IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Rusty Bowers was a star Jan. 6 committee witness. He says it'll take 'a miracle' to win his next election.

The Aug. 2 Arizona contest serves as the first and possibly only test this cycle of whether a Republican can break with former President Donald Trump in public testimony and still win a primary.
Get more newsLiveonNBC News Now

MESA, Ariz. — Curtis Ruhl doesn't care much for politicians. He doesn't consider himself to be a Republican or a Democrat and is not planning to vote in Arizona's high-stakes primary next month.

But if he did vote in the Aug. 2 contest, it would be for Rusty Bowers, the Arizona House speaker now fighting for his political life after his emotional testimony to Congress about the intense pressure he withstood from then-President Donald Trump to subvert the results of the 2020 election in his state.

Bowers "is a different person," Ruhl, 63, said in an interview outside a local grocery store. "He’s a human being. A man I respect."

While Ruhl has known Bowers personally for three years, most Americans were only introduced to the conservative legislator weeks ago, when he traveled to Washington for a public hearing held by the committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. His race serves as the first and possibly only test this cycle of whether a Republican can publicly cross Trump before the Jan. 6 panel and still win a GOP primary — one that is taking place while Bowers' testimony is still fresh in voters' minds. 

Bowers himself has no illusion about the task ahead of him — one in which he needs to have voters like Ruhl, part of Arizona's large, independent voting bloc, choose to cast a Republican ballot on his behalf.

"It's so hostile," Bowers told NBC News in a phone interview, noting the overwhelming pro-Trump preference of his state Senate district, Arizona's 10th, east of Phoenix. "If I pull this off, it's going to be a miracle."

Still, roughly a dozen voters, strategists and insiders who spoke with NBC News felt he had a better chance of defeating his opponent, former state Sen. David Farnsworth, than Bowers himself predicted. Farnsworth did not respond to requests for comment.

"I do think he has a shot because he's a well-known, well-respected statesman who's been here a long time," said Sean Noble, an Arizona Republican strategist not affiliated with any primary race in the state. Noble added the race "really comes down to whether the goodwill that Rusty has built over the years overcomes kind of the tirade of the Jan. 6 defenders."

Bowers, who has served a combined 17 years between Arizona's state House and Senate, shot to the forefront of the political universe last month when he recounted to the Jan. 6 committee how Trump and his allies sought his help to invalidate the 2020 election results, something he knew to be unconstitutional.

"It is a tenet of my faith that the Constitution is divinely inspired, that this is my most basic foundational belief," Bowers, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, told the committee. "And so for me to do that because somebody just asked me to, is foreign to my very being; I will not do it."

Bowers said his stance caused longtime friends to turn against him. He teared up as he detailed the harassment he and his family faced as a result of refusing Trump's demands. He said he has faced repeated protests at his home, adding that supporters of the former president have driven trucks through his neighborhood with video panels claiming he is "a pedophile and a pervert and a corrupt politician."

Much of the vitriol came as his adult daughter was gravely ill and living with him. She died just weeks after the Capitol riot.

"So it was disturbing," he testified. "It's disturbing."

A recipient of the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award this year, Bowers said the response in his district to the testimony has been mixed.

"Among my friends and people that I know personally in the district, it's been good," he said. "But generally, it is not seen as good. It's been: 'There you go. The traitor.'"

He also disagrees with people who tell him his decision to testify took courage. 

"I don't see me having some courageous Don Quixote-esque [moment]. Maybe that's it, but certainly not a Joan of Arc," Bowers said. "But I did what I had to do. I knew that there might be consequences, and in some cases, I knew that it would end relationships. But I have to tell the truth. That's it. Beyond that, nothing else."

Former Arizona Republican Gov. Jan Brewer, who endorsed Bowers' campaign, told NBC News she found his testimony "riveting" and "just so genuine."

"Everybody I've spoken to, and I believe this too, that he just left everybody somewhat spellbound," she said. "He's just an awesome person, an awesome leader, an awesome father and husband. That's his reputation. He just is Rusty Bowers, and I'm proud to call him a friend."

Chuck Coughlin, an Arizona Republican consultant, said the testimony spoke to Bowers' character, adding he is curious to see whether he gets any bump in support from independents or even Democrats who might abandon the party to vote for him.

"Nothing about what he said surprised me," Coughlin said. "How it affects him, we're going to find out."

Soon after Bowers' public testimony, Trump offered a full-throated endorsement of Farnsworth, saying he "is going against a longtime political operative, or hack, Rusty Bowers, who has been an absolute disaster for Arizona and everything which Arizona Values represent."

Bowers described his opponent as a back-bencher who "did exactly zero" while previously serving in the state Senate for eight years. The House speaker promoted legislative wins from his most recent term, including overseeing the passage of a budget package with bipartisan support and legislation intended to bring new water sources to the state — one in which conservation issues loom large.

Farnsworth touts his Trump endorsement prominently, while also claiming to be the best candidate to tackle inflation, migration at the border and overhaul elections.

Asked what a Farnsworth win would say about the state of the party, Bowers said: "It says that Mr. Trump has, there’s a very, I would almost call it cultic appeal."

Stan Barnes, an Arizona GOP strategist, said Bowers' advantage will be his better-funded campaign while Farnsworth gets the benefit of a Trump endorsement — and the party activists it inspires.

Bowers has raised $132,000 while Farnsworth has brought in $68,000 for the campaign, according to Arizona campaign finance records, though Farnsworth has also been the beneficiary of $57,000 worth of spending from Securing Arizona PAC, which is dedicated to defeating Bowers and fellow GOP state Sen. Tyler Pace in the neighboring 9th District on Aug. 2.

"The difference between former Sen. Farnsworth and current Speaker Bowers on policy matters on paper is very difficult to discern," Barnes said. "Where they differ is on the support of the former president and the belief or lack of belief that somehow the election in Arizona was corrupted."

Voters here seemed to weigh Bowers' testimony in their decision-making. Peggy Marchi, a 70-year-old Republican from Mesa, said she was still undecided in the state Senate contest and viewed the economy and border crossings as the biggest issues she's voting on. 

Bowers "might've lost me right there" with his testimony, she said in an interview outside a local grocery store. 

Carol Van Kley, an 81-year-old Republican voter also from Mesa, said she thought Bowers' testimony "was very inaccurate" and "it was disgusting to hear him do that." She's backing Farnsworth in the primary.

"I'm sure there are a lot of people who pay a lot of attention to it," she said of the Jan. 6 hearings. "The Democrats. But I don't know. I think people are really confused right now."

There was a different tune from others. Michael Merkley, 51 of Mesa, said he would vote for Bowers simply because he is currently in office — though he valued Trump's endorsement of Kari Lake in the GOP primary for governor. Robert Manzanedo, 52 of Mesa, said he is still deciding on whether to vote Republican or Democratic and thought Bowers' testimony was "very strong."

"I really appreciate that," he said. "I hope that that's how he really feels."

Bowers raised eyebrows when he told The Associated Press prior to his testimony that he would back Trump in 2024 if he is the GOP nominee because of his pre-pandemic policymaking. But in an interview with The Deseret News last week, he emphasized he will be "hard pressed" to vote for Trump if the situation presented itself down the road, adding his earlier comments were a kind of "defense mechanism."

"And so as kind of a sad evasion, I just said that," he said. "And it gets me out of a discussion and into a hotter fire."

Brewer, the former governor supporting Bowers, said she hopes voters cast ballots on "the policies that are facing us today" — the budget, the border, education, water — rather than feelings about 2020.

"I think there's a certain group of people that are organized and they're going to talk it to death and talk about yesterday's news instead of tomorrow's news," she said. "And it will continue. But Rusty has been around a long time. People know who Rusty Bowers is." 

And it's knowing Bowers that has Ruhl confident in the candidate's chances.

"Would it take a miracle? Not in my eyes," he said. "If everybody knew him like I do, it wouldn't take anything."