When Ron Watkins announced he was running for Congress in Arizona in the middle of October, he was full of hope and bravado.
“I am going to raise at least a million dollars, and I’m going to win so that the people have a real voice in Washington, D.C.,” he told VICE News at the time.
Three months later, however, Watkins’ campaign appears dead in the water after his first campaign finance report reveals the former administrator of 8kun, the fringe message board where QAnon flourished, has raised just over $30,000 in donations.
Watkins filed his first campaign finance report just before the deadline passed at midnight on Monday, revealing that in the three months to the end of December, he raised just $30,588.22 in small donations from supporters.
His campaign received an additional cash injection of $2,354 in the form of a loan from his father Jim Watkins, who owns 8kun.
Watkins’ opponents had a substantial fundraising lead on him coming into the final three months of 2021, and that has now increased dramatically. Incumbent Democratic Rep. Tom O’Halleran raised over $435,000 in the last quarter of 2021, meaning he has raised $1.8 million to date.
The leading candidate for the GOP nomination is former Navy SEAL Eli Crane, who has raised over $800,000 to date, half of which was raised in the final three months of 2021 alone.
Watkins’ paltry fundraising efforts show how difficult it will be to translate his QAnon fame into votes. Add the lack of funds to an unorthodox campaigning approach conducted primarily on Telegram, the absence of a much sought-after Trump endorsement, and a campaign manager who “sees UFOs wherever he goes,” and it’s clear that Watkins is facing an uphill climb to make any impact on the Congressional race in Arizona’s second district.
Watkins announced in November 2020, on the day of the presidential election, that he was quitting as administrator of 8kun. Within days he had transformed himself into a self-declared election security expert, and within weeks he’d been boosted by right-wing outlets like OAN, to the point where former President Donald Trump was retweeting him.
Over the course of the next year, his star within the election truther movement and the wider MAGA community continued to rise, and he was among the first—and loudest—voices promoting the bogus recount that took place over the course of six months in Maricopa County, Arizona, last year.
Despite the fact the recount showed no evidence of widespread voter fraud, Watkins believed he had established enough of a profile to move to the state in early October and declare his intention to run.
Watkins is also having no luck getting support from the Republican Party. He has so far failed to get Trump’s endorsement, and told VICE News that the local GOP party in Arizona didn’t respond when he contacted them about this campaign.
Without any network of allies in Arizona, Watkins has tried to drum up interest by staging increasingly unhinged stunts. Last month he traveled to Trump’s border wall in the middle of the night, trying to find immigrants crossing the border.
“I am out here at Trump's big beautiful wall on the southern border of the United States. I am driving up and down the wall looking to see if there is any human trafficking going on,” he said in a video posted to his 400,000 Telegram followers.
A week later, Watkins attended a meeting of the Scottsdale Unified School District board. During his two-minute speech, he was told to stop speaking because he was electioneering, but he persisted, shouting over officials to spread a new conspiracy theory that the board members could be removed simply by serving them with some bogus documents.
Watkins also visited the Trump rally in Florence, Arizona last month, handing out merchandise and glad-handing with the QAnon cult members who believe that John F. Kennedy is about to be resurrected.
Watkins told VICE News that while at the rally he had tried to speak to Arizona state Rep. Mark Finchem, who has promoted QAnon conspiracies, and who is seeking election in November as secretary of state.
Watkins said that when he met Finchem, the lawmaker “wasn't so friendly to me” and told Watkins he should step aside because other candidates, like Crane, with whom Finchem has shared a stage at “Stop the Steal” events, are better suited to the role.
“I told him I’m running and he, like, said, ‘Why are you running when this other guy’s better?’” Watkins told VICE News.
A fundraising haul of just $30,000 won’t go very far toward mounting a credible congressional campaign, but Watkins’ campaign manager Tony Teora told VICE News that the reason for the shortfall is a delay in accepting donations.
“We really only started fundraising in December—we had a lot of challenges getting funding solutions online, we built two solutions internally,” Teora said, claiming that mainstream platforms had refused to allow Watkins use their services.
Of the $32,000 raised, less than half remains in the coffers after expenses. The vast majority of those expenses are Teora’s salary, which amounts to $13,500 over the three-month period.
The one other major expense Watkins incurred was a $1,000 charge for a booth he rented at the conspiracy-laden ‘Health and Freedom’ conference that took place in Phoenix last month.
When asked about the small sums Watkins’ campaign had raised so far, Teora was bullish, claiming the QAnon influencer would be able to suddenly and radically increase his fundraising power when needed—though he didn’t say how.
“We are confident we can mount a credible campaign because all our donors are small donors, the average donation was around I think $53,” Teora told VICE News on Tuesday. “It shows Ron has real support from working class people (voters), not rich lobbyist donors.”
Teora also said he plans on “ramping up the fundraising” effort. So far, however, there’s just a single event on Watkins’ diary, and it’s not even taking place in Arizona.
Called “Digital Disclosure,” the fundraiser is a $750-a-plate event featuring Watkins in conversation with NSA whistleblower Kirk Weibe at the Ahern Hotel in Las Vegas, the location of a major QAnon conference last October.
Numbers are limited to 25, but it doesn’t appear that the event is sold out, despite it being advertised for almost a month already.
The campaign manager
Watkins brought Teora on as campaign manager soon after announcing his decision to run.
Teora, who lived and worked in Japan for years and is also a science fiction author, does have some election experience: In 2014, and again in 2016, he ran for State Assembly in California. On both occasions he lost, but it was slightly more embarrassing in 2016 as he came in third in what was effectively a two-horse race.
During the 2016 campaign, Teora outed one of his opponents, Leo Hamels, as a Scientologist. As a result Hamels withdrew from the race, but because the ballots had already been printed, Hamel’s name still appeared and he came in second, with more than twice as many votes as Teora.
Teora first collaborated with Watkins on the latter’s AlienLeaks project, which was set up as a sort of WikiLeaks for top-secret UFO information.
That project went nowhere–even when Watkins luckily captured a UFO flying over his apartment in Hokkaido, Japan, weeks after the project launched—but the pair have continued to work together on a podcast, initially called Alien Agenda but now called NerveCenter-Pulse of the Nation.
The podcast began life as a UFO-focused project, but as Watkins’ campaign for Congress began, it switched to a more all-encompassing space to air grievances and conspiracy theories about pretty much all aspects of U.S. society.
Recent guests have included the conspiracy-peddling doctor Vladimir Zelenko, and director of the Plandemic films, Mikki Willis.
The blurb for the podcast claims Watkins and Teora “aren't afraid to ask politically incorrect questions or investigate what the MSM might want to label as ‘conspiracy theories.’”
One person who has known Teora for years, and who spoke to VICE News on the condition of anonymity because they fear backlash for speaking openly, summed him up like this:
“On a personal level, the man is deeply paranoid and a raging narcissist. He sees UFOs everywhere, all the time. He truly believes he has ‘special powers’ such as telepathy and remote viewing. He has long believed that vaccines cause autism. He's a 911 truther. He sees ‘chem spray’ every time he looks up at the sky. It was scary being around him at times, given his volatile temper and bizarre beliefs.”
In an email statement responding to these allegations about his beliefs, Teora confirmed the claims made by his acquaintance.
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