacki reportedly presented himself as an expert on satanism to law enforcement in the 1980s, when a moral panic swept the United States, and has described resistance to continued review of the ballots in Maricopa County after the 2020 election as “demonic.”
Mack told Raw Story that he does not recall Biggs, who is now serves in the US House, being at the Bundy ranch. (Biggs, along with fellow Arizona congressman, Rep. Paul Gosar, and Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) worked with #StopTheSteal organizer Ali Alexander to pressure lawmakers to overturn the 2020 election results during the Jan. 6, 2021 joint session, according to a statement by Alexander in a now-deleted video).
Kelli Ward, who was also mentioned in the CSPOA email and whose presence at Bundy ranch was reported in contemporaneous press accounts, now chairs the Arizona Republican Party and has called for endless audits of the 2020 election and for the jailing of election officials in Maricopa County.
Speaking to Raw Story, Mack said he believes Townsend and other state legislators who traveled to Nevada in April 2014 helped lend legitimacy to the Bundy family’s cause of resisting the federal government.
“I wish I had several of them speak instead of me,” he said. “They were the real heroes, besides the Bundys, of course.” Prior to traveling to Bunkerville, Townsend told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that a video of an April 9 clash between BLM rangers and Bundy supporters “reminded me of Tiananmen Square,” adding, “I don’t recognize my country at this point.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled the “constitutional sheriffs” movement headed by Mack as “deeply troubling and problematic,” with former senior fellow Mark Potok writing in a 2016 report: “These men and women are being told by extremist leaders that they have the right to decide what laws they want to enforce and can keep federal agents out of their counties. That is utterly untrue, the very opposite of constitutional, and it in fact encourages sheriffs and their deputies to defy the law of the land.”
Gosar, who has ceaselessly promoted the false claim that the 2020 election was stolen, voted against certifying Arizona’s electors for Joe Biden and publicly aligned with white nationalist Nick Fuentes, also went to Nevada to show support for the Bundy family in 2014, according to a report by the Arizona Republic at the time.
“There’s a number of sitting members of Congress that are using their platform to legitimize these groups and push their ideas,” Piggott said. “That has a detrimental effect on our democracy. Ties between elected officials and candidates and these paramilitaries and anti-democratic groups is not anything new. What’s shifted in recent years is how much more out in the open it is. There are less political consequences from associating with these groups.”
Piggott said it’s not a coincidence that Trump held his first rally of 2022 in Arizona, “where his supporter have really pushed the conspiracy theory about election fraud.”
Townsend’s demand for indictments against local election workers at Trump’s rally is likely to contribute to a further erosion of democracy, Piggott said.
“I think we’re at a time right now where democratic institutions in this country are under attack,” he said. “We’re talking about election officials, school board members, health workers. And, really, we should be supporting these institutions. Elected officials should be coming out and condemning these attacks and not adding fuel to the fire.”
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