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On The Trail: Arizona is microcosm of battle for the GOP

PEORIA, Ariz. — In the last decade, ranch homes have sprouted behind walled communities here like so many flowers after a desert rain. This suburb and its neighbors, some of the fastest growing cities in America, are the definition of urban sprawl, spawning a new multi-lane highway amidst the oases of strip malls anchored by upscale grocery chains.

While parts of the Phoenix metro area are attracting millennials who have helped push Arizona into the swing state column, Peoria has drawn a more conservative set of older voters and retirees.

Former President Trump last year won 61 percent of the vote in the legislative district covering most of the city, a higher share than in all but two other legislative districts in the state. A reporter interviewing voters here on Election Day was unable to find a single person who backed President Biden.

Peoria is also a microcosm of a divided Republican Party, one in which a faction of Trump backers clings to the myth of a stolen election while another tries in vain to move on from the devastating loss.

In the first camp is the majority of Arizona’s state Senate Republicans, including Sen. David Livingtson of Peoria, who voted to authorize an audit of the more than 2.1 million ballots cast in Maricopa County last year, and many of the current and former leaders of the state party who back the recount.

The audit, overseen by a firm that has no experience in election audits, has been riddled with complaints of mismanagement and security flaws. In interviews this past week, several senators who backed the legislation authorizing the audit privately acknowledge that any report concluding that the certified election results were misleading will be roundly dismissed for lack of credibility.

In December, Livingston signed onto a joint statement with other members of the Arizona legislature calling for decertifying the 2020 election results. The next month, he promoted the Stop the Steal rally that presaged the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. He did not respond to a text message seeking an interview on Friday.

“It’s the number one issue on [voters’] minds right now. I’m talking to voters all across Arizona every single day,” said Kelli Ward, chair of the Arizona Republican Party who backs the audit. “We’ll have to wait and see what these very qualified, professional and experienced auditors find.”

In the second camp are Republicans who see the audit as a useless exercise in reminding voters of the baseless conspiracy theories Trump has spread, and of the bitterness and divisiveness of the past four years in American politics. These Republicans roll their eyes at their colleagues, while privately fearing the constant national spotlight will do damage to the party in the long term.

“We stayed out of it for a reason,” House Majority Leader Ben Toma (R), Livingston’s Peoria seat mate, said in an interview. “I’m not going to take any theory and I’m not going to act on any theory until there’s actual proof.”

Increasingly, though, there is a third faction within the Republican Party: A group of elected officials who recognize the reality of Trump’s defeat, but who worry that publicly acknowledging it would mean the end of their own political careers, either if Trump turns on them or if they are seen as insufficiently supportive by the Trump-adoring base.

Those GOP officials have watched as fellow Republicans have been targeted for acknowledging the truth. State Sen. Paul Boyer (R), who has said he was embarrassed by the audit, was forced to accept a security detail after Trump backers disclosed his home address and phone number on far-right social media channels. Trump has repeatedly castigated Gov. Doug Ducey (R), a loyal backer, as a Republican-in-name-only.

Ducey allies have been particularly aghast at the former president’s behavior in recent months, after Ducey called the White House to explain his powers — or lack thereof — under state law in the weeks after Trump’s electoral defeat.

“He wanted Doug Ducey to do something that was against Arizona law and against the Arizona constitution that was morally reprehensible. What do you do with that?” said one top Ducey ally, who asked for anonymity to discuss the internal conversations. “The former president wanted him to unconstitutionally overturn an election, which he didn’t have the power to do even if he wanted to.”

Ward, who has feuded with Ducey for years, said both Boyer and Toma would face repercussions for their comments casting doubt on the audit.

“They both will face primary challenges if they decide to run again and they stand to be replaced by actual Republicans,” Ward said. “No matter what candidates do, no matter what they say, no matter what ads they buy, the future of our country is potentially in jeopardy. So this audit is very important to restoring their confidence.”

Arizona Republicans have long been riven by divides between arch conservatives who veer toward libertarianism and more mainstream Chamber of Commerce-type conservatives who dominate the Phoenix area.

For decades, the Chamber of Commerce types, like the late Sen. John McCain and former Sens. Jon Kyl and Jeff Flake, held statewide office. The more conservative factions made up a majority of the state’s delegation to the House of Representatives, including Republicans like Bob Stump, Matt Salmon, J.D. Hayworth, Rick Renzi and Trent Franks.

Today, all four of Arizona’s Republican members of Congress — Reps. Paul Gosar, Andy Biggs, David Schweikert and Debbie Lesko — are members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.

Democrats have historically broken through in this traditionally conservative state when, on occasion, a member of the arch conservative faction breaks through to win a Republican primary. Democrat Janet Napolitano narrowly beat Salmon in the 2002 race for governor. Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio (R) lost his bid for reelection in 2016 to Paul Penzone, a Democrat.

Two years later, then-Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D) beat out Rep. Martha McSally (R) in the 2018 race for a U.S. Senate seat after McSally, who began her political career as a sort of McCain prototype, lurched to the right to fend off Ward and Arpaio, who ran as more conservative contenders.

Democrats hope for a repeat next year, when Arizona voters will pick a new governor — Ducey faces term limits — and vote to reelect or oust freshman Sen. Mark Kelly (D). The party’s leading contender, Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs (D), has leaned into the Senate GOP’s audit as evidence that the other party offers little more than an alternate reality.

“Right now, our state government is being run by conspiracy theorists who are more focused on political posturing than getting things done, and that needs to change,” Hobbs said in a statement announcing her candidacy.

If Hobbs wins the Democratic primary over former Nogales Mayor Marco Lopez (D), who has entered the race, and state Rep. Aaron Lieberman (D), who is said to be considering a run, she would face the winner of a crowded Republican field. Former local news anchor Kari Lake, state Treasurer Kimberly Yee and state university regent Karrin Taylor Robson have all said they would run. Salmon is likely to try again, too.

The number of likely candidates is evidence of a party divided amongst itself, said Chuck Coughlin, a veteran Republican lobbyist in Arizona. And it extends beyond the race for governor: half a dozen prominent candidates are expected to run against Kelly; five are poised to run for attorney general; and another four for secretary of state.

“There is very little leadership or popularly understood direction of the party,” Coughlin said. “There seems to be plenty of room for Republicans to be successful, but it becomes a circular firing squad.”

In the midst of the Republican audit, Hobbs has emerged at the center of the spotlight.

“They’ve given her probably millions of dollars of free media for the past couple of months,” said Chad Campbell, a Democratic lobbyist and former state legislator who backs Hobbs. “This is the only platform they have. They don’t run on policy anymore, they run on conspiracy theories.”

Even Republicans acknowledge that their internal schism has given Hobbs running room in a midterm cycle in which the opposition party has historically made gains.

“I don’t know that Katie Hobbs makes a decision to run for governor today without the platform that the audit has given her,” said state Sen. T.J. Shope (R). “Undoubtedly, she will be in a much better position now to fundraise nationally as the face of the opposition to the audit.”

On The Trail is a reported column by Reid Wilson primarily focused on elections.

Tags 2020 election Anthony Fauci Arizona David Schweikert Donald Trump Doug Ducey Jeff Flake Joe Biden John McCain Kyrsten Sinema Mark Kelly Martha McSally Matt Salmon Paul Gosar Republicans Trent Franks
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