Trump looms large over fractured Arizona GOP
PHOENIX — After losing two U.S. Senate seats in consecutive elections, Arizona Republicans are eager for the chance to take on first-term Sen. Mark Kelly (D) in what they hope will be a more favorable political environment in the 2022 midterm contests.
But some fear that the party is on the brink of squandering that opportunity by failing to learn the lessons of the last election, which marked the first time in a generation that a Democratic presidential candidate carried Arizona’s electoral votes. Instead, state Senate Republicans are conducting an audit of the 2.1 million votes cast in Maricopa County last year, in search of evidence of fraud or malfeasance that is unlikely to emerge.
Former President Trump, unable to accept his defeat in Arizona, has been closely monitoring the audit. He has castigated Republican officials for failing to take action that is beyond their power to reverse his loss.
In a statement this week, Trump called Gov. Doug Ducey (R) a “RINO,” or a Republican in name only. He criticized Attorney General Mark Brnovich (R), “who has done little so far on Voter Integrity [sic] and the 2020 Presidential Election Scam [sic].”
Ducey, who has won three statewide elections and who won reelection in 2018 with 56 percent of the vote, is the object of national Republican affection. Ducey has said he has no interest in making a run. Advisers and allies privately leave open the prospect of a late entry, though they say his thinking has not changed recently.
Brnovich has hired a top Arizona Republican strategist to plot his own campaign for Senate.
In a state that is home to a rich mythology of the lawless and vigilante American West, half a dozen Republicans interviewed this week separately compared the schism within their party as a shootout in which there would be no winners.
“I don’t care if it’s Donald Trump or anybody else, any time you’re in a circular firing squad firing at each other, it’s not a good thing,” state Sen. T.J. Shope (R) said in an interview. “We continue to make these same types of mistakes over and over and wonder why Democrats seem to be closing the gap.”
Even without Brnovich or Ducey, the race for the Republican nomination is getting crowded. Solar energy executive Jim Lamon (R) has already run advertisements on cable networks in the New York area, intent on winning Trump’s attention between rounds at his Bedminster golf club. Former state Adjutant General Mick McGuire (R) is in the race. Venture capitalist Blake Masters (R) is likely to run with the backing of a $10 million super PAC funded by his old boss, mega-donor Peter Thiel. Rep. Andy Biggs (R) is said to be considering a race as well.
Some Arizona Republicans are eager for a new face, one who has Trump’s imprimatur.
“The quality of these people is exceptional, and we’re not talking Brnovich or Ducey,” said Steven McEwen, the chairman of the Santa Cruz County Republican Party. “We feel that Gov. Ducey has been representing himself, and we find that unfortunate.”
Of Brnovich, McEwen added: “It’s kind of hard to criticize somebody who hasn’t done anything.”
It is not clear whether Trump will involve himself in the Republican primary, given that so many of the potential candidates are vying for his attention. In an email, Trump spokesman Jason Miller said the former president had no imminent plans to pick a candidate.
“I’m sure that President Trump will utilize the extreme positive influence in the Republican Party to help us get the best candidate in the primary and then in the general,” said Kelli Ward, the chair of the Arizona Republican Party.
Ward said Trump’s comments would have an impact on the way Republican voters see both Ducey and Brnovich.
“It’s not going to damage the party, it’s just going to damage the governor who isn’t standing up and fighting against critical race theory, who isn’t standing up fighting for election integrity,” Ward said. Brnovich “has a heck of a chance to make a splash in fighting for election integrity which will improve his chances in any campaign he runs.”
There have long been deep divides within the Arizona Republican Party between arch-conservatives in rural enclaves and business-backed interests in the booming Phoenix metro area, bolstered by a large Mormon population scattered through the eastern suburbs and exurbs. Those with closer ties to the business community — the late Sen. John McCain, former Sens. Jon Kyl and Jeff Flake, Ducey himself — tend to win statewide, while the arch conservatives like Reps. Biggs, Paul Gosar (R) and Debbie Lesko (R) dominate the U.S. House delegation.
After four years of Trump, and a steady drumbeat of losses up and down the ballot, some Republicans say the path back to dominance will mirror an earlier era of Arizona conservatism.
“The party will want to go back to some sort of its roots. There are a lot of people in the party who are sick of the in-your-face confrontational kind of person,” said state Rep. Ben Toma (R), the House majority leader. “They’re kind of done with the extremism.”
National Republicans profess optimism in their chances against Kelly next year.
“We are confident that whatever Republican comes out of the primary in Arizona will be well-position to best Mark Kelly, a Senator who campaigned as an independent voice for Arizona and has served in the Senate as nothing but an easy yes vote for [Senate Majority Leader] Chuck Schumer and [Sen.] Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) while he’s helped Joe Biden make the Southern border less secure,” said Chris Hartline, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “His entire brand is a lie and the NRSC is laser-focused on making sure the voters of Arizona know it.”
If Republicans nominate a candidate who emulates Trump too closely in a primary that will take place in August 2022, just weeks before the November midterm elections, against the well-funded Kelly, who already has more than $4 million in the bank, some believe the GOP is headed for a repeat of the last two Senate contests.
“If the Republican candidate is capable of garnering 85 to 90 percent of their base, and then you need to pick up a plurality of unaffiliated voters, Trump’s been unable to do that,” said Chuck Coughlin, a longtime Republican lobbyist in Arizona. “So the party cast in Trump’s visage is not capable of winning statewide elections.”
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