Politics & Policy

The Madness of the Arizona GOP

Kelli Ward in Paulden, Ariz., during her 2018 Senate primary campaign. (Conor Ralph/Reuters)

What is the point of a political party bent on renouncing its own members?

A party exists for two purposes: to win elections, and to govern as its members want. The two goals are sometimes in tension: Parties should aspire to a big tent at election time, but not such a big tent that they can never agree on how to govern. A party must be willing to govern in ways that drive away some voters, or it will never attract any voters. And on rare occasions, it may need to renounce people who falsely claim to represent it, if it wishes to promote a coherent message.

But it should not practice subtraction without the prospect of addition.

The recent actions of the Republican Party of Arizona make no sense from any of these perspectives. Arizona Republicans censured John McCain in 2014 on the theory that he failed to govern as its members wanted. Two years later, he defeated Kelli Ward (now the state party chairwoman) in a primary anyway, and was reelected, rendering the censure worse than pointless. When former senator Jeff Flake and McCain’s widow, Cindy, endorsed Joe Biden for president, one could have argued for rebuking them before the election in order to communicate to voters that the party opposed this stance. Instead, the Maricopa County Republican Party waited until after Biden carried Arizona in the election before passing a censure of Flake, with no apparent purpose in mind but revenge. A motion to add a censure of Mrs. McCain failed because the county party misunderstood its own rules.

Whatever their other faults, neither Flake nor John McCain ever lost an election in Arizona. In 2020, Arizona voted Democrat in the presidential election for only the second time since 1948 and is now represented by two Democratic senators for the first time since 1953. Normally, this would prompt some introspection about how the party can win back voters. Instead, Ward and the state party are now focused not only on censuring Flake and Mrs. McCain, but also the state’s sitting Republican governor, Doug Ducey.

The ostensible grievance is that Ducey’s response to COVID amounts to assuming “dictatorial powers” under a “faux State of Emergency.” The actual motivation appears to be an extension of Donald Trump’s rage at Ducey for acknowledging the obvious fact that Joe Biden won Arizona.

A party looking for answers about winning statewide elections might be interested in emulating Ducey, who was reelected by 14 points in 2018 while the Democrats were winning a Senate race. A party interested in governing as its members want might be interested in emulating Ducey for that reason as well, given his solidly conservative record as governor. A party testing the public mood on COVID might note that fringe groups on both the left and the right tried to promote recall petitions against him during the pandemic, and both failed to get enough signatures. What sort of message are Arizona voters supposed to take from the state party denouncing its own governor as a dictator? Surely, not one that will fill them with confidence about electing Republicans to responsible office.

Perhaps it is the leaders of the state party, not the elected officials, who need to be replaced with people more interested in what Arizona voters want.


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