Republicans wrestle with conspiracy-theory advocate winning Senate primary

After denying it in a statement, the candidate is now refuting her own campaign.

May 22, 2020, 1:52 PM

Republicans in Oregon this week nominated a Senate candidate with a deep history of promoting and vowing support for the QAnon conspiracy theory, providing the fringe movement its largest electoral platform yet and roiling Republicans over having a candidate who openly embraces baseless conspiracy theories.

In a now-deleted Twitter video, insurance agent Jo Rae Perkins, who bested three other candidates in the primary to face Democrat Sen. Jeff Merkley in November’s general election, expressed support for the QAnon conspiracy theory, which casts President Donald Trump as a crusader against a web of deep state conspiracies and that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has deemed a potential domestic terror threat.

“I stand with President Trump. I stand with Q and the team. Thank you Anons, and thank you patriots. And together, we can save our republic,” Perkins said in a video posted on Tuesday, while holding up a sign with a popular QAnon slogan on it.

Her primary win has forced Republicans to grapple with having a state-wide nominee who openly embraces the conspiracy theory.

When asked about supporting Perkins in the general election, the Republican National Committee did not comment.

The Oregon state Republican Party issued a lukewarm and seemingly reluctant statement saying, "By virtue of being the GOP nominee, this is what we do - support them in winning the general election."

The National Republican Senatorial Committee would not express support for Perkins and instead responded when asked with a list of unrelated allegations against Democratic Senate candidates before saying “and THIS is what ABC News is focused on.”

The Trump campaign and White House declined to comment.

Perkins’ own campaign on Wednesday tried to distance the candidate from QAnon, writing in a statement that she “would never describe herself as a follower.”

But speaking to ABC News on Thursday, Perkins did just that.

The Senate nominee said she was “literally physically in tears ” after reading the statement posted by her own campaign to her personal Twitter account and bucked her own campaign by reiterating support for QAnon.

"My campaign is gonna kill me,” Perkins said. “How do I say this? Some people think that I follow Q like I follow Jesus. Q is the information and I stand with the information resource.”

Perkins said she misread the line in the statement that walked back her support for QAnon before it was posted and that she would have told her campaign to “fix it” if she’d realized what was being said on her behalf.

“I scanned it and said, yeah, it looks good to me and out it went. And then I saw it afterwards and I am like, literally was in tears, literally physically in tears because I'm so blown away. Because I went, crap, that’s not me. And I don't back down.

“I'm not backpedaling and I'm frustrated. I feel like I'm having to backpedal and that's like torn me up because that's not me,” she said regarding her support for QAnon.

While Perkins said that her campaign has told her “not to worry” about fixing the statement rejecting her support for QAnon, she said “I'm the candidate and the buck stops with me.”

PHOTO: Conspiracy theorist QAnon demonstrators protest during a rally to re-open California and against Stay-At-Home directives on May 1, 2020 in San Diego, California.
Conspiracy theorist QAnon demonstrators protest during a rally to re-open California and against Stay-At-Home directives on May 1, 2020 in San Diego, California.
Sandy Huffaker/AFP via Getty Images

The QAnon conspiracy theory, which has spread debunked and baseless ideas like John F. Kennedy Jr. faking his own death and returning last July 4th, started in late 2017 after an anonymous post surfaced on the online message board 4chan with someone claiming to have access to top-secret government information.

Since then the random and anonymous posts have ignited followers to pore over each line and word looking for strands and clues into the wild alleged conspiracies.

“People who believe are believing things that are not true and don't have evidence to back them up. That leaves them in a place where they're holding a lot of beliefs that are disconnected from our shared reality,” said Joseph Uscinski, a political-science professor at the University of Miami whose research focuses on fringe beliefs.

"And further than that, they hold a set of beliefs that scapegoat particular people for all the world's evils and accuse them of engaging in horrific crimes. And when you put that together, those are the sorts of things that can motivate people to act and we have seen some isolated incidents where people committed violence. based on this considered conspiracy theory,” Uscinski said.

Last August, the FBI identified the QAnon conspiracy theory as a domestic terrorist threat, as Yahoo News reported on a document saying for the first time that the agency is labelling “conspiracy theory-driven domestic extremists” as a growing threat.

“The FBI assesses these conspiracy theories very likely will emerge, spread, and evolve in the modern information marketplace, occasionally driving both groups and individual extremists to carry out criminal or violent acts,” the document states and goes on to say that the agency believes conspiracy theory-driven extremists will likely increase amid the 2020 presidential election.

The conspiracy has grown popular at Trump rallies across the country, with followers wearing and selling merchandise, waving signs to get popular QAnon slogans and internet links on camera with for people to search and learn more about the alleged conspiracy.

The president, who elevated to power after pushing a debunked conspiracy theory of his own that President Barack Obama fabricated his birth certificate and was not born in the United States, has promoted and encouraged QAnon followers since taking office by regularly re-sharing their tweets to his nearly 80 million followers to the celebration of believers in the conspiracy theory.

However, Trump’s promotion of QAnon followers is not bound to the internet, the president has also invited them to the White House as part of a “social media summit” and has taken a photo with a follower in the Oval Office when right-wing conspiracy theorist and QAnon-believer Michael Lebron visited back in 2018.

According to Uscinski, while the president may not be personally responsible for QAnon’s rise given he has not publicly commented on it, Trump’s anti-establishment and “deep state” talk has created a space for it to thrive and the president has not proactively looked to shut it down either.

“I think what Trump has done is create a space for people who are anti-establishment to come out of the woodwork. And to feel like they are taking part in mainstream politics,” Uscinski said.

“It's in [Trump’s] favor to not denounce it either. There have been lower level officials who’ve said we're not endorsing this. But he hasn't. So the status quo is what works best for him. He can keep these people in his camp without saying something they disagree with. And then he doesn't have to do anything that would make him look more of a conspiracy theorist that he already looks like. By outwardly endorsing it.

The day after Perkins’ primary win this week, she appeared on a popular QAnon YouTube channel to celebrate the victory.

Perkins said on the live stream posted on Wednesday, hours before her campaign tried to distance her from the conspiracy theory, that “most of the people who were at our election night party were Q people.”

She also said she’d "absolutely" use the information she’s learned from the QAnon conspiracy theory in the U.S. Senate if elected.

And prior to her election win on Tuesday, Perkins regularly tweeted promoting the conspiracy theory, sometimes welcoming converts to the “QArmy” and as early as January this year she shared posts claiming to have proof of “coordination between Q and President Trump.”

Perkins, with or without the support of her own party, will have an uphill climb in November. Democrats largely win Oregon state-wide elections and Merkley, the incumbent, is considered a strong favorite in the Senate race. The state has gone blue for every presidential election since 1984 and hasn’t elected a Republican governor since the 1980s.

Perkins said despite Republican officials slow start supporting her candidacy publicly so far, she doesn’t believe there will be any issues moving forward since she says she’s friends with Oregon Republican Party Chairman Bill Currier.

Currier did not return a request for comment.

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