President Donald Trump’s continuing fraudulent attacks against the reality of his election loss have pitted Republicans in Arizona against each other, with some in the party fearing the ongoing and public rift will open the door to further gains by Democrats beyond 2020.
GOP party leaders and elected officials who’ve gone all-in for Trump, backed by right-wing media, have relentlessly attacked those who can’t bring themselves to go along with the lame-duck President’s refusal to concede.
To be sure, similar splits exist across the GOP nationwide. But the infighting in Arizona offers a clear picture of why some Republicans fear that if Trump continues stirring up and directing his followers once he’s out of office, the party may cripple itself at the state and local level. The discord within the party could quickly hamstring the GOP as it enters a crucial election cycle: Republicans have lost both of Arizona’s Senate seats in the last two elections, and are entering 2022 with both the governor’s office and a Senate seat on the ballot. The divides between more moderate Arizona Republicans and Trump allies like state GOP chairwoman Kelli Ward could lead to bitter primaries that could hurt the party’s hopes of fielding strong candidates in the fall.
“It has become very toxic,” said one Republican state lawmaker, who would only speak on condition of not being named. “Eighty percent with you isn’t enough for some people… Trump is so popular in the party and such an influence, that anyone who tries to purge Trump himself or his memory will utterly fail and go nowhere.”
Biden’s victory in Arizona was narrow, by just over 10,000 votes out of 3.4 million – and quickly led to unfounded claims of fraud, and a flurry of electoral lawsuits, by Trump allies. And despite loss after loss in state and federal courts, many party leaders refuse to believe that Biden has become just the second Democrat (after Bill Clinton in 1996) to win the state’s Electoral College votes in the last 70 years.
“Some Republicans have decided to file for divorce from reality, facts be damned,” said Barrett Marson, a publicist who worked for Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey’s political action committee in the 2020 election.
Though Ducey, a Republican, eagerly campaigned with the President on his visits here, after the election he also defended the integrity of Arizona’s vote in the face of attacks by Trump and his allies. That led state GOP chair Ward to tell Ducey via tweet to #STHU (shut the hell up). Ducey told reporters that “the feeling is mutual,” and suggested she follow her own advice.
Perhaps most notable in the subsequent salvos was a tweet from the governor’s chief of staff, Daniel Scarpinato, to “Freedom Caucus” chair Rep. Andy Biggs calling him nuts and ending, “Enjoy your time as a permanent resident of Crazytown.”
At the same time as Republicans did well in down-ballot races, Trump’s hard-core following in Arizona wasn’t enough for him to win the state this year. Nearly as shocking, to Republicans, was Democrat Mark Kelly’s win in the US senate race over Sen. Martha McSally. McSally, after two terms in the US House, narrowly lost a Senate race to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema in 2018; Ducey later appointed her to the late Sen. John McCain’s seat. She lost to Kelly in the race to serve out the last two years of McCain’s term by nearly 79,0000 votes.
As one GOP official groused, “The last time Arizona had two Democrats in the US Senate, the nation was on edge waiting for little Ricky to be born on ‘I Love Lucy.’” That was in 1953.
Normally, Kelly would be seen as vulnerable in 2022, because in Arizona, as elsewhere, the GOP historically has outpaced the Democratic Party in midterm turnout.
But the GOP infighting could change that calculus.
“I can only think at the moment Sen. Kelly is rubbing his hands and thinking how lucky he is this internal warfare is going on in the Republicans,” said former GOP Congressman Jim Kolbe. He backed Biden for president this year, publishing an opinion piece in the Arizona Daily Star calling on Republicans in the state “to reject Donald Trump and change the poisonous direction he has taken the party.”
Former state attorney general Grant Woods, a lifelong Republican who says he left the party because of Trump, thinks the Arizona GOP has put itself in an impossible place.
“Right now, I’m confident the governor could not win a primary. He’s entered into Jeff Flake territory; he’s getting it from the right and the left…[And] You’re not going to beat Kelly with a Trumper candidate in the general election, but could anyone else win the primary?”
Citing two of Trump’s biggest supporters in the state’s congressional delegation, Woods added that if Rep. Paul Gosar or Biggs “or one of those sorts runs, they’re going to get stomped,” in the general election.
Mike Noble, chief of research for OH Predictive Insights, an Arizona polling firm, says the data are clear: “A base-only strategy will not get it done for the GOP statewide.” He said that the 2020 vote here was effectively a referendum, rejecting Trump even as Republicans held on to their 31-29 margin in the state house, and lost one seat but kept control of the state senate.
Noble said he considers Arizona a “magenta” state – that is, the very lightest shade of red.
“The X factor out there is Trump,” he said. “With a stroke of his thumb, he can raise funds overnight for someone, millions. If he stays involved and helps a Trump state, it could cause a lot of damage for the GOP, exhausting resources. It would be tough; Democrats, especially in Arizona, are very united, compared to Republicans.”
Such fears aren’t lost on some Trump backers within the party.
“Republicans in this state got a wake-up call; we have to do everything we can to find unity going into the next cycle,” said Michael Burke, GOP party chair for Pinal County, southeast of Phoenix. Burke sent a letter to Ducey in November signed by 14 of the GOP’s 15 party chairs, calling on the governor to convene a special session to look into allegations of voting irregularities. The fifteenth party chair, Rae Chornenky, of Maricopa County, resigned a week earlier under pressure from the state chair, Ward, after she failed to observe a pre-election test of voting equipment, including ballot tabulators from Dominion Voting Systems, in her county.
Still, Burke says of the party divisions, “there will be remnants of that for a long time, but it will blow over.”
Marson, the publicist, agrees, saying, “People can move past things after two full years. There’s a lot of time to heal the wounds of 2020.”
Others see less prospect of any end to the infighting.
“The rift isn’t, ‘let’s find a way to get along;’ the rift is, you need to have the proper role of government restored,” said state Senator-elect Kelly Townsend, who is aligned with Ward and signed a resolution asking Congress to recognize a slate of 11 pretend GOP electors.
Townsend drew fire for a December 9 tweet seen by some as an implicit threat to the governor. After Ducey tweeted of Republicans that “We don’t burn stuff down. We build things up,” Townsend responded quoting the Bible verse, “Mene, Mene, Tekel Upharsin,” (God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end. You have been weighed and found wanting), in which writing appears on the wall to the Babylonian King Belshazzar just before his death.
Townsend said she simply meant the tweet as a criticism of Ducey’s actions; but she also said of the governor, “How do you trust someone like that again?” and reiterated her belief that investigations into the election need to continue. “We should not turn our eyes away from this in the name of getting along to win.”
Ducey declined requests for an interview with CNN, as did Ward. Reps. Gosar and Biggs didn’t respond to interview requests.
On November 30, Ducey was in the midst of a public ceremony signing off on the certification of Arizona’s election results, awarding the state’s 11 electors to Biden, when his cell phone began playing “Hail to the Chief,” a ringtone Ducey told reporters he’d reserved for Trump. Ducey muted his phone and put it on the desk while he finished signing. Trump attacked shortly after, saying “Arizona will not forget what Ducey just did.”
Even the affirmation of Biden’s win by the Electoral College on December 14 made no difference: That day, Ward touted sending votes by an alternate set of 11 Arizona GOP pretend “electors” to “the proper entities in Washington D.C. for consideration by Congress,” and Townsend tweeted out a petition signed by 22 GOP state legislators and eight legislators-elect calling on Congress to accept the alternate slate of Trump electors. The next day, a GOP state senator, without evidence of fraud or misconduct, issued a subpoena seeking to force an audit of voting machines in Maricopa County, home to Phoenix. Throughout, the @AZGOP Twitter account has continued posting or retweeting attacks against what one tweet called “the surrender caucus.”
Ducey, who is term-limited under state law, has not said what his plans are for 2022. But it isn’t just the governor whose future is unclear.
“A lot of people are upset with legislators, with the governor, the attorney general. They think we have far more power to take pro-Trump measures than in fact we have,” said one GOP state lawmaker who asked not to be named; similarly, the lawmaker said, “No one wins with Covid if you’re a public official. Half the people think you’re trying to kill them, and half think you’re taking away their freedom.”
The self-inflicted angst now racking the Republican Party is a nationwide phenomenon. On December 15, writing in The New York Times, Evan McMullin, the former chief policy director for the House Republican Conference, called on Trump-averse Republicans to consider whether to form a new conservative party.
Woods, for his part, sees one, narrow path forward for Republicans in Arizona: Organizing the moderate wing.
“If you want to get rid of Kelli Ward, you’re going to have to organize, get regular people, spend the time and do it. They should do that. I don’t know if they will or not; it’s very difficult. It takes time and organizational skills… you have to spend the time, talk to people, motivate them. Moderation is a relative term. Being more moderate than Kelli Ward doesn’t take a lot. But it’s always more difficult to organize around the centrist,” he said.
“You never see parades with people holding signs saying, ‘moderation now,” Wood added, “even though that’s where most people are.”