QAnon candidates: Fringe conspiracy theory moves closer to political mainstream

At least four candidates have shared QAnon messaging online or in person, suggesting the conspiracy theory is shifting from the internet to the campaign trail.

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By Aaron Franco and Morgan Radford

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — At first glance, Matthew Lusk’s campaign signs look like any other Republican candidate's.

On one side, they read, “Matthew Lusk for Congress,” and “Putting America First.”

But as he flipped the signs over while loading them into a hatchback near his home in Florida earlier this year, he pointed out a detail pasted on the back of one: a black letter “Q.”

"You never know when you'll run into somebody else who's interested in Q," he said.

Lusk is running unopposed in the Republican primary for Florida’s 5th Congressional District. Among the 51 issues listed on his campaign website is “Q.”

And he’s not alone.

NBC News has identified four candidates who have shared or promoted messages affiliated with the far-right QAnon conspiracy theory — either through campaign Twitter accounts or in interviews with the news organization. All four are running in primaries for Congress — two of them unopposed — and all have filed paperwork with the Federal Elections Commission.

Matthew Lusk.lusk2020.com

Although interpretations vary and are constantly changing, most QAnon supporters believe that “Q” is an anonymous government official sharing information about a secret battle between President Donald Trump and a powerful cabal of Democratic politicians, liberal celebrities and the “deep state.”

Those posts, first shared through the website 4chan in 2017, also hint at a much darker plot in which many of those same figures control a worldwide child sex-trafficking ring.

None of those claims have been supported by fact.

Danielle Stella, who is running in a Republican primary to determine who will go up against Rep. Ilhan Omar in Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District, has a campaign account that frequently retweets QAnon-related messages and uses the #WWG1WGA hashtag — a frequent rallying cry for QAnon believers that stands for the motto "where we go one, we go all." In August, Stella's account retweeted a post that asked people to “Retweet if you support Q.”

In Texas’ 33rd Congressional District, Republican primary candidate Rich Helms' account has used the #WWG1WGA hashtag and retweeted and expressed support for QAnon accounts.

In July, he or someone from his campaign responded directly to a post about QAnon with “#WWG1WGA.”

Both candidates also often show their support for Trump on Twitter.

Helms didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

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The Stella campaign said by email: "I find it appalling that NBC would work so feverishly to defend child and sex traffickers, their funders, and their enablers.”

In Texas, Republican strategist Brendan Steinhauser says the conspiracy theory has started to creep into his work with candidates.

"I'll get emails about it,” Steinhauser said. "People come on their Facebook page, and activists will say, 'What's your stance on this?’ Or, ‘You heard about this, right?’"

He advises all of his clients to disavow the conspiracy theory and worries the trend will cause long-term damage to the party, especially among independent and swing voters.

"I think if they see candidates out there who are sounding crazy, that's going to hurt the Republican brand,” Steinhauser said.

At his home in Jacksonville, Lusk, who has expressed support for Trump, said he considers Q to be a reputable source of information.

“It’s like an advanced news warning,” he said. “Like, it might come out in the mainstream media a week or two weeks later. So I think there's a lot of inside sources, whoever this person is.”

Lusk said he first became aware of QAnon through YouTube last December and was drawn to it because of his concerns about the banking system and “globalization” — fearful of "powerful groups of people that are after world control in the West."

He sees Q’s allegations about child sex-trafficking as a secondary issue.

“Do I think there's powerful pedophiles out there? Yes,” Lusk said. “Is the ring like in the supreme control of what's happening in globalization? No, I think they're just like a fringe group within the power elite.”

‘Legitimate concerns’

In California’s 36th District, Republican primary candidate Erin Cruz doesn’t mention Q in any of her campaign material, but she acknowledges that many of her online followers are QAnon supporters.

Far from a fringe candidate, Cruz has a campaign banner hanging at the local Republican Party headquarters in LaQuinta, California, and claims an endorsement from the state chapter of Latinos for Trump.

“I think that we have to be very careful about what we think or call conspiracy theories,” Cruz said, referring to QAnon supporters, who she said have "legitimate concerns,” although she did not elaborate on what those were.

Cruz says she believes some of what Q posts is valid information, but she offered only vague answers having to do with the need for government transparency when asked what that might be.

“I think that the biggest thing with QAnon is there's information coming out," she said. "And sometimes it is in line with what's going on in government. So when you ask me, do I know what QAnon is? Yes, but what is it to everybody else? That's the bigger thing.”

Her message to other candidates: Treat QAnon supporters like any other voting bloc.

“I don't believe that candidates this day and age against a big party machine or machines can dismiss any person, any voter out there. And so with that, I would say, no, you shouldn't be dismissing individuals like QAnon supporters or believers,” she said.

Erin Cruz attends the 11th Annual Hollywood F.A.M.E. Awards at Hard Rock Cafe on Nov. 8, 2017 in Hollywood, Calif.Leon Bennett / Getty Images

It’s not an unprecedented strategy.

QAnon followers are a small faction within the Republican Party, but they can be a powerful force online. A New York Times analysis found that 23,000 of Trump’s followers have QAnon references in their profiles, many of whom amplify the president’s message across the potentially hundreds of thousands in the QAnon community.

Although the president has never explicitly acknowledged the conspiracy theory, he has retweeted profiles with a Q logo or QAnon messaging in their bios, and he has met and taken an Oval Office photo with a prominent QAnon booster and radio host named Michael William Lebron.

"I don't know that he's necessarily willfully pushing out the entire conspiracy theory,” Steinhauser said of Trump. "I do think he's endorsing and pushing out certain elements of it."

"But that's what makes a good, effective conspiracy theory," he added, "elements of truth or elements of nuance that can be promoted, right?"

At a recent rally in Minneapolis, supporters in QAnon T-shirts stood among the thousands in line waiting to get into the Target Center to see the president.

Standing near the front with a friend she’d met through QAnon groups online, Lynette Luukkonen said she’d “absolutely” support a candidate who ran on a QAnon platform.

“There’s a bunch of us that are sitting out in middle of America going: ‘Wow. We got this huge puzzle, let's solve it. Let's figure it out.’ It is fantastic,” she said. “And it has brought a lot of people together.”

And since she believes the mainstream media has been infiltrated by the CIA, she says she’ll continue to look to Q for information.

“I mean, how dumb do you think we are as citizens of this country?” she asked of the major news organizations. “We're done with that.”