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Staff Disputes, Fiery Allegations Mire Joe Kent's Congressional Campaign
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Staff Disputes, Fiery Allegations Mire Joe Kent’s Congressional Campaign

The campaign denies that text messages indicating plans to commit election fraud—provided by a fired former campaign manager—are real.

In September, Donald Trump-endorsed congressional candidate Joe Kent told The Dispatch that “election integrity” is his “number one” campaign issue in his bid to unseat six-term GOP Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler in Washington’s 3rd Congressional District.

But his former campaign manager Byron Sanford says that if Kent is truly focused on election integrity, he should start with his own campaign. 

In early April, Sanford told The Dispatch that days before Kent fired him in early December, Kent’s then-field director and now campaign manager Ozzie Gonzalez texted him via the encrypted messaging app Signal about his plans to use cigarettes and pizza to register homeless people and undocumented immigrants to vote, then sort through their ballots to ensure they chose Joe Kent as their desired candidate.  

The right-wing blog Red Voice Media first published screenshots of the texts on Thursday, writing that “the allegations against Kent are both heavy and concerning,” although the article does not detail any in-depth verification process reporters typically use to independently authenticate text messages. The campaign offered Red Voice Media no formal comment on the allegations beyond Gonzalez’s assurance that “off the record right now, there’s no validity to them.”

The campaign wasn’t as close-lipped when speaking with The Dispatch earlier this month. “We’ve been through this before,” Kent, a square-jawed former Green Beret, CIA operations officer, and Gold Star husband, said in an interview on April 9 when asked about the texts and Sanford. “This is why I got rid of the guy—I just simply couldn’t trust him.” Both Kent and Gonzalez claim the messages are fake. 

It was in the process of attempting to verify the authenticity of the Signal messages that The Dispatch discovered the drama within the Kent campaign: Gonzalez, the brains behind the alleged scheme, insists Sanford’s claims are invented. Sanford, the fired campaign manager, admitted to falsely accusing the Kent campaign of doctoring other Signal messages to hurt his reputation. 

The disputed text messages are issues inside the campaign. Externally, Kent has faced criticism for ties to white nationalists and come under fire for views he has expressed on foreign policy. He’s hoping Trump’s assurance to voters that “Joe will be a warrior for the America First agenda” will get him across the finish line.

‘I’m Literally Going to Steal the Election’ 

Earlier this month, Sanford began providing The Dispatch screenshots of the messages that became the subject of the Red Voice Media report. The Dispatch began trying to verify the disputed Signal screenshots weeks ago by video-calling Sanford as he showed the originating phone number for each message below. (Signal users must link their accounts to phone numbers to verify their identity.) Each message appeared to come from Gonzalez’s phone number, though The Dispatch could not determine who physically typed the messages. Below are the messages in full:

November 23:

GONZALEZ: If we implement an insane ballot harvesting operation in Joe’s district [GOP State Rep.] Jim [Walsh] should replicate it when he runs for governor. I’m 1000% down to register homeless people for cigarettes. I’ve been looking for nonprofits or existing orgs that will let us piggyback off their infrastructure but we’re just going to have to do it on our own. Should not be hard. Show up at a camp with 30 dominoes pizzas. Same with every ethnic minority. The stupider the better. Central Americans are perfect.

 November 23:

GONZALEZ: I’m also down to take all the trash bags of ballots back to my place to make sure they voted the correct way by shining a flash light through the envelope.

SANFORD: Keep me updated on the signs.

GONZALEZ: When I register homeless people I’m just going to pre print the street they live on & make them an email address I have access to. Then I can print their ballots off at home and bring back to them so they can fill them out.

November 30: 

SANFORD: Matt is trying to take Twitter access away from me for posting a Patrick Henry quote

I’m done.

GONZALEZ: He’s asking me for Vicki’s number. I told him you’re more likely to have it

SANFORD: Joe is going to lose

GONZALEZ: What’s making you say that

SANFORD: The people he associates with.

And the consultant antagonizing people 

I genuinely think it will be Jaime [Herrera Beutler] vs Brent [Heinrich]

GONZALEZ: I’m literally going to steal the election. I’ll collect every ballot I can with some trust worthy [sic] Patriot prayer guys and then we will sort through them in my basement and burn the bad ones.

I know hundreds of illegals through a soccer club my dad ran. They + their families are probably around 5,000. All of them will be voting for Joe Kent.

The Dispatch asked both Kent and Gonzalez about the messages in early April. “I don’t believe much of anything Byron says, he also had access to Ozzie’s phone & has manipulate [sic] screen shots before,” Kent told The Dispatch in a text message. “Based on that history with Byron I am denying that ozzie sent the messages.”

Gonzalez says the texts in question are “fake,” that Kent fired Sanford “for lying,” and claims that Sanford “was found with my cell phone several times when it went missing at events throughout the summer.” He added: “Most media was captured on my phone and it got passed around frequently.” (The Dispatch followed up with  Gonzalez multiple times to confirm that he denies sending those text messages, and that he directly accuses Sanford of sending them from his phone. Gonzalez referred The Dispatch back to his original statement.)

Gonzalez says it’s part of a pattern for Sanford, claiming that Sanford has prematurely left three recent campaign jobs—Gonzalez says he was “fired.” 

Sanford has an answer for those accusations, saying he was only volunteering for one of the campaigns and arguing that he left the other early to start a consulting firm. More directly, he maintains that he “never touched” Gonzalez’s phone and insists that the text messages are real and unedited.  

While questioning Sanford’s credibility, Gonzalez also shared with The Dispatch screenshots of text message conversations he claims he had with Sanford via Signal about the state of Sanford’s mental health, along with a handful of offensive remarks Sanford made in the past, including the phrases “fucking kikes,” “heil fucking Kent,” and “allah fucking akbar.” (The Dispatch used the same verification process outlined above to confirm the messages came from the Signal account associated with Sanford’s phone number.)

Sanford originally said he did not send the anti-Semitic messages. “Yes, I deny it,” he texted The Dispatch, suggesting that Gonzalez “doctored” the texts. But when pressed, he acknowledged sending the anti-Semitic texts. “I’ve donated to Jewish causes and I’m a staunch supporter of a one-state solution with Israel annexing the West Bank. I used a poor choice of wording to Ozzie but that’s how you work on Joe’s campaign with his current staff,” he told The Dispatch in a text message. “The reason Joe’s people are using this is because I told the truth about his campaign.” Red Voice Media published its story the next day.

If Sanford is telling the truth, the text messages in question fundamentally undermine the Kent campaign’s commitment to election integrity. But if Kent and his campaign manager are telling the truth, Sanford is a troubled and disgruntled former employee who was fired for good reason.

Either way, the Red Voice Media story hasn’t made much of a splash in the district—at least not yet. “I did see it and I don’t really have any thoughts on it,” Joel Mattila, chairman of the Clark County Republican Party, said in a brief interview on Sunday when asked about the article. 

Kent hasn’t publicly engaged with the story either, telling The Dispatch Monday that Red Voice Media has run several “attack pieces” on his campaign.

‘We Needed to Find a Way to Win’

That’s not to say Kent typically shies away from media attention. One of his first forays into the limelight came in mid-September, roughly three weeks after Trump endorsed his campaign. Kent traveled across the country to speak at the “Justice for J6” rally and protest the treatment of “political prisoners” who faced prison time for storming the U.S. Capitol nine months prior. “It’s banana republic stuff,” Kent told a small crowd of rally attendees in downtown Washington, D.C., referring not to the violent assault on the Capitol but to law enforcement efforts to find and punish the participants. 

He shared the stage that day with campaign consultant Matt Braynard, president of the political consulting firm External Affairs Inc. Braynard organized the September Justice for J6 rally in his capacity as executive director of Look Ahead America (LAA), a self-described non-partisan nonprofit whose mission is to lobby on behalf of “America First initiatives like fighting corporate censorship and ensuring voter integrity.” As The Dispatch reported in September, the event made headlines for its remarkably low turnout in light of all the media warnings and police preparation that preceded it. 

Braynard was a fixture in the emerging MAGA political world long before Kent hired him last spring, but he’s found controversy before. Braynard was laid off from the 2016 Trump campaign. More problematic, he attended last year’s America First Political Action Conference (AFPAC), an annual event of fringe right-wing extremists organized by the young white nationalist Nick Fuentes. (GOP Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar were both condemned by House GOP leadership for speaking at AFPAC this year.)  

Sanford and Braynard began working together in the spring of 2021, when Sanford was hired as deputy national field director for Look Ahead America before Braynard helped get him a job as Kent’s campaign manager. He maintains that he intended his work at LAA to be temporary. “I considered LAA to be a joke at the time and still do,” Sanford said in a text message to The Dispatch earlier this month. 

But Sanford says he quickly soured on Braynard’s involvement in the Kent campaign because of his poor decision-making and friction among the staff. “Joe already had Trump’s endorsement,” Sanford told The Dispatch. “We didn’t need to continue running a Trump prototype campaign. We needed to find a way to win.” 

Sanford says he advised Kent to “cease all communication with fascists associated to Braynard,” and “go after independent voters by talking about issues that actually matter in the district,” like logging and fishing.

Sanford says he wasn’t the only one worried about Braynard. He claims that Kaleigh Long, a fundraiser who consulted with the campaign, shared his concerns. (Long tells The Dispatch she now fundraises for Kent through a PAC and doesn’t want to comment on internal staff issues because she doesn’t want to damage Kent, whom she describes as a “true patriot” with a rational foreign policy. “My priority above anything is just getting Joe through,” she said in an interview earlier this month. “That is my priority over anything I think about Matt Braynard.” Kent confirmed that Long still fundraises for him through a PAC.) 

Some Republicans in the district have criticized the Kent campaign too. Nansen Malin, chair of the Pacific County Republican Party, says the Kent campaign’s tactics have raised eyebrows among moderate Republican activists in Washington’s 3rd District for months. “The Kent campaign is determined to bully people who choose not to give an endorsement before the primary,” she said in an interview.

Malin regularly organizes events for Republican candidates in Pacific County, and told The Dispatch that when Sanford was still working for the campaign, she approached both him and Gonzalez on numerous occasions last year about the way they conducted themselves. She said her frustrations came to a head in August, when the Kent campaign was a no-show at a local county fair after Pacific County GOP members had taken pains to set up a booth for his campaign.

“I repeatedly spoke with that campaign about their lack of civility, their lack of manners, and how they approached leadership and districts and the Republican organization,” Malin said.

Sanford says that in December he approached Kent with a proposal that would make victory in the August 2 jungle primary more likely: fire Braynard or cut back his role substantially.

Kent chose a third option: He fired Sanford instead. “Byron had told many of our campaign volunteers that Braynard was ruining the campaign,” Kent told The Dispatch in a recent text message. “Then he told me the volunteers came to him & they won’t work with Braynard. Byron was trying to get me to fire Braynard. I fired him for lying to me & trying to manipulate me.” (Braynard wouldn’t comment for this story.)

Sanford says he was troubled by Braynard’s attendance at the 2021 AFPAC conference, hosted by far-right provocateur Nick Fuentes, whose greatest hits include racist commentary about ethnic minorities and flirtation with Holocaust denial. (Sanford began working at Braynard’s Look Ahead America in spring of last year—well after Braynard’s 2021 attendance at AFPAC—but claims that he wasn’t aware of Braynard’s attendance at the conference until recently.)

But Kent sees no issue with Braynard’s AFPAC attendance. “Matt told me that he had been there in the year before, and then Matt decided not to go again for a bunch of different reasons you’d have to ask him about,” Kent said in an interview last month. But Kent said he “completely and totally” condemns anybody “who’s spewing any kind of, you know, racist anti-Semitic remarks.”

But those assurances came weeks after the white nationalist activist Fuentes said publicly he had talked with Kent on the phone and boosted his social media efforts. “We retweeted his stuff, we showed his stuff on Gab, we got his social media up off the ground,” Fuentes, who has called the Taliban a “conservative, religious force” and who attended the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, reportedly said on a livestream last month. 

Days later, Kent agreed to participate last month in a live-streamed YouTube interview with David Carlson, a young far-right activist associated with the American Populist Union, an organization of young nationalist populists that has endorsed his campaign. 

In the interview, Kent condemned Fuentes’ ideology and described the phone conversation they had last year as “pretty benign”—one that didn’t get into ideology. “We said, ‘America First!’ ‘America First!’ ‘You’re America First!’ without much detail, and that was kinda it.” 

What began with a discussion of Fuentes quickly evolved into a discussion of race, religion, immigration, and American identity tinged with white nationalist apologia. At different points in the conversation, for example, Carlson asked Kent if he believes white people are discriminated against and whether it’s acceptable for white people to create a special interest group. “If the constituency of the movement is young white Christian men, that would be true the same way the constituency of BLM is black people—you know that doesn’t mean it’s only for those people, right?” Carlson asks. “There’s also like white liberals that self-hate that are part of BLM.”

Kent responds:

Yeah, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with there being a white-people special interest group. They have to be very careful about the way they couch that and the way they frame that, obviously in terms of messaging and in terms of getting credibility. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. As far as me running as a candidate, running out there and saying this is all about white people, that does not seem like a winning strategy.

‘Keeping Zelensky and This Fight Going’

If the turmoil in Kent’s campaign raises questions about his management chops and his attempts to mollify race-hustlers on the right cause concern about his judgment, his recent comments on Russia and Ukraine have invited scrutiny of his policy priorities. Since the war broke out in late February, Kent has offered a sympathetic analysis of Vladimir Putin’s interests in Ukraine and echoed claims that Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky is a “thug.”

In late March, he spoke at “Up from Chaos,” an “emergency” foreign policy conference aimed at scaling back U.S. military involvement overseas, co-hosted by American Moment—an organization of young right-wing activists—and the American Conservative magazine. 

Kent shared the stage that day with a handful of Republican lawmakers, pundits, and political candidates in America First foreign policy wing of the GOP, including Sen. Rand Paul and Ohio U.S. Senate candidate J.D. Vance. “Putin has laid out what he wants in Ukraine—a decent starting point,” Kent said via video remarks to a crowd of roughly 100 people at the Marriott Marquis in downtown Washington, D.C.

U.S. military involvement overseas is personal to Kent, who served 11 combat deployments overseas, and whose late wife, former Navy cryptologist Shannon Kent, was killed in 2019 by a suicide bomber in Syria. For Kent, the war in Ukraine amounts to nothing more than a “local border dispute” and isn’t in the vital national security interest of the U.S., which he blames for prolonging the war.

“The only thing that’s keeping Zelensky and this fighting going—all the killing of the Ukrainians going on right now—I mean, that’s a lot of that is the fact that there’s Western aid being given to the Ukrainians,” Kent said in an interview with The Dispatch last month.  

Kent’s brand of non-interventionist foreign policy is popular with a small but vocal minority of Republican lawmakers and candidates, including “Up from Chaos” conference speakers and GOP Reps. Dan Bishop, Matt Rosendale, and Thomas Massie, three of eight House Republicans who voted last month against a bill suspending normal trade relations with Russia and Belarus. 

Republican leaders in Congress have struggled to keep those non-interventionist voices in the party at bay in recent weeks. For example, GOP Rep. Madison Cawthorn—another House Republican to vote against that trade bill—drew condemnation from House Republican leaders last month when he called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a “thug.” 

Kent doesn’t take issue with that characterization of Zelensky. “Americans are adorable, like, to think that a lot of leaders aren’t thugs just cracks me up—Putin’s a thug, Zelensky’s a thug, a lot of guys are thugs,” Kent said in an interview.

That foreign policy stance hasn’t won him any support from House GOP leaders like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, whose financial support for Herrera Beutler’s reelection campaign has kept her well ahead of every other candidate in the race. With help from McCarthy’s Take Back the House leadership PAC, Herrera Beutler has raised $2.9 million since January of last year. Her $2 million in the bank as of April 15 places her well ahead of Kent, the second-highest raising candidate in the district who has $1.1 million on hand and raised $1.9 million since launching his campaign. 

J. Miles Coleman, an election analyst with Sabato’s Crystal Ball, said Kent’s fundraising numbers are impressive for someone running against a six-term incumbent. “If he was the only anti-Beutler candidate, that would probably work more in his favor because the vote against her is being split up,” Coleman said. GOP candidate Heidi St. John, the third-highest fundraiser, is also running to the right of Herrera-Beutler and has raised roughly $808,000 in total.

For months now, Kent has tried to brand himself as a refreshing voice for the Republican voters of Washington’s 3rd District who want to relitigate the 2020 presidential election. “No matter where I go, people want to see that we’re not just going to let January [of 2021], or November of 2020, fade into the rearview mirror,” Kent told The Dispatch at the Justice for J6 rally in September. “I want a full congressional inquiry into the election of 2020.” His continued insistence that the election was stolen even months later has kept him in the good graces of Trump, who hosted a fundraiser for Kent at Mar-a-Lago in February. 

But it’s hard to run a campaign based on false claims about election integrity even if it wins you the support of the former president. And that’s especially true if your former campaign manager is accusing your team of a willingness to cut corners to win.

Audrey is a former reporter for The Dispatch.