What a difference seven years makes.

When Donald Trump made one of his first presidential campaign stops in Arizona in 2015, he was a Republican outsider and longshot candidate. When he comes to Florence Saturday for his first rally of this election year, Trump returns as a former president with thousands of donors in the state, a firm hand on the party and GOP candidates clamoring for his backing.

“It’s clear that President Trump continues to be the most popular politician in the Republican Party, and there are still plenty of Republicans who support him and want to give him money to whatever cause he proposes,” said Nathan Gonzales, editor of Inside Elections.

READ ALSO: $969M investment coming to Arizona from infrastructure law

And plenty of those supporters are in Arizona. Just over 9,000 state residents had donated $441,162 to the Trump-controlled Save America PAC through the first six months of last year, the most recent numbers available from the Federal Election Commission. That was the seventh-highest total in the nation, trailing California, Texas, Florida, New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.

His supporters today include a list of elected and would-be elected officials in the state. Trump said “special guest speakers” at Saturday’s Save America Rally include Arizona Republican Party Chairwoman Kelli Ward and GOP Reps. Paul Gosar, Andy Biggs and Rep. Debbie Lesko. A call to Biggs’ office was not immediately returned, but staffers for Gosar and Lesko confirmed they will be attending.

The list also includes Kari Lake and state Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Tucson, candidates for governor and secretary of state, respectively, whose candidacies have been endorsed by Trump. Gonzales said he does not expect Trump to make an endorsement Saturday in the crowded GOP primary for U.S. Senate, “but he’s had surprises before.”

But experts agree that Trump stands to get from the rally as much as he gives, if not more.

Jason Rose, a Republican political consultant in Arizona, said “the broader reason” for Trump’s visit “is power-play.”

“If he runs in the 2024 election or if he wants to keep a base here and his constituency excited,” the rally achieves those goals, Rose said. “It kills a lot of political birds with one stone in terms of his arrival here.”

J. Miles Coleman, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said Trump “is trying to keep himself relevant in the Republican Party.” And it doesn’t hurt, Coleman said, that Trump “thrives off of his rallies.”

That was echoed by Gonzales.

“He likes rallies and he likes to talk about what he thinks went wrong in the 2020 election and this is an opportunity to merge the two together,” Gonzales said.

One of the scheduled speakers for Saturday’s rally is My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell, a leading proponent of Trump’s debunked claims of election fraud in his failed 2020 reelection bid.

“I’m sure he will continue to make his same debunked claims about the election at the event,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball. “I’m sure that will be a major focus of the event.”

But Kondik and others say that while election fraud talk will excite his supporters, it may not be good for the Republican Party.

“For Republicans, Arizona is trending in the wrong direction and Donald Trump is part of the reason why,” Kondik said. “He presided over the loss of Arizona and his presidency, and whatever he says about the integrity of the election, he’s not made credible claims that the result was fraudulent.”

That could be good for Democrats in the long run, said Bill Scheel, a partner at the Arizona political consulting firm, Javelina.

“It’s interesting that what we see is that the Republicans here are completely stuck in the past, litigating the 2020 election, instead of talking about issues that actually matter to people in the future,” Scheel said.

Kondik said Trump definitely has strong support in Arizona – what Rose calls a “fervent, passionate supporter base” – but they say it became more of a swing state under his watch.

“The state has become more competitive in recent years and I think part of the reason for that is that Donald Trump proved to be a weaker Republican presidential nominee for Arizona than Mitt Romney, John McCain or the Bushes,” he said, referring to recent GOP presidential nominees.

Still, there is little to no downside for Trump himself, the experts say. Kondik said Trump often travels to competitive states like Arizona, which he called a “very important swing state,” and believes visiting the state is a smart move.

“If he is actually going to run for president again in 2024, which he very well could, winning back Arizona is a very important part of a path of victory in a general election,” he said.

Because of that, Coleman said Saturday “may not be the last time Trump does a rally in Arizona.”


Story by Alexia Stanbridge, Cronkite News