WASHINGTON – Arizona Sen. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, dropped her bid for Congress Friday, after failing to get a “promised” endorsement from former President Donald Trump – and days after criticizing another Trump-backed candidate on the Senate floor.
Townsend on Wednesday joined other senators who had voted overwhelmingly a day earlier to censure state Sen. Wendy Rogers, R-Flagstaff, for Rogers’ appearance at a white nationalist conference where she praised the organizer.
“It was a hard decision because I knew I was throwing away a pathway to Congress, but it’s not worth it enough to me to have to stay quiet in order to get that endorsement,” Townsend said Friday.
She acknowledged that by “speaking up, I’m speaking out against someone that the president had endorsed.” She said Trump’s people never turned her down, but would not confirm an endorsement, and acknowledged that speaking out likely cost her the endorsement in the newly drawn 6th Congressional District, which stretches south from Casa Grande to include much of the southeastern part of the state.
But others noted that Townsend would have faced a tough race for Congress, regardless, with a late start in a new district that she does not currently live in, elements that would have “handicapped” her campaign even with a Trump endorsement.
“When she entered that congressional race, she was already well behind the eight ball,” said Doug Cole, the chief operating officer of HighGround Public Affairs Consultants.
Townsend’s announcement comes just days after the Senate voted 24-3, with three senators not voting, to censure Rogers for “conduct unbecoming a senator” in her appearance at the America First Political Action Conference on Feb. 25.
At that conference, organized by white nationalists, Rogers praised those attending as “patriots.” She was also “encouraging violence against and punishment of American citizens and making threatening statements declaring, quote, political destruction, unquote, of those who disagree with her views,” said Sen. Rick Gray, R-Sun City, who proposed the censure resolution.
All 13 Democrats who were present and 11 of the 14 Republicans in the chamber voted for censure. A visibly shaken Rogers accused her colleagues of attacking her First Amendment rights, calling the censure resolution “nothing more than an attempt to limit my speech.”
“I do not apologize, I will not back down,” Rogers said Tuesday. “And I am sorely disappointed in the leadership of this body for colluding with the Democrats to attempt to destroy my reputation.”
Rogers did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
Townsend was among those not voting because she was not present Tuesday. But she took the floor Wednesday to say she would have voted yes, unless Rogers disavowed the “very ugly rhetoric” espoused by the conference organizer, including antisemitic remarks and comments about pedophilia.
“If the senator is willing to apologize for any misunderstanding and denounce this, my vote would have been red on the board in the name of free speech,” Townsend said. “If she is unable to do that, then I would want the record to show that had I voted, it would be green.”
In a prepared statement Friday, Townsend said she had been encouraged by “people close to President Trump” to enter the congressional race. When it became clear that she would not get the endorsement after her Wednesday floor speech, she said she decided to drop out for the good of the party.
Staying in the race, she said in her statement, “will serve only to split the conservative vote … and make it more difficult to elect an authentic America First candidate.”
“I don’t want to be responsible for handing it to a moderate by splitting the vote without the Trump endorsement,” Townsend said in a phone interview Friday evening.
She said she has not made a decision about her political future, but analysts say one option would be for her to run for reelection, where she would face Rogers in a redrawn legislative district. In doing so, she would be taking on an extremely well-funded opponent in Rogers, who claims to have already raised more than $2.5 million.
“A key challenge for Townsend is the millions of dollars that Rogers has raised,” said Bill Scheel, a partner at the Arizona political consulting firm Javelina. “I think that is what Townsend would have to look at, is how she would compete.”
Experts said Rogers has already been able to use the censure vote to raise more money, but Scheel said the censure could still work in Townsend’s favor in a head-to-head matchup.
“I don’t think that a majority of Republicans, even in Arizona’s Legislative District 6, believe all of these crazy things that Wendy Rogers is saying,” Scheel said. “There are more mainstream Republicans who have come to support Townsend.”
Robert Robb, an editorial columnist for the Arizona Republic, agrees.
“If she were to run, I think she would have a chance to make the censure an issue in the primary,” Robb said. “She would be a formidable candidate.”
While she has not made any decisions, Townsend said Friday that she had received “overwhelming support” from voters for her Wednesday speech. Many of those she has spoken to have urged her to “run against her and deliver us from Wendy Rogers.”
“Right now I have to decide if I’m willing to work with people who are unwilling to do the right thing in the face of such hate,” Townsend said.