The Arizona Republican Party is at a crossroads after suffering high-profile defeats to Democrats in crucial statewide races, with the future uncertain.
The Democrats continue to hold both of Arizona's U.S. Senate seats and this year won the state's gubernatorial, secretary of state and attorney general races, though the AG race finish was so close it will get a recount.
Following the mounting election losses this cycle and in past, some prominent Arizona Republicans are calling for Arizona Republican Party chair Kelli Ward to resign immediately and for new leadership to pivot the state party away from the far-right ideology echoing former President Donald Trump's "Make America Great Again," or MAGA, platform.
Ward does not plan to run for chair again in the January party leadership election, an Arizona Republican Party spokesperson said. She could still back someone with similar politics and approach, meaning perhaps not much would change at AZGOP HQ. And a larger challenge for any establishment or moderate Republicans interested in de-MAGA-izing the state party is that it remains loaded with rank-and-file activists who have supported the arch-conservative direction and may continue to do so despite the series of ballot-box defeats that indicate it is outside the mainstream in Arizona.
Sweeping out the MAGA-backers would not be easy. Party shifts have happened before, but came as a result of significant undertakings and months of ground-up effort, starting with recruiting and filling precinct committee member slots. The PCs are the ones who vote for their legislative district leadership teams and their state committee members, who choose the party chair, according to party bylaws.
Ward, who twice ran for the U.S. Senate but both times failed to win the GOP primary nomination, has come under fire for Republican losses in elections and for stoking past controversies and divisions. Her national profile grew after the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol riot and public scrutiny of the state party's extremist messaging. She also had a role in creating a fake slate of presidential electors after President Joe Biden in 2020 became the first Democrat since 1996 to carry Arizona. More recently, Ward has been at the center of a closely watched court battle over the House Jan. 6 committee's access to her phone records.
The struggle between the state party's establishment and conservative wings is not new, and over the years has reflected a split between grassroots activists on the right and some of the party's best-known elected officials, including at times former Sens. Barry Goldwater and John McCain, respectively the Republican presidential nominees in 1964 and 2008. A deep-rooted conservatism has long run through the state and Ward, though chair, is not responsible for those undercurrents.
But as a national lightning rod for controversy and with her divisive style, Ward has come to symbolize what many moderate Republicans see as an intolerable situation: the takeover of the Republican Party by an increasingly more right-wing camp that is out of touch with Arizona voters.
"There is no denying the simple fact that our party is rudderless and leaderless," Phoenix real estate developer Karrin Taylor Robson, who ran for governor this year but lost to conservative Kari Lake in the GOP primary, said in a recent statement calling for Ward’s resignation. "We need a fresh start at the AZGOP, and it starts with new leadership at the top."
Ward ceding control probably wouldn't change that much, at least right away, given the base of people involved in party politics who hold similar views to her, some party insiders have told The Arizona Republic.
To reposition the state party more toward the center could require a massive mobilization effort and significant time commitment, longtime observers say, and it's unclear who would have the stature, or even the inclination, to lead such an effort.
In 2014, for example, the more traditional Republican wing embodied by McCain, R-Ariz., launched an effort to moderate an Arizona Republican Party dominated by right-wing leaders who were hostile towards him by recruiting more PCs to get involved who were ultimately supportive of his agenda. The goal was to moderate internal party politics by shifting the electorate base and party posts. McCain's critics inside the party, who had voted to censure him as too liberal, moaned that McCain was trying "to purge the Arizona Republican Party" of conservatives ahead of his anticipated 2016 reelection bid.
"There is no denying the simple fact that our party is rudderless and leaderless. We need a fresh start at the AZGOP, and it starts with new leadership at the top."
Phoenix real estate developer Karrin Taylor Robson, in a recent statement calling for AZGOP chair Kelli Ward’s resignation
Former state House Speaker Kirk Adams, a longtime GOP activist who later became a chief of staff to Gov. Doug Ducey, said at the time it was a “concerted effort” to get more Republicans involved in the party system.
“Too many have been sitting on the sidelines and not having their voices formally be heard. I think in time — and maybe we'll even see the results sooner than later — it will bear fruit by getting more people involved,” Adams told The Republic in October 2014.
The result of those months of hard work: More people with a range of perspectives got involved in the party, and the Republican activist who authored the anti-McCain censure resolution lost his party post as chair of a legislative district. And in January 2017, Jonathan Lines, a McCain ally, was elected party chair.
Lines, now a Yuma County supervisor, said in an interview that his philosophy as chair was to be friends with all Republicans, to stay out of squabbles and primaries, and then work to get Republicans elected in the general election.
“I didn’t get involved in interparty politics, because I was there to register people and raise money, and that’s it − that’s the job of the chairman,” he said.
That effort to shift the party back in 2014 took months of work from strategists and resources and even then was an uphill battle. And there’s no clear McCain-type leader who moderates and centrists might work to support.
The state GOP will pick its next chair in January
McCain's gambit was successful, but it was only a temporary victory. After his death in August 2018, the right wing took over the party again.
For the January chair election, the electorate is already more or less set. The PCs are largely in place. It’s still to be seen who might seek the top party positions, particularly to replace Ward as chair.
Ward could try to anoint her successor, and if that person is elected, it’s possible not much will change.
Some have speculated that Ward might back Pam Kirby, the party’s executive director, who some expect to lead in the same style as Ward. Ward and Kirby did not respond to messages seeking comment from The Republic.
Sergio Arellano, who lost narrowly to Ward in the 2021 chair election, is considering another run.
Arellano said he’s had discussions about running but is waiting to see who else does. He said the worst thing the party could do is pick Kirby, who he views as an extension of the culture under Ward.
“It’s more of the same and we’ll lose the presidency in '24,” Arellano said.
"The direction of the party needs to change. You don’t need a moderate, per se, in there, you just need someone that’s going to stay above the fray and not continue to fracture and divide the party," Arellano said. "You need someone that’s level-headed, that’s going to complete the mission. And that is get the vote out, raise money, win elections."
Robert Graham, who served as AZGOP chair from 2013 to 2017, said the person in that role needs to be focused solely on what’s best for the party.
“One of the things that I worked hard as a chairman to do was to take the label guns away,” he said. The parties need to be the "center point" to coordinate with campaigns and other groups and bring people to the table rather than push them away.
In recent years, he’s seen some Republicans lose confidence and faith in the state party.
"Even our faithful party members that have been present during events for years and years and years, decades in some cases, they just slowed down because they couldn't take the vitriol or the drama anymore," Graham said.
The new chair will serve for two years, with responsibilities including working to elect Republicans, fundraising and growing the GOP base. They’ll help determine the path the party takes leading up to the 2024 presidential election and statewide contests.
“I didn’t get involved in interparty politics, because I was there to register people and raise money, and that’s it − that’s the job of the chairman."
Jonathan Lines, former Arizona Republican Party chair
Ward was first elected GOP chair in a surprising upset in January 2019, beating establishment favorite and incumbent chair Lines, the McCain ally. That turned the state party in a farther-right direction headed into the 2020 election.
“I was praying that she was going to be successful, not for her sake, but for the sake of the state and the sake of the party,” Lines said.
Ward had failed in back-to-back primaries to win the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, but she was popular among Trump-style conservatives. Her election as chair represented party committee members fully embracing Trump's MAGA agenda and rejecting the more traditional vision for Arizona’s Republican Party as exemplified by McCain and former Sens. Jeff Flake and Jon Kyl, who sometimes were at odds with the GOP base but who won statewide elections.
"We have to win 2020 for President Trump, we've got to win back the ground we lost in the midterms in 2018 and I pledge to do just that," Ward said during her candidate speech in 2019 where she said she would invigorate Republicans who felt left out of the process. "Mark my words: These next two years will be the most important two years for this great state of Arizona."
But in 2020, Arizona chose Biden over Trump and Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., over Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., who ran as a Trump-style conservative in both of her losing Senate races. Ward remained a firm Trump loyalist, backing baseless claims of a stolen election and saying she was running for party chair again at his urging.
Ward was reelected in 2021, winning narrowly over Arellano in an election that raised controversy over its own integrity.
She’s since continued to shift the party right and backed unusual practices such as picking sides in primaries, censuring establishment Republicans, including Ducey, Flake and McCain's widow, Cindy McCain, and leaving little room for centrists.
Lines said the state GOP chair should not be involved in primaries and anointing certain candidates over others – that, in part, “sunk the party.”
“The mechanism of the state party in order to help candidates overall needs to exist, but it’s got to be arbitrary in all things pertaining to elections, working only for the party itself, putting forward the platform and then registering people to vote,” he said.
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What do critics want in AZGOP leadership?
Ward's agenda, paired with recent Republican losses, is bubbling over into calls for change.
In a recent interview, Taylor Robson referred to her wing of the party as “real Republicans” as opposed to “grifters” who took over the party. She said Republicans have the policy right, but can’t figure out their politics.
“The Republican Party is broken. We’ve been led by people whose game plan is just divide, divide, divide. You can’t win when you just divide people,” she said. “We need a leader running our party that can communicate the need to win, with good candidates that appeal to a broad cross section of people.”
Arellano, who ran against Ward in 2021, said if he had been elected, he would have focused on fundraising, voter registration, a state-GOP-funded effort in the Latino community, getting out the vote and winning. He said he would not have favored candidates in primaries, focused on self-promotion, or ostracized people who disagree.
The party should have done more to knock on voter doors and not dissuaded people who typically vote by mail from doing so, because then it’s harder to track who hasn’t voted and follow up with them, he said.
“That’s what the Democrats did. They outplayed us, they outsmarted us, at least on a leadership level,” Arellano said.
Lines said the party needs "a return of statesmanship."
He’s heard from people interested in running but said he does not plan to run again himself in January.
“It needs to go back to the real specific responsibilities of those individuals as register (voters), raise money and then win the general elections, that’s it, you have no other purpose” as chair, Lines said.
Graham said the state GOP needs to move forward by bringing people together.
The next chair has to inspire confidence, organize and fundraise, Graham said. He said he's been asked to run for chair, but doesn’t think he will.
“One of the sad things is to watch this infrastructure and the community engagement and the relationships we had around the state just disappear,” he said. “There's so many talented people out there that have the capacity (to lead the Arizona Republican Party), but you also have to be willing to listen and learn.”
Kathy Petsas, who has served as a precinct committee member for the state party for decades, said given the current makeup of PCs, the next party leader will likely be someone in the mold of Ward.
Petsas said she does not think the Trump-aligned wing of the party would reverse course and court the moderate or traditional wing.
“It’s doubtful,” she said. “These people are dug in."
Since Ward’s surprising win over Lines in 2019, Petsas watched the 2014 effort to recruit moderate PCs happen somewhat in reverse.
She served as district chair in 2021 and said she got a flood of applications from people who wanted to fill vacant PC positions after calls from Trump allies for people to get involved and change the party from within.
Petsas said she discovered that many applicants hadn’t voted much, or at all. A few weren’t even registered Republicans, she said. She denied their applications, but many bypassed her and were still appointed by the party chair for Maricopa County, a Trump supporter.
That crowd, Petsas said, has taken the reigns of the party. Time will tell whether her crowd can take them back.
Republic reporters Stacey Barchenger and Lane Sainty contributed to this article.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Arizona Republican Party at crossroads as Trump-backed candidates lose