On a Sunday evening in mid-September, the air outside Volcanoes Stadium in Keizer, Ore., tasted like charcoal.
The minor league baseball stadium sits along Interstate 5, just 30 miles from the Beachie Creek wildfire, which three days earlier had wiped out much of the town of Detroit, population 200. Smoke still hung heavy in the air. As 20 or so cars arrived at the outdoor stadium's parking lot, the Air Quality Index had climbed to 590—nearly double what the Environmental Protection Agency deems "hazardous."
Yet almost 50 Oregonians turned out—to hear from speakers who promised to reveal who started the fires and what secrets the smoke was hiding.
Adjacent to the stadium stands a warehouse with batting cage netting draped from the ceiling and artificial turf on the floor. Inside, guests with $20 tickets arrived from Baker City, Tillamook and Crook County.
One of the early speakers was Captain Roy Davis, an author and self-described "digital soldier" who lives on a boat in Florida and has authored two books: QAnon and the Great Awakening and White Hats, Swamp Creatures and QAnon: A Who's Who of Spygate. He whipped up the crowd with the current vocabulary of conspiracy.
"Everything that we're seeing right now," Davis told the crowd, "from impeachment, virus masks, riots, wildfires: It's all part of the cover-up to keep guilty people's crimes from coming to the public."
Officially, the gathering was billed as a fundraiser for a U.S. Senate candidate named Jo Rae Perkins. But it was also a highly unusual gathering for supporters of a growing conspiracy movement called QAnon, which the FBI has designated a domestic terrorist threat. The event page advertised three featured speakers—all major figures in the online forums where QAnon concocts intricate stories about how President Donald Trump is defeating child sex traffickers.
Perkins isn't completely unknown to Oregon voters; she's lost three congressional races since 2014. But this May, she received national media attention after she won the Republican nomination to challenge incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley.
On primary night, Perkins posted a video to Twitter pledging support to QAnon. After that, nearly every major American media outlet wanted a piece of Perkins.
Perkins doesn't have a good chance of winning in November. (Among other things, Oregon's Democratic voter registration outnumbers Republicans by 280,000.) But she's been successful in a different way.
Her candidacy is empowering a group of far-right conspiracy theorists who have, until now, mingled primarily in online message boards like 4chan, 8chan and 8kun. She's one of 22 congressional candidates on the November ballot, according to a Media Matters report, who have publicly supported a movement that espouses, among other baseless theories, that John F. Kennedy Jr. is still alive and attending Trump rallies and that Hillary Clinton ran a child sex-trafficking ring out of the basement of a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C.
That Perkins can mix this kind of rhetoric into a congressional campaign is a reflection of Oregon's failing Republican Party—one that is unable to put up a serious challenger to Merkley and other Democratic incumbents. A weakened GOP allowed QAnon inside the party tent. Sweeping its adherents back out may prove difficult.
It's not easy to see inside the Perkins campaign. She's declined several interview requests from WW dating back to May, and she barred the media from her Keizer fundraiser.
WW paid $40 for two tickets and attended the event anyway.
Inside, we found Perkins and three prominent activists of QAnon saying Oregon has become ground zero for a Democratic takeover of America.
"What's the one state that President Trump mentions every time?" Perkins asked. "He mentions Oregon. We are on the map. We might only have seven electoral votes. Let me tell you why Oregon is so important: antifa."
The crowd knew exactly what she was talking about. They nodded their heads. They'd seen it on the internet.
The 50 or so people sat inches apart from one another in red plastic folding chairs. None wore masks. Nearly all were white. One young couple, toting an infant, sported matching football jerseys with the phrase "Team Q" on the back and the number 17. Q is the 17th letter of the alphabet. (For more on what QAnon espouses, see "The Funnel Cloud.")
One group kibitzed that the man standing in front of the main entrance with a pistol on his hip was there "in case antifa showed up." They appeared to be joking.
Some 90 minutes later, a QAnon activist named Scott Kesterton wasn't joking when he said: "Portland isn't just weird. Portland is an epicenter for corruption, for drugs, for sex trafficking. [Perkins] understands that Portland is a corrupt cesspool."
For more than a year, anyone attending a conservative rally in Oregon—against a cap on carbon emissions, or a requirement to wear masks—could find a handful of people at the edges of the event carrying signs with cryptic messages featuring the letter Q.
Take Beverly Jenkins. On May 30, she attended the Hermiston Freedom Rally, a protest of COVID-19 stay-home orders. She stood by herself, a petite woman in red, white and blue checkered pants, carrying a posterboard cutout of a giant letter Q with the phrase "Where we go 1, we go all."
Jenkins, 57, says she has followed QAnon since 2017, when an anonymous poster known as "Q" published a theory to 4chan predicting the imminent arrest of Hillary Clinton. While her dismay toward the establishment has been growing over the years, a turning point for her was in March, when she was laid off from her waitressing job in LaGrande after Gov. Kate Brown ordered all restaurants and bars closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She says the virus is fake and that she gets much of her information from a website called Q Alerts.
"All QAnon is, they point you in the right direction and you have to research," Jenkins says. "A person's more apt to believe things when you research."
Jenkins believes the wildfires devastating the state were a coordinated effort by antifa and the Black Lives Matter movement, and that Brown and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler were in on it, too.
And Gov. Brown? "She's a flipping corrupt lady. She wasn't voted in. Oregon was primarily Republican until they passed mail-in voting. [The Democrats] cheat like hell. Do I have proof of it? No. But this is my theory and I believe in it."
Jo Rae Perkins took the stage in Keizer, wearing a royal blue campaign shirt with yellow font that read "Vote Jo Rae Perkins U.S. Senate," matching royal blue stretch pants and bright yellow heels—which, incidentally, matched her bright yellow Corvette parked in front of the stadium. Her hair, as always, was ruby red.
Perkins is charming and bubbly, a mother of two and a grandmother of 14. One supporter described her as "a breath of fresh air." She cracks self-deprecating jokes and tells funny stories that wander off leisurely before meandering back to the topic at hand. She's nearly always grinning.
Perkins told her supporters she isn't as clumsy as she might appear in the media. In fact, Perkins said, she knows exactly what she's doing.
"As long as they think that I'm nuts, and as long as they think that I'm crazy, I'm a tinfoil hat and I'm really stupid, they're not going to spend money on me. And that's a good thing," Perkins told the crowd in Keizer on Sept. 13. "This seat is very winnable, and the more that Merkley talks, the better it is for us."
It can be difficult to tell how committed to QAnon Perkins is, exactly. That's because, when it serves her, Perkins distances herself from the rhetoric of 4chan and Pizzagate, dismissing it as a silly distraction.
"NBC called me and said they wanted to talk to me about 'The Q,'" Perkins told the crowd. "And I said no. I said, 'I want to discuss the issues, because we have more important things going on in our state and in our country.'"
Instead, she recounted why she decided to run for office in 2009. She was on a business trip. In her hotel room, she was watching a television program showing U.S. senators being sworn into office and had a moment of clarity.
"I looked at the TV and I said, 'What an incredible honor, to be sworn in as a U.S. senator,'" Perkins told the crowd in Keizer. Her throat caught for a moment as she started to tear up. "And friends, I audibly heard a 'whoosh' come into the hotel room and, I can tell you, it was not the heater. And it comes from the ceiling. And I audibly heard, 'Plan on making a run to go to Washington, D.C., U.S. Congress, five-to-six-year time frame.'
"Clearly, we're well beyond five [to] six years," Perkins continued. "But God didn't say quit."
Perkins' political career began began in 1994 when she ran unsuccessfully for the Albany, Ore., city council. Sixteen years later in 2010, she ran unsuccessfully for Albany mayor. At 64, she has run in—and lost—three federal races since 2014, once for the Senate and twice for Oregon's 4th Congressional District.
Perkins is a graduate of Oregon State University and a real estate agent. She once had a financial planner license, but it was permanently revoked in 2010, according to the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards.
It's unclear how, exactly, Perkins first became involved in QAnon. In her prior bids for office, she did not embrace the conspiracy theory. Her social media shows interest in Q starting in November 2019, when she tweeted out a link to a book, Revolution Q, along with the comment, "This looks like a very interesting book."
On the evening of the May primaries, after declaring victory, she posted a now-deleted video to her Twitter account. (She later expressed regret for deleting the video and blames her campaign for telling her to do it.)
"Hi, my name is Jo Rae Perkins, candidate for the U.S. Senate in Oregon," Perkins says in the video, while seated in front of a bookcase. "Where we go one, we go all. I stand with President Trump. I stand with Q and the team. Thank you, anons, thank you, patriots. Together, we can save our republic."
For about a week, Perkins was a national story. Her brief fame has not translated to successful fundraising.
So far, she's raised nearly $37,000 in contributions to her 2020 campaign, according to Federal Election Commission filings. (Nearly $12,000 of that came from Perkins or her husband.) Merkley has $9.4 million.
Most of her donations are small, including 41 contributions for $17—the magic number for Q supporters. (On her campaign site, Perkins specifically offers a donation option for $17.)
Perkins' largest contribution comes from a Corvallis man and former police officer named Kevin Conzo, the author of Thin Blue Crimes, a novel about the murder of a police officer's son. Conzo gave Perkins $2,700 in June 2019.
Reached by phone, Conzo told WW that he's not a partisan donor and that he's also given money to a Democratic candidate in a different Oregon race. "I'm lukewarm towards Jo Rae. I'm going to be voting for her. But am I going to be running down the street with a Jo Rae sign? Probably not," Conzo said. "I don't follow QAnon, to be honest."
Conzo was also surprised to learn he is Perkins' largest donor.
"It is what it is, I guess," Conzo said. "Crap."
Others are more enthusiastic.
Robert Sisson traveled over 40 miles from Portland to hear Shady Grooove speak at Perkins' event.
Sisson, a Newport resident who declined to share his age and profession, said he is a QAnon supporter and believes, among other things, that there's a Jewish mafia (of which Jeffrey Epstein was a front man), that John F. Kennedy Jr. might still be alive, and that Hunter Biden was involved in a money transfer to fund human sex trafficking.
And to Sisson, Shady Grooove is an ally.
Grooove says he is from Albany, originally from North Carolina. He has a brown, frizzy ponytail, an endearing lisp and a slight Southern accent. His real identity is unknown. What matters to Sisson and others is that Grooove co-hosts a YouTube conspiracy channel called IntheMatrixxx. The channel has almost 75,000 subscribers and broadcasts livestreams with guests who discuss various conspiracy theories. (Perkins is a regular.)
While Perkins shrugged off QAnon in her speech, her invitation to have Grooove talk spoke volumes.
Grooove wasted no time telling the audience that QAnon was a nameless, faceless organization that would protect its "digital soldiers" as civil unrest escalated after Election Day.
"I would be willing to go anywhere Donald Trump sent me because I believe this man is fighting for us," Grooove said. "I'm here to tell you this and I want to prepare you for it. It's not going to end on Nov. 3. It's going to continue. How long this continues? It's up to us."
Sisson is a big fan of Grooove, enough to drive an hour south from Portland in the direction of a wildfire. He says he first heard of Perkins when she was interviewed on Grooove's YouTube channel.
"I think she's already had a lasting impact," Sisson says. "She's a person of conviction. I can enthusiastically get behind her."
For him, the Perkins event was a remarkable experience considering the fact that Q is "mainly the internet thing." He said that, for the first time, he was in a room full of people who agreed with him.
"It was refreshing. I've never experienced that in my lifetime," he said. "I'm sure that event was the only event like that in Oregon."
That Jo Rae Perkins is a nominee for a U.S. Senate seat suggests that something isn't working in Oregon's Republican Party. It has tried and failed a half-dozen times in the past two decades to rebrand itself and find a path to statewide victory. Twice since 2018, the party has tried to recall Gov. Brown and failed to gather enough signatures.
There isn't a healthy moderate wing of the party to fight against the extremism of Perkins and others. Today, all that's left is the base, alienated and angry.
Oregon GOP consultant Jim Pasero says Oregon Republicans feel defeated and that more serious candidates don't run because campaigning is an immense amount of work likely to end in defeat.
"We're a one-party state," Pasero says. "There really isn't a Republican Party right now. We hope that there will be."
Others, however, are joining Perkins. Another congressional candidate on the November ballot, Amy Ryan Courser, spoke at Perkins' event. Courser, who is challenging incumbent Congressman Kurt Schrader, repeated the falsehood that antifa might be responsible for setting wildfires across the state.
"You cannot tell me that we have over 100 straight nights of rioting, looting and anarchy, and all of the sudden our entire state is under fire?" Courser told the crowd. "You don't think there's a connection there? I believe there is and I am going to fight for Oregon."
One longtime former lawmaker is comfortable enough with Q that he served as emcee for Perkins' Keizer event.
"I would say I'm a curious watcher" of QAnon, says former state Rep. Jeff Kropf (R-Sublimity), who served for eight years in the Oregon House, between 1999 and 2007. "There is a real deep state, in my opinion, and I think it benefits the deep state for this idea that the QAnon movement would just be discredited as a bunch of crazy people."
Kropf said he's been friends with Perkins since the '90s. He's unsure whether Perkins' strategy of publicly embracing Q will help or hinder her campaign.
"It's a very unconventional method to get elected to the U.S. Senate, let's put it that way," Kropf says. "But the reality is, Trump has thrown out the book on traditional politics for getting elected."
One notable aspect of the Keizer fundraiser was just how normal it felt. More normal, in fact, than much of what's happened this year.
Atop the green turf in the warehouse, people of all ages, including families, mingled and ate Papa John's pizza. Country music played quietly on the speakers.
For a moment, it felt like an oasis from the hazardous air—and turbulent world—outside those walls. It seemed for a second as though COVID-19 didn't exist, and that the wildfires that destroyed entire forests were just a nightmare—the kind you wake up from, heart pounding and awash with relief, realizing it was all just a bad dream.
But as the hours crept on, the smoke inevitably seeped in through two sets of open doors, and the air inside eventually tasted like that outside. Some people coughed.
Another VIP of the Q movement who Perkins invited was Scott Kesterson, whose Twitter profile says he is an award-winning videographer from Eugene who has become a prominent QAnon activist. Kesterson couldn't make it to the event in person. So he prerecorded a 20-minute speech that was played aloud on a boombox sitting on a stool with a microphone placed in front of it.
Kesterson also said antifa started the fires—so Republicans would be driven out of their homes and unable to vote in November. "We're seeing tactics that antifa has used to burn and intimidate spread across the state and literally set fire to one of our greatest natural resources: our forests."
The crowd of 50 Oregonians nodded their heads as Kesterson's speech played. Some got up to get more pizza and soda.
"None of this was by accident. It was intended to create an unfair playing field to try to steal the election," Kesterson said. "Those that are in power want to do nothing more than to destroy [Oregon]."
This is what Jo Rae Perkins has achieved. Come November, whether Donald Trump wins or loses, many conservative Oregonians—particularly her supporters—will be convinced that Democrats tried to steal the election and that they were willing to destroy entire towns with fires, orchestrate months of civil unrest and introduce a fake virus just to do it.
"They're not gonna shut me up," said Shady Grooove. "They're not gonna shut any of you up. And they're not gonna shut Jo Rae Perkins up."