Arizona GOP plots its future after Trump’s presidency

Arizona State Capitol

As a changing Arizona inches away from its staunchly Republican roots, the state GOP charged with reversing the trend is focused for now on showing its loyalty to former President Donald Trump.

The Arizona Republican Party confronts its future this weekend after losing the presidential race and a second U.S. Senate seat in four years. On the agenda for the state committee meeting Saturday: the reelection bid by its controversial chairwoman, who has been among the most prolific promoters of baseless election conspiracies, and the censure of some of the party’s best-known figures: Cindy McCain, former Sen. Jeff Flake and Gov. Doug Ducey.

The combative focus worries longtime GOP insiders who have watched the party lose ground in the suburbs as the influence of its traditional conservative establishment has faded in favor of Trump. A growing electorate of young Latinos and newcomers bringing their more liberal politics from back home have further hurt the GOP.

"This is a time for choosing for Republicans. Are we going to be the conservative party?" said Kirk Adams, a former state House speaker and chief of staff to Ducey. "Or is this a party...that’s loyal to a single person?"

It’s a question of Republican identity that party officials and activists are facing across the country following Trump’s 2020 loss, and particularly after a mob of his supporters laid siege on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

Nowhere is the question more acute than Arizona, where the state GOP’s unflinching loyalty to Trump stands out even in a party that’s been remade everywhere in the image of the former president.

State GOP Chairman Kelli Ward has relentlessly — but unsuccessfully — sued to overturn the election results. The party has used its social media accounts to urge followers to fight and perhaps even to die in support of Trump’s false claims of victory. Two of the state’s four Republican congressmen are accused of playing a role in organizing the Jan. 6 rally that turned violent.

"When we get down into this type of seedy, myopic worldview we’ve lost sight of what our purpose is as party members. Our party is here to figure out how we gain more Republicans, how we win general elections," said Kathy Petsas, chair of the Legislative District 28 Republicans. She oversees grassroots organizing in a suburban area of Phoenix that has epitomized the GOP’s Trump-era struggles.

After dominating Arizona politics for decades, Republicans now find themselves on their heels in the state’s highest offices. President Joe Biden narrowly eked out a victory here, becoming just the second Democrat in more than five decades to win the state. Consecutive victories in 2018 and 2020 gave Democrats control of both U.S. Senate seats for the first time in nearly 70 years.

Ward, a physician and former state legislator who lost two Republican primaries for the U.S. Senate, is seeking a second two-year term heading the state GOP. She faces opposition from three challengers but is widely expected to win. One of them, Bob Lettieri, the current party treasurer, said he’s not interested in criticizing Ward but wants to bring "bring professionalism and stability" to the party.

In a brief interview, Ward acknowledged "disappointment at the top of the ticket" but said she and many other Republicans still question the results showing victories for Biden and Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly. Judges have rejected eight lawsuits challenging Arizona’s election results.

Ward pointed to GOP successes down the ballot, noting Republicans defied expectations in local races.

Ward said she’s a "Trump Republican" who will "always put America first, who believes in faith, family and freedom." The way forward for the GOP, she said, is keeping Trump’s 74 million voters engaged.

"Yes, I will be radical about those things because those are the things that keep this country great," Ward said. "The people who are complaining are the people who actually put us in this spot where we are in Arizona, people who have been mamby pamby, lie down and allow the Democrats to walk all over them."

The proposed censures target some of Arizona’s most successful Republicans, who have found themselves crosswise with with the most ardently pro-Trump segments of the GOP.

Cindy McCain, the widow of longtime Sen. John McCain, the 2008 Republican nominee for president and a beloved Arizona politician, endorsed Biden and became a powerful surrogate for the Democrat following years of attacks by Trump on her husband.

"Maybe (Ward) should be reminded that my husband never lost an Arizona election since his first win in 1982," McCain said in a statement.

Flake was one of the few congressional Republicans who was openly critical of Trump for failing to adhere to conservative values. He declined to run for reelection in 2018 and endorsed Biden in last year’s election.

"If condoning the President’s behavior is required to stay in the Party’s good graces, I’m just fine being on the outs," Flake wrote on Twitter.

Ducey is being targeted for his restrictions on individuals and businesses to contain the spread of COVID-19. While it’s not mentioned in the proposed censure, he had a high-profile break with the president when he signed the certification of Biden’s victory. Ducey declined to comment through a spokesman.

RELATED: In Arizona, Trump's false claims have torn open a GOP rift

Ward played down the significance of the proposed censures, noting that they don’t prevent anyone from running for office as a Republican.

"Many times it just makes them turn even more toward the Democrats, in my opinion," Ward said.

Many traditional conservatives fret that the censures and Ward’s combative style turn off the swing voters and ticket-splitters who have handed Democrats their recent victories. But they say the party’s decisions will reflect only the views of about 1,500 committed activists.

John McCain was censured by the state GOP in 2014 and went on to comfortably win a Republican primary over Ward and a general election. The self-described maverick, known best for his willingness to buck his party, had strained relations with the state party for much of his career but was consistently reelected by wide margins.

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