Arizona Republicans sought to overturn the votes. Rusty said no.

It is a dark period in the life of the American experience. The world’s oldest democracy, once considered unbreakable, often seems to be falling apart.

From his exile in Florida, a defeated leader, whose efforts to overthrow the last election are still visible, is scrambling to place loyalists in key offices across the country, and his supporters are racing to install themselves in command of the future elections.

Yet in Arizona this week, the most unlikely of characters just stepped forward with a raised palm to the forces of Donald J. Trump.

When right-wing lawmakers pushed for it a bill it would have given the Republican-controlled Legislature the power to unilaterally reject the results of an election and force a new one, Rusty Bowers said no.

For decades, Bowers, the lowly Arizona House speaker, represented hard-line Republican beliefs, supporting the kinds of low-tax, limited government policies that made the state’s Barry Goldwater a conservative icon.

Bowers could have sat on the bill, letting him die quietly. Instead, he killed it with an aggressive legislative maneuver that left even veteran Arizona state watchers in awe of his audacity.

“The speaker wanted to put the wooden cross at the heart of this thing for everyone to see,” said Stan Barnes, a Republican consultant who has known Bowers for about 30 years.

The bill’s sponsor, John Fillmore – who boasts of being the most conservative member of the Arizona State Legislature – told us in an interview that Bowers’ tactic was to say, “I am God. I control the rules. You will do as I say.

But for Bowers, 69, a Mormon and father of seven who first entered politics in 1992, it was clearly about something bigger than parliamentary procedure.

By sending Fillmore’s legislation to not one but 12 committees, effectively condemning it, he was also sending an unequivocal message about the direction of his party — a GOP that is unrecognizably different from what it was when Goldwater-style conservatism itself represented an insurrection.

Fillmore’s bill would have completely eliminated early voting and required that all ballots be counted by hand.

Voting Rights Lab, a nonprofit group that tracks election laws, called it “one of the most comprehensive attacks on nonpartisan election administration and voter access we have seen.”

Most troubling, for suffrage advocates and independent experts, was a provision that would have authorized the Arizona legislature to “accept or reject the election results” and gave a single voter the power to demand a new election.

And while the bill was never likely to become law, it was an expression of what Barnes called a “cathartic moment” for the Republican Party. “And I think Rusty isn’t enthusiastic about that,” he said.

The dispute in Arizona comes amid a nationwide convulsion in the Republican Party, which has split into two unequal factions – pro-Trump forces, which rallied behind the former president’s calls to void the election of 2020, and a declining establishment, which either avoided the topic or faced the wrath of Trump allies.

On Friday, the Republican National Committee decided to censure Representatives Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger for serving on the congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 riot at the United States Capitol. In doing so, the RNC officially declared the attack to be “legitimate political speech”.

Bowers did not respond to multiple interview requests, but his public comments indicate deep unease with how Trump and his supporter base have promoted outlandish theories about voter fraud and pushed legislation that officials say voting rights groups, amounts to undemocratic nationwide power. to grab.

“We gave authority to the people,” Bowers said says Capitol Media Services, an Arizona outlet, earlier this week. “And I’m not going to go back and kick them in the teeth.”

Among Arizona political insiders, Bowers is known as a Renaissance man – an artist who is equally comfortable rolling up his sleeves to fix a broken vehicle in the middle of the desert as he paints landscapes at watercolor. A Profile 2015 describes him as “a beekeeper and arborist” who took a trip to Mexico to live with a remote indigenous tribe.

“He always seemed independent to me, his own man,” Robert Robb, columnist for The Arizona Republic, told us. “He’s a doctrinaire conservative on some things, but a pragmatic, conservative problem-solver on others. Highly motivated, maverick, full of integrity.

Bowers, a libertarian-style conservative who achieved a majority in Goldwater’s Republican Party, backed Trump in 2020. But he resisted calls after the election to overturn the results – rejecting claims by his colleagues that the courts and independent experts have declared unsubstantiated that President Biden did not win Arizona fair and square.

“As a conservative Republican, I don’t like the results of the presidential election,” he said in December 2020. “I voted for President Trump and worked hard to re-elect him. But I cannot and will not agree to suggest that we violate current law to change the outcome of a certified election.

Bowers’ resistance to shifting currents in Republican politics has made him a frequent target on the pro-Trump right.

Last year, when he survived an attempt to recall him from the Legislative Assembly, he complained about the aggressive tactics from Trump supporters behind him.

“They came to my house and intimidated our family and our neighborhood,” Bowers said, describing how moving trucks drove past his house and called him a pedophile over the loudspeaker.

His tenure is limited, but his stance could reinvigorate efforts to oust him from the presidency – a move that would have national repercussions.

Fillmore, who has insisted he is ready to negotiate all aspects of his bill, said he was “disappointed that my caucus members don’t have the testicular courage” to stand up to Bowers.

But he hinted at moves underway to remove the speaker, whom he accused of sabotaging what he said was a good faith effort to curb voting practices he believes are gone too far.

“I am an old school person. I’m not going quietly. I’m not going easy,” warned Fillmore. “I believe Republican voters strongly agree with me.”

Arizona political observers told us it was unlikely the right wing of the Republican caucus could find a suitable replacement for Bowers, who has survived so far thanks to a combination of inertia and disorganization among its detractors.

Fillmore, who said he did not support Trump in 2016 and did not speak to him, said he received death threats about the bill from people who accused him of racism for having wanted, as he put it, to restore Arizona’s election laws to what they were when he grew up in the 1950s.

He expressed his own strength vigorously. “You know what, people? he said. “Kiss my oatmeal.”

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On Politics regularly features work by photographers from The Times. On Friday, Sarahbeth Maney caught President Biden staring at three ironworkers with their legs up in the air, just before signing an executive order to benefit construction unions. Here’s what she told us about her capture:

I like how all three look at Biden, and he looks at them. I was hoping there would be some sort of interaction. He thought it was fun. “You guys are nuts,” he joked, comparing them to workers who were in the same situation on a construction site when he got his very first union endorsement. It was a little quirky moment that makes a speech a little more personal and interesting.

They seemed to be in their natural element. They looked really relaxed. Everyone in the crowd was sitting very straight – very attentive, as were the men above – but down below people had taken out their phones and were recording. When Biden signed the executive order, a lot of people stood up, which made it difficult for me to take a picture because their heads and phones were in the way.

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