For decades, the Arizona Republican Party was synonymous with the state’s senior Sen. John McCain. Arizonans loved McCain’s military heroism and noted willingness to buck party leaders, sending him to the House twice and to the Senate five times. His death, from brain cancer in August 2018, was a moment of national grieving.
All of which makes this tweet, on January 1, from the Arizona Republican Party’s official Twitter account all the more shocking:
“As the sun sets on 2020, remember that we’re never going back to the party of Romney, Flake, and McCain. The Republican Party is now, and forever will be, one for the working man and woman! God bless.”
Uh, what? Or in the words of Meghan McCain, a co-host on “The View” and the late senator’s daughter: “Honestly whomever is running this Twitter account can go to hell.”
While the attempt to soil the reputation of a deceased senator (and decorated war hero) drew considerable national attention, the Arizona Republican Party has been using its Twitter feed to savage McCain and other non-Trump worshiping Republicans for a while now.
“How do we keep losing followers when we mention Mr. McCain,” the state party tweeted on December 22. “But we gain many, many followers when we say #FightForTrump. Oh well, it’s only Twitter!”
State party chair Kelli Ward, in response to a tweet thread by Arizona Republican Gov. Doug Ducey defending his handling of the state’s presidential election, told the governor to “#sthu” (shut the hell up), adding: “Election Integrity is missing in Arizona. Period.”
Which, well, wow.
This turn to Trumpism – and away from the likes of McCain – can be traced most recently to Ward’s election as state party chair in January 2019. To claim the job, she upset the sitting state party chairman – a McCain ally. For Ward, it marked a long-awaited positive result in her attempts to unseat the party establishment in the state.
Ward ran a primary against McCain back in 2016, but the incumbent won easily. Ward drew considerable national attention in that race for her suggestion that McCain was a) old and b) might die in office. “I’m a doctor. The life expectancy of the American male is not 86. It’s less,” she told Politico.
Ward kept up that drumbeat. Within days of McCain going public with his cancer diagnosis in July 2017, Ward, who was running in a primary against Sen. Jeff Flake (R) at the time, said this:
“I hope that Senator McCain is going to look long and hard at this, that his family and his advisers are going to look at this, and they’re going to advise him to step away as quickly as possible. So that the business of the country and the business of Arizona being represented at the federal level can move forward.”
In 2018, when McCain’s family announced he had decided to end treatment for the cancer, a Ward staffer even questioned the timing of the announcement – suggesting that it was designed to negatively impact Ward’s primary campaign.
“I think they wanted to have a particular narrative that they hope is negative to me,” the candidate agreed. Later, she apologized for the comment.
(Flake was later forced into retirement after publicly urging Republicans to break with Trump. Ward lost the subsequent primary to establishment favorite Martha McSally.)
Seen through this lens, the drastic anti-McCain, anti-establishment, pro-Trump turn of the Arizona state party makes a heck of a lot more sense. Ward has been fighting with McCain (and other establishment figures) for years and, after repeatedly losing quixotic primary challenges to them, she hopped aboard the Trump train and rode it to victory.
And now that Ward has some power, she is using it to reshape the Arizona Republican Party’s present and future.
A look through the state party’s Twitter feed over the past month makes that crystal clear, as it not only appears to aim to invoke not only Trump’s mentality but also the way he tweets.
“The Arizona Legislature should DE-CERTIFY the false results of the 2020 election until at which time a full and thorough audit of the vote can be performed,” the account tweeted over the weekend. “Do it quick. Make Democrats lose their collective minds as they rage against transparency and integrity. Big win for AZ!”
That same day the state party tweeted this after the news of California Rep. Devin Nunes (R) being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom broke: “Serious question: Is there anyone on earth more deserving of the Presidential Medal of Freedom than @DevinNunes?”
And then, earlier Tuesday, the account tweeted a video of Ward repeating “her call for the Arizona State Legislature to decertify the so-called results of the 2020 Presidential Election until a full and transparent audit can be completed.”
What happened to the Arizona Republican Party? Trump happened. And Ward’s rhetoric and actions as chair of the state GOP are a reminder that the President’s impact will be felt long after he leaves office on January 20.
CNN’s Allison Gordon contributed to this analysis.