The Trump era did more damage to the Republican Party in Arizona than almost anywhere else. Over the past two years, Republicans lost both Senate seats. In November, the state flipped Democratic in a presidential race for the first time since 1996. The GOP state party chair is currently at war with the governor.
President Donald Trump’s fingerprints are on all of it, yet the state party will likely pass a resolution next week to officially “support & thank” the president. It’ll also vote on measures to censor three prominent Republicans who were deemed insufficiently beholden to Trump: Gov. Doug Ducey, former Sen. Jeff Flake and Cindy McCain, the wife of the late senator.
The adulation is an expression of GOP grassroots loyalty to Trump, but it’s also a portrait of a party that’s run aground in service to him. His defeat has triggered attempts to adopt an even harder pro-Trump line, raising questions about the party’s ability to compete in an increasingly diverse state that’s edging leftward.
“The craziness from the state Republican Party … it’s pretty embarrassing,” said Kirk Adams, a former Republican state House speaker and former chief of staff to Ducey. “We have been fed a steady diet of conspiracy theories and stolen election rhetoric and, really, QAnon theories from the state Republican Party since before the election, but certainly after.”
He said, “What’s … consequential is the effect the state Republican Party is having on the Republican brand in the state of Arizona.”
The fallout has been swift. Several thousand Arizona Republicans have abandoned the party since the U.S. Capitol riot that Trump helped to incite, with the majority of the defectors re-registering without a designated party, according to state elections officials. Business leaders are publicly recoiling from the GOP after party officials thrust Arizona into the center of Trump’s failed effort to overturn the election results, further dividing an already fractured party.
“Let us be clear: we find the weeks of disinformation and outright lies to reverse a fair and free election from the head of the Arizona Republican Party and some elected officials to be reprehensible,” read a full-page ad in The Arizona Republic this week from Greater Phoenix Leadership, a group of CEOs. “The political party organization and these elected officials, which some of us have supported in the past, have again embarrassed Arizona on a national stage.”
The hard-right pull of the Arizona GOP was evident long before the rise of Kelli Ward, the state party’s current chairwoman and fierce Trump ally. Arizona is the state of Joe Arpaio and Evan Mecham; in 2014, the party censured Sen. John McCain.
Ward is not the first chair to feud with moderate elected officials of her party. But for a party that lost so much ground during Trump’s tenure, the Arizona GOP is now operating as an almost wholly-owned subsidiary of the outgoing president. Rep. Andy Biggs, chair of the House Freedom Caucus, played a leading role in congressional Republicans’ effort to challenge the electoral vote count in Arizona – undermining the vote in his own state. Following the riot perpetrated by Trump supporters at the Capitol, the official Twitter account of the Arizona GOP has been referring to Trump as the #PresidentofPeace.
“Ignore the false claims against President Trump and against supporters of President Trump,” Ward said in a video address this week, at a time when at least some establishment Republicans were beginning to break with Trump. “President Trump has never, never called for violence. All he’s called for is peaceful protest to demand the integrity of the vote.”
In an email on Friday, Zachery Henry, a state party spokesman, decried what he called “a concerted effort being made by the Left and many in the media to brand all Republicans as domestic terrorists because of the destructive actions of a few bad apples — including Antifa enthusiast John Sullivan — which our Republican Party has already totally condemned.”
Bill Gates, a Republican Maricopa County supervisor, said “we’ve always had different members in different places on the spectrum and we’ve always had what you would call a hard right contingent. But here in the last few years we’ve seen that contingent come to the point now where they’re running the party apparatus.”
In that climate, Arizona Republicans who fail to toe the pro-Trump line are finding knives in their backs. Ward told Ducey on Twitter to “#STHU,” or shut up, when he defended the integrity of the vote in the state, and the party is considering censuring him for enacting restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic, which is raging in Arizona.
Flake, according to the proposal to censure him, “has joined with those who condemn President Trump.” Cindy McCain’s sins, in addition to backing Joe Biden, include supporting “leftist causes such as gay marriage, growth of the administrative state, and others that run counter to Republican values, a Republican form of government, and the U.S. Constitution.”
Given the party’s losses, more traditionalist Republicans are appalled the state GOP had nothing better to do.
“So, the state party is picking fights with the standard-bearers of the party for no good reason other than to show an outgoing president that Kelli Ward has his back,” said Barrett Marson, a Republican political strategist in Arizona. “The Republican Party does need to have a bit of a reckoning with itself. Will it be the party that follows a demagogue, or will it be the party that follows conservative principles? And so far, some in the leadership apparatus have chosen demagoguery over conservative principles.”
In many states, Republican and Democratic parties alike are controlled by their more activist wings. Intraparty feuding is not uncommon. And in the past, when Arizona was more reliably conservative, state Republicans might not have paid a price for disunity in their ranks.
But that no longer appears to be true. The Arizona Republican Party has regressed amid the state’s changing demographics. On top of losing the presidential election in November, Republicans saw Democrat Mark Kelly take down Sen. Martha McSally, just two years after Kyrsten Sinema put Arizona’s other Senate seat in the Democratic column.
McCain, in a statement, said she was “not surprised by the continuous insults and personal attacks from Arizona GOP Chairman Kelli Ward. She’s shown how attacking Republicans like me can impact elections — her involvement in both Senate elections to replace Jeff Flake and my husband John McCain, two regular targets of her personal attacks, resulted in Democrat wins.”
As chairwoman of the party, McCain said, Ward “managed to turn Arizona blue in November for the first time since 1996. Maybe she should be reminded that my husband never lost an Arizona election since his first win in 1982; he and Governor Ducey are the last two Republicans to win statewide races in Arizona.”
Censuring her — or any other winning Republican — may not have its intended effect.
T.J. Shope, a Republican state senator, said the politicians targeted by the GOP “tend to have a lot more in common with the average person on the street than the folks doing the censuring.”
He said, “We need to go ahead and get to a point in time we’re going to realize we need to grow the party in a positive way once again.”
The election cycle was not all bad for the Arizona GOP. Registered Republicans in the state still outnumber Democrats by about 3 percentage points. Republicans held their majority in the statehouse despite some projections that Democrats were likely to retake it. And some Republican Party officials believe that the controversy surrounding ballot counting in the state will further energize the base.
More than before, said Shelley Kais, chairwoman of the Republican Party in Arizona’s Pima County, local Republicans are “applying to become precinct committeemen, they’re offering to sit on committees, they’re looking at running for office.”
Of the resolution to censure McCain, Kais said, “It’s always a good thing for people to have their day in court, let’s be sure about that, whether it’s the … die-hard activists of the party or whether it’s Cindy McCain.”
But after the losses inflicted on the party last year, other Republicans say it’d be better if the GOP just left the internal conflicts alone.
“My personal opinion is that we just ought to settle back and take our lumps and start fresh,” said Delos Bond, chairman of the Republican Party in Apache County. “I think we ought to try to heal ourselves … stop worrying about the McCain issues and the Flake issues and try some unity there.”
“We need to just buckle down and work on the issues that our platform stands for,” Bond said. “We’ve wandered away from those issues and worried too much about the issues between fellow Republicans … McCain’s gone. Let’s get over it. And Flake’s gone. Let’s get over it.”