PRESCOTT, Ariz. — Pamphlets, buttons and American flags cluttered booth after booth for political candidates at a conference center in Prescott, Ariz., this month. But the table for Ron Watkins, a Republican candidate for Congress who rose to fame for his ties to the QAnon conspiracy theory, sat empty.
“I thought it started at 11:30,” said Orlando Munguia, Mr. Watkins’s campaign manager, who arrived about 30 minutes after the event had begun and hastily laid out campaign materials without the candidate in tow.
Mr. Watkins, a computer programmer in his 30s, is running into the same reality that many other QAnon-linked candidates have confronted: Having ties to the conspiracy theory does not automatically translate to a successful political campaign.
More established Republican rivals have vastly outraised Mr. Watkins in Arizona’s Second District. Two other congressional candidates in Arizona who have shown some level of support for QAnon also trail their competitors in fund-raising ahead of the Aug. 2 primary. A fourth Arizona candidate with QAnon ties has suspended his House campaign. The same trend is playing out nationally.
Their bleak prospects reflect the shifting role that conspiracy theories play in American politics. The Republican Party flirted with QAnon in 2020, as several Q-linked candidates sought higher office and Q merchandise appeared at rallies for then-President Donald J. Trump across the country. Yet identifying with the movement emerged as a political liability. As they have during this election cycle, Democrats attacked Q-linked candidates as extremists, and all but two — Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Lauren Boebert of Colorado — lost their races.
But many QAnon themes have burrowed deeper into mainstream Republican politics this year, experts say, including the false belief that “evil” deep-state operatives control the government and that Mr. Trump is waging a war against them. Savvy candidates have found ways to tap that excitement — all without explicitly mentioning the conspiracy theory.
Indeed, just a few booths away from Mr. Watkins’s in Prescott, other campaigns were suggesting that election results could not be trusted, an idea that QAnon helped popularize.
“The actual iconography and branding of QAnon has really fallen by the wayside,” said Mike Rothschild, a conspiracy-theory researcher and the author of “The Storm Is Upon Us: How QAnon Became a Movement, Cult, and Conspiracy Theory of Everything.” “People don’t really identify themselves as QAnon believers anymore.”
“But the views of QAnon are massively mainstream,” he added.
On the campaign trail, Republican candidates avoid talking about the idea that a cabal of pedophiles is preying on children, a core tenet of QAnon. But they embrace false claims that liberals “groom” children with progressive sex education. When criticizing Covid-19 restrictions, many Republicans riff on QAnon’s belief that a “deep state” of bureaucrats and politicians wants to control Americans.
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The most prominent talking point with echoes of QAnon, though, is the false claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Mr. Trump. The movement pushed that idea long before any votes were cast, and before Mr. Trump catapulted the claim to the mainstream.
At least 131 candidates who announced bids or filed to run for governor, secretary of state or attorney general this year have supported the false election claims, according to States United Action, a nonpartisan nonprofit focused on elections and democracy.
By comparison, so far just 11 of 37 congressional candidates with some history of boosting QAnon have advanced from primaries to the general election, according to Media Matters for America, a liberal watchdog group. Only one of them, J.R. Majewski in Ohio’s Ninth District, stands a chance at adding to QAnon’s representation in Congress. Overall, Media Matters linked 65 current and former congressional candidates to QAnon so far this year, compared with 106 during the 2020 election.
J.R. Majewski and Mr. Watkins did not respond to requests for comment.
Experts point to Kari Lake, a former news anchor who is considered the front-runner in the Republican primary for Arizona governor, as a model for Republicans who are deftly navigating conspiracy theories for political gain.
While Ms. Lake has no overt ties to QAnon and has criticized the attention it receives as a distraction, the movement’s influencers are orbiting her candidacy. She has appeared with QAnon influencers including Mr. Watkins and has received an endorsement from Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, who has become a celebrity in QAnon circles.
But at a recent campaign stop, it was election fraud that got all the attention. Hundreds of Trump supporters crowded a raucous country music bar in Tucson. No one in the crowd appeared to be wearing a QAnon shirt or hat, items that were frequently seen at Trump rallies. A woman selling flags and bumper stickers outside the event had no Q merchandise, either.
“A lot of these people like Kari Lake don’t directly believe in Q or QAnon,” said Mike Rains, a QAnon expert who hosts “Adventures in HellwQrld,” a podcast tracking the movement. But by pushing the election fraud narrative, Ms. Lake “gets their support without having to actually know the inner workings of the movement.”
Ms. Lake was introduced at the event by Seth Keshel, a former Army captain who is touring the country pushing debunked claims about the 2020 election.
“Everybody knows that Arizona did not go to Joe Biden,” he said, falsely, before calling for “citizen soldiers” — a term reminiscent of QAnon’s “digital soldiers” — to guard ballot drop boxes.
The crowd roared as Ms. Lake took to the stage. Soon she was repeating lies about the election. “How many of you think that was a rotten, corrupt, fraudulent election?” she asked to cheers.
A spokesman for Ms. Lake declined to comment.
Polling shows that QAnon remains popular, with roughly 41 million Americans believing core tenets of the conspiracy theory, according to a 2021 poll from the Public Religion Research Institute. But election fraud narratives are even more popular.
Among Arizona Republicans who back Mr. Trump, 27 percent believe QAnon’s theories are mostly true, according to OH Predictive Insights, a political research group in the state. That compares with 82 percent who believe the election was stolen.
Among Arizonan Republicans who are more loyal to the Republican Party than Mr. Trump, only 11 percent believe QAnon’s theories are mostly true and about half believe that the election was stolen.
Disinformation watchdogs warn that a slate of candidates supporting election fraud narratives in Arizona could win three key races that control elections: governor, secretary of state and attorney general.
Mark Finchem, a state representative and the front-running candidate for secretary of state, also centered his campaign on election fraud. He attended the Jan. 6 rally and has said Arizona should set aside election results from counties it deemed “irredeemably compromised.”
Mr. Finchem spoke at a conference in Las Vegas last year organized by a QAnon influencer where Mr. Watkins also spoke. On his campaign signs at crowded intersections across the state, one of his slogans reads, “Protect our children,” evoking a popular QAnon catchphrase, “Save the children.”
“The broader culture war picked up some of the more conspiratorial tendencies that come with QAnon,” said Jared Holt, a QAnon expert and senior research manager at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. “There was, to some degree, a merger.”
Abraham Hamadeh, a candidate for Arizona attorney general, surged in the polls after Mr. Trump offered his late endorsement. He and other candidates for attorney general said during a May debate that they would not have signed the certification of the state’s 2020 election results.
Mr. Hamadeh and Mr. Finchem did not respond to requests for comment.
There were no shortage of election deniers in the race for Arizona’s Second Congressional District, either, where Mr. Watkins is waging his long-shot campaign. During an awkward televised debate in April, he distanced himself from QAnon, saying: “I was not Q, and I am not.” He turned to election fraud conspiracy theories, noting that Mr. Trump had retweeted him on the subject. But he was outflanked by his competitors.
“The election was stolen. We understand that, and we know that,” Walt Blackman, a Republican in Arizona’s House of Representatives, said during the debate.
Mr. Watkins may have believed Arizona’s embrace of conspiracy theories could propel him from online celebrity to real-world politician, Mr. Holt said. But it proved difficult to stand out in a race where no one aligned with QAnon and nearly everyone supported the election-fraud conspiracy theory.
“Every once in a while, somebody on the conspiracy-brain right wing gets a bunch of attention online and they think that means they’re popular,” Mr. Holt said. “So they try to run for office or have an in-person event somewhere, and it’s just a miserable crash and burn.”