Editor’s Note: Jon Gabriel is Editor-in-Chief of Ricochet.com and an opinion contributor to the Arizona Republic. Follow him on Twitter at @ExJon. The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.
Sen. John McCain may have died four years ago, but his spirit still looms over Arizona politics. That maverick attitude was still strong enough to defeat the state’s “America First” candidates.
Arizona conservatives long viewed McCain with suspicion, but there were enough centrist Republicans, Democrats and independents to keep him in office for more than three decades.
This time, GOP gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake foolishly cursed his name four days before the election.
“We don’t have any McCain Republicans in here, do we?” Lake asked from a campaign stage. “Alright, get the hell out,” she said, before adding, “Boy, Arizona has delivered some losers, haven’t they?”
Anyone who’s read classical literature knows that hubris invites Nemesis. And Nemesis showed up Tuesday night as media organizations called the race for Democrat Katie Hobbs.
Yes, Arizona has delivered some losers.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Most polls showed Lake leading Hobbs and Republican US Senate candidate Blake Masters within the margin of error against incumbent Sen. Mark Kelly. Add to that a truly atrocious campaign by the Democrats’ would-be governor, and most insiders expected a Lake victory at least.
She would have won, too, if only she welcomed those McCain Republicans still scattered across the voter rolls.
McCain Republicans overlap with those who crossed party lines to support President Joe Biden, turning the state blue in 2020. They tend to be centrist, business-friendly, middle- to upper-middle-class folks who live in the nicer neighborhoods of Phoenix and its close-in suburbs. They want lower taxes, efficient government and absolutely no drama.
They don’t make up the majority of the party – not by a long shot – but they exceed that single percentage point Lake needed to best Hobbs.
They heard Lake’s call to “get the hell out,” and did as they were told.
The numbers bear this out. Arizona State Treasurer Kimberly Yee easily won re-election by double digits despite a quality opponent. A traditional Republican, Yee focused on fiscal responsibility instead of Trump-era grievances.
As the count stands now, Yee outperformed Lake by about 118,000 votes. In other words, voters intentionally split their ticket to shun the MAGA candidate.
A similar dynamic played out with Arizona’s Congressional candidates. The GOP flipped two seats and will now send a Republican majority to Capitol Hill. In the State Legislature, the GOP is expected to hold onto their one-seat majority in both chambers.
Overall, the midterms turned out quite well for Arizona Republicans, as long as the candidates focused on traditional issues.
Senate candidate Blake Masters was less strident on McCain but didn’t prove compelling enough to beat the incumbent (and former astronaut) Sen. Mark Kelly. It didn’t help that Kelly held a 7-to-1 spending advantage over the previously unknown Masters. Early ads successfully defined the newcomer in not-so-flattering – and not so accurate – ways. Politics ain’t beanbag.
With the Lake and Masters defeats, recriminations are flying across the Grand Canyon State. Some blame Trump and the “stop the steal” conspiracies that have lingered for the past two years. Others insist establishment Republicans should have invested millions more into the ill-fated campaigns.
The infighting is nothing new for the Arizona GOP, which has endured bruising battles for years. During the Obama years, it was Tea Party activists vs. the “McCain machine,” with the latter winning every big contest. The Tea Partiers later morphed into MAGA voters, still bristling at the veteran senator holding sway over the party.
Following McCain’s death from a brain tumor in 2018, the grassroots seized party leadership and began to punish their old rivals. Fealty to Trump was demanded of all GOP candidates, high or low. And when the 2020 conspiracy theories kicked in, the devotion had to be expressed even more fervently — or else.
The result? Mainstream Republican candidates lost their primaries or simply decided not to run. This ultimately led to a Democratic governor and the re-election of a Democratic Senator.
Right-of-center Arizonans wonder how the party will move forward. Allegations of stolen elections are already being floated, but they will be hard to sell considering the many GOP victories in Congressional and down-ballot races. Also, most Republicans now understand that such paranoia leads to embarrassment at the ballot box.
As the party looks toward ousting Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and Biden in two years, the state party better mend fences with the ghost of McCain.
Perhaps 2024 candidates can start their speeches with, “Do we have some McCain Republicans in here? Alright, come on in.”