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He Couldn’t Stand on the Sidelines When an Election Denier Ran for Re-Election

Arizona’s Clint Smith hopes his independent challenge to Rep. Andy Biggs will rouse other members of the LDS Church to fight for democracy.
by Jim Swift
October 25, 2022
He Couldn’t Stand on the Sidelines When an Election Denier Ran for Re-Election
A shadow of a man wearing a cowboy hat falls on a pillar as he enters the polling place at Wickenburg Community Center in Wickenburg, Arizona. (Photo credit should read DON EMMERT/AFP via Getty Images)

In Arizona’s 5th Congressional District, Rep. Andy Biggs—a pardon-seeking election denier, semi-fascist, and Russia softie who was set up financially for life after winning a $10 million sweepstakes in the 1990s and eventually parlayed his good fortune into a career in state and then national politics—appears set to win re-election. Biggs handily won each of his three previous elections in the district, by almost 30 points in 2016 and by around 20 points in 2018 and 2020. Although there is little polling, Biggs looks poised to win this time around again. His Democratic opponent—who has raised just over $9,000, about half of which came out of his own pockets—has virtually no chance of breaking through.

But there is another candidate in the running this time around—a moderate, conservative-leaning independent who says he couldn’t watch Biggs continue to trample democracy without doing something about it. Clint Smith, a political newcomer, decided to make a bid for Biggs’s seat after watching the events of January 6th unfold—events that Biggs helped to plan.

Smith is a lawyer with a private practice he has operated for over three decades and a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Integrity and respect are qualities that seem to matter deeply to him, and he would not have seen either one much in evidence in Biggs’s actions following the 2020 election. Smith hopes that on November 8, his fellow Arizonans will show up to confirm that they agree with him that democracy is worth defending—against attacks from the inside, especially.

Though he has not run for office before, Smith had a taste of public service in 1981 as a summer intern for Arizona Rep. John Rhodes, a legislator who served his Phoenix-area district for thirty years. In a state known for outsize personalities in politics—colorful and era-defining characters from Barry Goldwater to John McCain have hailed from the Grand Canyon State—Rhodes played a quieter role as a legislative savant. He was instrumental to the Central Arizona Project, which provided for the construction of a canal system that carries Colorado River water 190 miles into the heart of the parched Phoenix region, and he also put the state on a solid path of growth during his tenure.

Rhodes is best remembered today for going with Goldwater and another Republican, Sen. Hugh Scott, to a fateful meeting with Richard Nixon during which they informed the embattled president that there was no longer enough support in Congress for him to survive an impeachment trial. Smith, who interned for Rhodes a few years later, learned well the importance of standing up to a powerful leader when they’ve gone too far, and considers 2022 to be a year that requires similar fidelity to country over party.

Since his brief stint interning on Capitol Hill, Smith went on to raise a family, launch his law practice, volunteer in Boy Scouts and local little league baseball, and complete LDS missionary assignments, the most recent of which took him and his wife to the Florida Panhandle for three years. Now a grandfather, he’s increasingly focused on service.

Meanwhile, the Arizona GOP has evolved quite a bit over the years, too. Gone are the days of competent, hard-working Arizona Republicans: There are no more Jon Kyls, no more McCains, Jeff Flakes—and soon, even Rusty Bowers will have departed the scene. The people McCain famously derided as the state party’s “wacko birds” are the ones leading its V-formation now. Kari Lake, Mark Finchem, and Blake Masters are all ascendant. After the insurrection, it wasn’t a party Smith could picture himself belonging to anymore.

Smith shares his frustration with other members of the LDS Church, which has offered somewhat stiffer resistance to Trumpism than similarly conservative American evangelical churches have. And Smith is not the only Mormon to mount an independent campaign. Former CIA agent Evan McMullin, who ran independently for the presidency against Trump in 2016, has returned to make a play for Mike Lee’s Senate seat. His is perhaps the highest-profile endorsement Smith’s campaign has so far received.

Smith formally broke with the GOP in the Trump era, but his relationship with the party began to fracture in the 1990s—not long after Biggs won his sweepstakes money. “It honestly started with the vitriol that Newt Gingrich stirred up, where the opposition became the enemy and people started getting polarized,” Smith says. “I didn’t care for that.”

Things only got worse from there. In recent years, Smith says he has become deeply frustrated with GOP rhetoric about immigrants and immigration, always a hot-button issue in border states like Arizona. Unlike Kyl and McCain, who advocated providing for better security at the border while also reforming the country’s antiquated and frequently cruel immigration system, the insurgent Republicans who took over the state GOP have chosen cruelty as a principle worth preserving.

In 2011, Smith served as co-chair for a politically diverse campaign committee that sought the recall of Russell Pearce, then the president of the state senate, the author and sponsor of S.B. 1070, Arizona’s infamous anti-immigration law. The recall was successful, and Pearce became the first sitting president of a state senate to be removed from office in American history.

Yet Smith notes that Pearce’s spirit lives on in today’s GOP. “Somewhere along the line, the Republican party . . . decided that the immigrants were part of the problem.”

Given that his issues with the party date back to Gingrich, Smith says he has sometimes found it difficult to figure out whom to support in Arizona—especially following the insurgent takeover of the state GOP. Going into 2020, he says,

It was obvious to everyone who was paying attention that we were not being represented well by the people who represented the interests of our little quiet, sleepy Gilbert district. My bottom line was, I have occasionally—here and there—voted for Democrats, and now in this next cycle, of course, we have all those election deniers at the top of the [GOP] ticket. And I’m not voting for any of those people. And I’ve endorsed and been endorsed by Adrian Fontes.

Fontes is a Democrat running for secretary of state in Arizona. His endorsement of Smith suggests that some liberals both see a greater chance of success in Smith’s independent campaign than in the Democratic party’s candidate, and that Smith’s views are moderate enough to attract disaffected voters from across the political spectrum. He has his share of alienated Republican support, too: Rusty Bowers, tossed to the curb for not stealing the election by MAGA fanatics, has also endorsed him.

Maintaining a diverse coalition is a tricky business. As Smith has attempted to thread the needle on immigration by aligning with the sorts of compassionate but realistic proposals that more reasonable Arizona Republicans advanced in days gone by, he has also taken a moderate view on abortion—but his public stances on that issue have appeared somewhat contradictory. In one recent Q&A, he took what sounded like a cautiously pro-life line: “We believe life is sacred, but there should be careful consideration in instances of rape, incest, or life of the mother.” But in another, he appeared to argue for a classic pro-choice position: “There is no place for the government in decisions made between a woman and her doctor. I will support a proposal by Congress that restores that freedom to women and their families.”

I asked him directly about the apparent tension between these answers, wanting to know: Was it a matter of wavering, political inexperience, or something else? Smith offered a searching answer that illustrates the challenging position conservative Mormons find themselves in when they run for office:

Personally, I’m opposed to elective abortions. But it’s not my place to impose my standards. Before Dobbs, there was clarity about the government’s role, and careful consideration was in order. I’m simply saying: now that we don’t have a federal directive, neither judge nor legislator should be making that decision.

There is certainly much to appeal to Smith’s liberal supporters in this view, and in its prudence, there’s a lot that could draw a certain type of moderate conservative, as well. But for Smith to have any kind of chance, he’ll need to bring his fellow conservative Mormons on board. At that point, his coreligionist Andy Biggs would have something to worry about: As with McMullin’s energetic challenge to Mike Lee, it could become the revenge of those members of the LDS Church whose political priority is the defense of American democracy. But there is no rancor in Smith’s position on the matter: “I hadn’t thought about it as revenge,” he tells me.

With a ground game involving around 800 volunteers, it’s not as though he has time to reflect on his position in those terms. But he has certainly found it “disappointing” to see the ways that the MAGA movement has forced its way into his church. Thinking about those volunteers, and the people who have donated to his campaign, reassures him that the Trump loyalists are not putting on the only show in town. “The people who are still standing on principle are quietly, you know, hoping for the best and supporting me.”

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.