Arizona’s Republican Party raised record sums in 2021 with repeated appeals to supporters for money to help audit the 2020 presidential election. “Pitch in to Help Us Finish America’s Audit!” and “Help America’s Audit” were among the dozens of pitches from the party.
But Kelli Ward, the state party chairwoman, was sending a very different message to top Republicans in Washington at the time.
“We have not been raising money to pay for the audit,” Ward wrote in one June 25, 2021, text message, according to a person with knowledge of the message, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal internal details. “We were expressly told that we could/should not raise money for the audit and auditors before the audit began.”
Instead, Ward wrote in the text, the party was going to “keep the pressure” on for an audit and “communicate” about an audit.
The text message suggests that Arizona GOP leaders had no intention of using donations to help pay for the audit effort, despite what it had been telling its supporters in fundraising pleas. In the end, the $6 million audit was bankrolled through a separate fundraising effort by election denier groups, along with $150,000 in initial taxpayer money.
The final report, which was prepared by private contractors and submitted to Republican leaders of the state Senate, reaffirmed President Biden’s victory in the battleground state over former president Donald Trump.
Arizona GOP spokeswoman Kristy Dohnel did not address questions about the text message, but said in a statement that the state party “contributed to covering costs for security to ensure the safety of those who participated in the nonpartisan audit.”
“The Republican Party of Arizona has been able to raise millions of dollars under Chairwoman Kelli Ward’s leadership with amazing partners and relentless grass roots donors,” Dohnel said. “They know that Dr. Ward is honest, operates with integrity, and because of this, they trust her team with their resources. The role of the state party is to keep the political pressure on different entities.”
Arizona Republican officials discovered that raising money off the audit was a smashing success. From May to September 2021, at least 92 emails mentioned the audit as a reason to give to the Arizona GOP. The state party secured almost $1.1 million during that five-month period of a non-election year, compared to about $865,000 for 2020 and 2022 combined.
“In order to be on track to finish this historic, thorough, nonpartisan effort to strengthen our republic, we’ll need to raise $40K before the end of the month!” read one June 24, 2021, email. “We know these sound like lofty goals, but we’re fighting for our very right to have strong, secure elections. Will you rush in your support with everything that’s on the line?”
The pattern was evident around the country. In total, the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol found that more than $250 million was raised off fraudulent claims that the election was stolen. Trump’s campaign continued to raise money for an “Election Defense Fund” that did not exist. Trump’s PAC has raised more than $100 million, much of it on claims the election was stolen, and he has largely hoarded the money while spending some on candidates and some on his own lawyers.
Throughout her tenure, Ward has steered the party in a rightward direction and has deepened her ties to Trump while promoting herself. People close to Trump say he views her as an ally, though they are not particularly close. She was one of the figures who sued Vice President Mike Pence in late 2020, in a bid to stop him from certifying the results of the election.
She was deposed by the Jan. 6 committee but did not answer questions, citing her Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination. She has also received a subpoena in a Justice Department investigation into fake electors organized in Arizona and some other states; she and her husband were on a slate of fake electors for Trump in Arizona.
During the audit process, Ward starred in video updates viewed by thousands that were posted on Twitter. She gave updates on the status of the review and sometimes referred viewers to her website.
In one video, text appeared on screen that asked viewers to “Donate Now” and referred viewers to the online platform, WinRed. “Support the Maricopa County forensic audit,” the website said.
“The Republican Party of Arizona, working together with the Arizona Senate, has accomplished something no other state has achieved,” the page said. “That’s why we need your help. We have made it clear by leading the charge since election day, that when it comes to Election Integrity, we will not be intimidated. Join us in supporting our work. We aren’t finished fighting. And we won’t be until we get the answers we deserve.”
The page also said contributions would benefit the state party.
Another state party post touting the ballot review referred supporters to a WinRed site and to “DONATE NOW TO SUPPORT THE ELECTION INTEGRITY FUND.”
Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.