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After two years, Trump returns to Arizona with a new partner in campaigning

Former President Donald Trump speaks at Dream City Church in Phoenix on Thursday. The event with Turning Point USA brought the presumptive Republican nominee back to the crucial swing state for the first time in two years.
Caitlin O'Hara for NPR
Former President Donald Trump speaks at Dream City Church in Phoenix on Thursday. The event with Turning Point USA brought the presumptive Republican nominee back to the crucial swing state for the first time in two years.

Former President Donald Trump has largely been absent in Arizona — limited staffing and no advertisements. On Thursday, he returned to the Grand Canyon state after nearly two years to back up on-the-ground organizing from outside groups.

On Thursday, Trump held a town hall event sponsored by Turning Point Action, which focuses on mobilizing young conservatives, at Dream City Church in Phoenix. To a chanting crowd of thousands, Trump vowed to make his voter mobilization efforts this cycle “too big to rig.”

This is a nod at his false claim that the 2020 election was stolen. Those false claims began in Arizona. And the state really became the center for election denialism theories and claims.

The event also underscores a new campaign tactic: directly using outside organizations to lead canvassing efforts to turn out voters. Trump’s presence in the state, his first this cycle, is seen as an endorsement of Turning Point’s new “Chase the Vote” initiative. The townhall also comes days after the trump campaign and the Republican National Committee announced a “Swamp the Vote” initiative that promotes early and mail-in voting.

“We are going to make November too big to rig and we are going to overwhelm the ballot boxes,” said Charlie Kirk, the founder and executive director of Turning Point USA, during the event doubling down that “there is no path to the White House without Arizona.” “We are going to out register them, we are going to out work them.”

Former President Donald Trump joined Turning Point USA to tout his Swamp the Vote campaign, which promotes mail-in-ballots.
Caitlin O'Hara for NPR /
Former President Donald Trump joined Turning Point USA to tout his Swamp the Vote campaign, which promotes mail-in-ballots.

Arizona is one of the six key swing states that could determine the outcome of the presidential election. In 2020, Trump lost the state to President Biden by just over 11,000 votes. That was the first time the state had voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Bill Clinton in 1996. Before Clinton, the most recent Democrat to win was Harry Truman in 1948. But despite being a traditionally Republican state, political consultants say the effort on the Trump campaign’s part is still needed.

“It's really a base motivational visit to make sure that people in Arizona, his team in Arizona know that he cares,” said Chuck Coughlin, CEO of HighGround, a political consulting firm in Arizona. “They’ve got to feel his confidence in order to be mobilized and engaged in this cycle.

“And that's not the case right now — you can definitely feel it because he has not been out here,” he added.

Trump’s absence has been notable. The former president was scheduled to attend the AZ GOP’s annual dinner in January but the event was canceled following news of the chairman’s resignation. There were also plans for him to visit in March and May — both of which did not come to fruition and he went to Ohio and stayed in New York instead.

“There were preliminary discussions about potential visits that were never finalized due to scheduling conflicts,” a campaign official confirmed.

His investment in the state has also been minimal. In 2020, Trump spent more than $2 million on advertisements between Jan. 1 and June 6. So far in 2024, he has not spent any money at all, according to an NPR analysis of data from AdImpact, which tracks ad spending.

Stepping into a part of that void is Turning Point Action. Speaking at Dream City Church, Kirk called on supporters to convince their fellow conservatives to turn out to vote — blaming low turnout and mobilization on recent state losses for the party.

Former President Donald Trump embraces Turning Point's Charlie Kirk at Dream City Church in Phoenix on Thursday.
Caitlin O'Hara for NPR /
Former President Donald Trump embraces Turning Point's Charlie Kirk at Dream City Church in Phoenix on Thursday.

The Arizona GOP said they did not have a response to NPR requests for comment on the strategy. Turning Point has previously faced criticism in conservative circles not not successfully helping candidates win general elections even in their home state of Arizona. Still, Kirk is trying to position the group to supplant the broader GOP apparatus.

“I am asking you to download an app, to talk to your neighbors, to go fill in a piece of paper, chase a couple ballots, and own your neighborhood and save this country,” Kirk said to the cheering crowd, doubling down that if “people need a job because of the Biden economy” he will hire them now to be “ballot chasers.”

The group is working to create an organizing effort to support Trump in Arizona, Wisconsin and Michigan. Their goal is to raise $100 million and hire “ballot chasers” to door knock, canvass, register voters and encourage people to vote whether its in person or by mail.

So far, they have raised “tens of millions of dollars,” have hired “hundreds of staff” and are “onboarding 20 to 40 new staffers every other week,” according to Andrew Kolvet, spokesperson for Turning Point Action.

“To have the president come out to Arizona to do the event with Turning Point Action to endorse this project,” Kolvet said, acknowledging that this is the first time Trump comes through the state this cycle. “It's a watershed moment for the movement to have President Trump be the special guest for this.”

A supporter waves a sign reading "Too Big to Rig," a new campaign slogan from the Trump team focused on winning big enough margins to not lose - allowing the former president to repeat the lie that he won the 2020 election.
Caitlin O'Hara for NPR /
A supporter waves a sign reading "Too Big to Rig," a new campaign slogan from the Trump team focused on winning big enough margins to not lose - allowing the former president to repeat the lie that he won the 2020 election.

Trump campaign and Turning Point Action are coordinating on the canvassing efforts, Kolvet said, due to a recent advisory opinion made by the Federal Election Commission allows campaigns to coordinate with outside groups on canvassing.

“Trump's coalition demands that low propensity voters are paid proper attention to. These are not necessarily politically active people, but they support the president and they support the conservative agenda,” Kolvet said. “And so we have to do our part as a movement to make sure that we're getting those people out to the polls and that is a huge paradigm shift on the conservative side.”

Coughlin, the Arizona-based consultant, also sees how Trump is using Turning Point Action as the emerging dominant organizing force in Arizona.

“It is that organizational ability that does not exist in this cycle inside the GOP,” Coughlin said. “And Turning Point is presenting themselves as an alternative organizational front to be able to do those voter ID and turnout activities.”

When thinking about the 11,000 vote margin Trump lost by last election, Kolvet believes his efforts could make the difference this time.

“Turning Point seems to be at a place where it can marshal resources and human assets to help a campaign,” Coughlin said. “Whereas the GOP is not.”

Copyright 2024 NPR

Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.