Arizona Republicans Sought to Overturn Votes. Rusty Said No.

It is a dark time in the life of the American experiment. The world’s oldest democracy, once assumed to be unbreakable, often appears to be coming apart at the rivets.

From his Florida exile, a defeated leader, whose efforts to overturn the last election are still coming into view, is working to place loyalists in key offices across the country, and his followers are racing to install themselves at the controls of future elections.

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

When right-wing lawmakers there pushed a bill that 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 unassuming speaker of the Arizona House, has represented die-hard 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 it die a quiet death. Instead, he killed it through an aggressive legislative maneuver that left even veteran statehouse watchers in Arizona awe-struck at its audacity.

“The speaker wanted to put the wooden cross right through the heart of this thing for all to see,” said Stan Barnes, a Republican consultant who has known Bowers for some 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’s tactics amounted to saying: “I am God. I control the rules. You will do what I say.”

But to the 69-year-old Bowers, a Mormon and father of seven who first entered politics in 1992, it was clearly a matter of something bigger than parliamentary procedure.

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

Fillmore’s bill would have eliminated early voting altogether and mandated 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 that we have seen.”

Most troubling, to voting rights advocates and independent experts, was a provision that would have empowered the Arizona Legislature to “accept or reject the election results” and given a single elector the power to demand that a fresh election be held.

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 is not excited about that,” he said.

The Arizona dispute comes amid a national convulsion within the Republican Party, which has split into two unequal factions — the pro-Trump forces, who have rallied behind the former president’s calls to overturn the 2020 election, and a dwindling establishment, which has either avoided the subject or faced the wrath of Trump’s allies.

On Friday, the Republican National Committee moved to censure Representatives Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger for serving on the congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 riot at the US Capitol. In so doing, the RNC officially declared that the attack was “legitimate political discourse.”

Bowers did not respond to multiple requests for an interview, but his public comments indicate a deep unease with how Trump and his base of supporters have promoted wild theories about election fraud and have pushed legislation that voting rights groups say amounts to an undemocratic, nationwide power grab.

“We gave the authority to the people,” Bowers told 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’s equally comfortable rolling up his sleeves to fix a broken vehicle in the middle of the desert as he is painting landscapes in watercolor. A 2015 profile describes him as “a beekeeper and an orchardist” who once trekked to Mexico to live with a remote native tribe.

“He has always struck me as independent, his own man,” Robert Robb, a columnist for The Arizona Republic, told us. “He’s a doctrinaire conservative on some things, but a pragmatic, conservative problem-solver on others. Very principled, straight-shooter, full of integrity.”

Bowers, a libertarian-style conservative who came of age in Goldwater’s Republican Party, backed Trump in 2020. But he resisted calls after the election to overturn the results — dismissing his colleagues’ claims, which courts and independent experts have said are unfounded, 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 entertain a suggestion that we violate current law to change the outcome of a certified election.”

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

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

“They’ve been coming to my house and intimidating our family and our neighborhood,” Bowers said, describing how mobile trucks drove by his home and called him a pedophile over a loudspeaker.

He is term-limited, but his stance could revive efforts to oust him from the speakership — a move that would have national reverberations.

Fillmore, who insisted he was willing to bargain over any aspects of his bill, said he was “disappointed that members of my caucus do not have the testicular fortitude” to stand up to Bowers.

But he hinted at moves afoot to remove the speaker, whom he accused of sabotaging what he said was a good-faith effort to rein in voting practices that, in his view, have gone too far.

“I’m an old school person. I do not go calmly. I do not go quietly,” Fillmore warned. “I believe Republican voters are solidly in line with me.”

Arizona political observers told us it was unlikely that the right wing of the Republican caucus could find a suitable replacement for Bowers, who has survived thus far through a combination of inertia and disorganization among his critics.

Fillmore, who said he did not support Trump in 2016 and hadn’t spoken with him, said he had received death threats over the bill from people who accused him of racism for wanting, as he put it, to restore Arizona’s voting laws as they were when he grew up in the 1950s.

He expressed his own fortitude pithily. “You know what, people?” he said. “Kiss my grits.”

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On Politics regularly features work by Times photographers. On Friday, Sarahbeth Maney caught President Biden looking up at three ironworkers, their legs hanging in the air, just before he signed an executive order benefiting construction trade unions. Here’s what she told us about capturing it:

I like how all three of them are looking at Biden, and he’s looking at them. I was hoping there would be some sort of interaction. He thought it was fun. “You’re nuts,” he joked, comparing them to workers who were similarly situated at a job site when he got his first-ever union endorsement. It was a little offbeat moment that makes a speech a little more personal and interesting.

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

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