Monday, October 25, 2021
Five days before Ron Watkins, the notorious MAGA conspiracy theorist who helped spread the violent far-right QAnon conspiracy, posted a video to his Telegram account announcing his candidacy for a rural Arizona congressional district, he registered to vote in Maricopa County.
Watkins, who is widely believed to have been behind QAnon’s master account, has been making national headlines for his congressional bid in Arizona where he is attempting to unseat Democratic Congressman Tom O’Halleran in a large, rural district that encompasses a large portion of the state.
However, that district won’t exist in 2022: All of the state’s districts are being redrawn by the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, and final decisions won’t be made until the end of the year.
The Arizona Mirror obtained a copy of Watkins’ voter registration information through the state’s public records law. It shows Watkins registered to vote in Maricopa County on Oct. 9, at a condominium in the Biltmore neighborhood of Phoenix. Property records show that the property is owned by Liz Harris, a Republican who lost a bid for the state legislature in 2020 and has since become a leading proponent of false claims that widespread fraud changed the election’s results.
Harris is also the real estate agent for the property, which was listed for sale in August. Online realty websites show the condominium is priced at about $287,000 and that a sale is pending. It’s unclear if Watkins is purchasing the property.
Harris has been the driving force behind a group of conservatives who have canvassed Maricopa County and other parts of the state to identify alleged voter fraud. But the report she spearheaded based on that door-to-door scouring was rife with errors, including listing areas that had homes on it as vacant lots and lacking other corroborating information.
But who exactly is Watkins? And how is a man who has spent the past decade living in Japan, China and the Philippines able to run for higher office in Arizona?
Before QAnon, many came to associate Watkins with an online image board called 8chan, which was later renamed 8kun. Watkins didn’t create the site — its founder was Fredrick Brennan, who would later cut ties with the website — but he became its administrator after his father, Jim Watkins, purchased it.
The Christchurch shooter in New Zealand said that he frequented the 4chan and 8chan message boards where far-right and white supremacist rhetoric was prevalent, and directly linked to other real-life hate crimes. The website also promoted antisemitism, at one point creating a cryptocurrency for users to boost their posts with a program they called “King of the Shekel.”
However, 8kun’s most active board by far is “Q Research.” As of Oct. 20, the board had more than 1,300 unique users and over 14 million posts.
In launching his campaign, Watkins has begun to distance himself from QAnon, going so far as to claim he is not associated with the movement; he is headlining a major QAnon convention later this month.
Prior to coming to Arizona, Watkins was living in Japan for about a year. Before that, he had also lived in China and the Philippines, where 8chan and 8kun were based.
And although he’s registered to vote in a tiny Maricopa County neighborhood, Watkins is running for a sprawling rural congressional district. The 1st District runs from the Four Corners to Tucson’s northern outskirts, taking in parts of Yavapai County along with the entirety of eastern Arizona. At 58,608 square miles, it is the largest congressional district in the country — and is larger than 25 states.
In his initial campaign filing with the Federal Elections Commission, Watkins lists a P.O. Box at a Sedona mailbox store as his campaign’s official address. But in denoting himself as both the official custodian of records and the campaign’s treasurer, Watkins used his Phoenix address.
Arizona law only requires that congressional candidates be registered voters, not that they live or are even registered to vote in the congressional district they hope to represent. Since Watkins is running for Congress, he just needs to be a resident of the state.
“In previous decades, we wouldn’t have noticed or cared,” Joseph Uscinski, a professor at the University of Miami who specializes in conspiracy theories, told the Mirror.
But as QAnon has become more prominent, and mainstreamed within Republican politics, and because of Watkins’ status within the QAnon community, his candidacy has created much more attention than it historically would have generated, Uscinski said.
Candidates with conspiratorial beliefs have always existed, like Lyndon LaRouche, who ran in every presidential election from 1976 to 2004 and believed in and spread a large number of conspiracy theories.
“I don’t get the impression that Ron Watkins fits into any Republican or Democrat mold. I don’t think he cares about tax policy or anything like that,” Uscinski said about Watkins and what his candidacy may mean for the political nature of Arizona. “I don’t know what is going on inside of these guys’s minds.”
Watkins did not respond to a request for comment about his policy goals, his connections to Harris and what is motivating him to run.
Watkins is certainly not the first candidate from the QAnon fever swamps to run for Congress, though he is the most prominent. Last year saw a rise in candidates with QAnon beliefs, many in Arizona, but only two were successful — and only Marjorie Taylor Greene was “committed” to QAnon, Uscinski said.
QAnon has deep roots in Arizona, including among its elected officials. And since the 2020 election, more of the state’s politicians and candidates have begun to fully embrace QAnon beliefs: Sen. Wendy Rogers has tweeted “Q drops” and gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake has tweeted the QAnon conspiracy about Jeffrey Epstein allegedly being murdered.
Watkins is also connected to the state Senate’s self-styled “audit.”
Doug Logan, the CEO of the Florida based firm that was hired to conduct the audit of Maricopa’s 2020 election results, asked Watkins to contact him on his now defunct Twitter. It is unclear if the two ever connected.
Watkins is also connected to the audit via Conan Hayes, a former professional surfer who made millions of dollars selling a clothing company who has become a prominent player in the “election fraud” conspiracy world. At MyPillow CEO’s “Cyber Symposium” in August, Watkins said he was given voting machine files from Mesa County, Colo., by Hayes.
Cyber Ninjas refused to answer questions from the Mirror about whether Hayes was involved in the “audit,” as either a paid contractor or a volunteer.
Watkins, who is running as a Republican, will need to gather petition signatures from GOP voters in the district he hopes to represent in order to qualify for the ballot. How many signatures he’ll need to gather won’t be known until January, but candidates for the current CD1 needed more than 1,400 for the 2020 election.
“I don’t necessarily think that the QAnon supporters are going to line up for him,” Uscinski said, noting that the QAnon community has become increasingly polarized and fractured since Trump was defeated and repeated prophecies that he would be reinstated have proved false, adding “it could get him free advertising for his other projects or he could actually want to win.”
Arizona Mirror is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Arizona Mirror maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jim Small for questions: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Arizona Mirror on Facebook and Twitter.