U.S. Rep. David Schweikert might end up being a case study in how escalating extreme rhetoric to avoid the wrath of former President Donald Trump and his voters turns from an advantage to a liability because of redistricting.
Schweikert won his seat in Congress in the GOP wave year of 2010, knocking off incumbent Democrat Harry Mitchell, who had improbably represented the reliably Republican district for two terms.
But Schweikert’s re-election two years later was starkly different: Rather than facing a contested general election in the newly created 6th Congressional District, his path to victory lay in winning a primary. Schweikert squared off against fellow Congressman Ben Quayle, who chose to run in the ruby red District 6 (which included about two-thirds of his constituents) instead of the deep purple District 9 (which included his house).
Schweikert emerged victorious from a bitter, bruising and expensive campaign. Ever since, he’s faced no real challenge from Democrats, who have been unable to mount a serious challenge in a district where Republicans widely outnumber Democrats.
As with any elected official in a district that isn’t competitive, the only accountability Schweikert could face is from his own party. In the modern GOP, that means the way to re-election is to reliably hew to the party orthodoxy — and for the past six years, that’s meant Trump and Trumpism. The more extreme the rhetoric, the happier the voters.
Schweikert would never be mistaken for Trump. He’s a policy wonk, not a bombastic bomb-thrower. I’d put him among the legions of Republicans who went along to get along, hoping to weather the storm of Trumpism, increasingly terrified of the voters who view fealty to the lying and philandering billionaire as the only yardstick by which to measure candidates.
That fear leads people to say and do unexpected things to retain their political power. And those calculations are rational — even if they’re morally abhorrent — if someone like Schweikert is in a district where extremism is rewarded by fending off would-be Republican challengers.
Perhaps that’s why Schweikert voted to overturn Pennsylvania’s election. And maybe that’s why he has appeared several times on a local extremist internet talk show this year defending the Jan. 6 insurrectionists and suggesting the FBI conspired in the day’s failed coup. And it could be why he’s funded a PAC run by one of the talk show hosts that has called for abolishing the FBI, advocated for election falsehoods and spread numerous lies about COVID-19.
In the immediate wake of the attack on the U.S. Capitol that sent him and all of his colleagues scrambling for their lives as angry Trump rioters attacked police, broke through barricades, smashed windows and sought to stop Congress from certifying Trump’s loss, Schweikert praised Capitol police officers and “unequivocally condemn(ed)” those who committed violence.
Just a few months later, he was lamenting the prosecution of those very people on the extremist talk show.
“I don’t believe many of these people had malice in their souls, I don’t think they had malice in their hearts,” he told Jay Lawrence on Sept. 20. (Lawrence, a veteran radio host in Phoenix, recently spent several years in the state legislature, where he earned a reputation for bigoted comments and promoting QAnon.)
In that same interview, Scweikert openly wondered about the FBI’s role in the insurrection, noting that the law enforcement agency was a “sting operator” and allegedly had “recordings of some of these folks, weeks ahead of time,” but had left the Capitol — which it doesn’t oversee or protect — vulnerable on Jan. 6, implying that the FBI had been dishonest.
“If that’s true, the whole narrative of this was just a sneak attack that blew up out of… nowhere just can’t be true,” he said. “You can’t have both things — you can’t have a bunch of informants who’re recording the folks, or this just came out of nowhere. You can’t have both.”
Schweikert’s defense of people who participated in the violent insurrection found a friendly audience. Lawrence’s show is broadcast by an outfit known as HUB Radio, which is run by a longtime far-right activist in Phoenix named Ron Ludders.
HUB Radio and Ludders were particularly upset about the prosecution of Jake Angeli, the self-anointed QAnon Shaman who was among the first people to breach the Capitol and was famously pictured at the Senate dais shirtless with red, white and blue face paint, wearing a horned fur hat and carrying a spear.
Angeli had appeared on HUB Radio in the past, and the fawning interview that Ludders and co-host Ray Michaels did with him was replayed a week after the insurrection, and again in May. Ludders was particularly taken with Angeli — who discussed QAnon time travel, anti-gravity and “zero point energy technology,” black magic and lineages of “royal families” controlling the world that stretch from Biblical times to today — and praised him as “very knowledgeable.”
Ludders also runs a PAC that Schweikert gave $3,266 to in 2021, via his own leadership PAC. The donations are unusual, as congressional leadership PACs typically only give money to other candidates. Schweikert’s is no exception — the money given to Ludders’ Arizona Project is the only expense that isn’t another candidate or paying for routine compliance or operations.
While downplaying the events of Jan. 6 for political gain might fuel support from Republican primary voters — GOP support for prosecuting insurrectionists is dropping quickly and the majority don’t think it was an attack on the government — the same can’t be said about Democratic and independent voters.
All of which could spell trouble for Schweikert after redistricting, as he’s staring at the prospect of his double-digit GOP voter advantage vanishing into thin air: He’s currently been drawn into the new highly competitive District 1, where Republicans edge out Democrats by less than 2%.
That map may still change in a way that benefits him, when the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission meets later this month to make final changes after a month-long tour of the state to gather input on the draft map. But those changes are unlikely to fundamentally change the district’s competitive nature.
For the first time since he won his first election to Congress, Schweikert might have to worry about a general election. And his race more than any other may test just how willing Arizona voters really are to forgive and forget the extremism the Trump era incentivized among Republicans.
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