Arizona, and the Republican Party, after John McCain

The Economist 

The departure of both of Arizona’s senators will weaken their party and country

As Republican voters turned out in Phoenix on August 28th to nominate a successor to Senator Jeff Flake, Arizona’s capital was festooned with memorials to his colleague John McCain. On the rocky knolls that scatter the sprawling, low-rise city, American flags drooped at half-staff. Billboards gave thanks for Mr McCain’s service. The state capitol building was being readied to receive his body, ahead of its journey to Washington, DC. The leading contenders to replace Mr Flake, Martha McSally and Kelli Ward, issued pre-primary statements on his dead confrere. The departures of the two senators melded together.

This was appropriate. Almost alone among their more spineless colleagues, Mr Flake and Mr McCain were outspoken defenders of free trade, workable immigration reform, balanced budgets and the rule of law against the ravages of President Donald Trump. It made them representative of the pre-Trump Republican Party. And if the primary contest that played out this week is a guide, their exit is another marker in its demise.

The victor, Ms McSally, a former fighter pilot and member of the House of Representatives, holds similar views to the departing senators. Yet to fend off Ms Ward, an immigration obsessive, conspiracy theorist and Trump acolyte, she veered to the right on immigration and swallowed her erstwhile differences with the president entirely. Ms McSally likes to portray herself as a plain-speaking military type. Yet at a ceremony in mid-August to mark the signing of a military-spending bill named in Mr McCain’s honour, she carefully followed the president’s petulant lead and omitted to mention the dying senator. It was a “disgraceful” display, said his daughter Meghan.

To be sure, even before Mr Trump’s takeover of their party, few Republicans dared speak sensibly about immigration in a primary contest. In 2010 Mr McCain helped fend off a challenger by wearily vowing to “complete the danged fence!” And the issue is at least pertinent to Arizona, which has 370 miles of border with Mexico and a history of illegal immigration. Yet the extent to which Ms McSally was drawn into mud-wrestling with her weaker Republican opponents on the issue was unexpected and dispiriting. And it was damaging to her prospects given how the state is changing. The many independent voters she now needs do not share the Republicans’ border fixation. In a state whose growing suburbs and non-white population look a lot like California 20 years ago, they may even be shifting to the left.

They certainly dislike Mr Trump. The president won Arizona by only three points, much less than his recent Republican predecessors (including Mr McCain, during his presidential run in 2008). And his ratings in the state have since plummeted, especially among college-educated whites, an important swing group. This leaves Ms McSally in a tough fight for a Senate seat that her party last lost in 1988. Opinion polls put her Democratic opponent, Kyrsten Sinema, comfortably ahead. They also suggest the Democrats could win five of the state’s nine House districts.

This does not mean the Republicans face a California-style collapse in Arizona. Its Hispanic population, around a third of the total, may be similar to California’s two decades ago, but its white population is larger and more conservative than California’s was. It is also being topped up by pensioners from the Midwest, drawn by cheap housing and constant sunshine. In Ms Sinema, an able moderate, the Democrats also have an exceptional candidate. And they have a helpful House-district map. These are one-off advantages that could produce a few Democratic wins, then reversion to Republican control. Arizonans may be as worried about health care as immigration; they are not lefties yet.

The Republicans are in trouble nonetheless. Their vulnerability in Arizona and other formerly reliable western states, such as Nevada, is the inescapable flipside of the course Mr Trump has launched them on. The racially divisive immigration-aversion that has won them support in the rustbelt is costing them in the sunbelt. That would be even more obvious had Ms Ward won the Arizona primary. And if she had not faced competition on the populist right from Joe Arpaio, a former sheriff and convict pardoned by Mr Trump, she could have done. Though vastly outspent by Ms McSally, the two populists won almost half the vote.

This was also despite antics that many non-partisans would consider repugnant. A few days before Mr McCain’s death, Ms Ward suggested that the release of a statement announcing the cessation of his medical treatment was intended to distract attention from her campaign. She suspected it was aimed in particular at a bus trip she had planned with a group of right-wing nuts, including Mike Cernovich, who is best-known for claiming Hillary Clinton was involved in a non-existent child sex cult operating from a Washington pizzeria. It is safe to assume any distraction caused by Mr McCain was inadvertent. Yet Ms Ward and her whacko pals illustrate another reason to fear for his party’s future.

Mad as hell

The historian Richard Hofstadter famously diagnosed a “paranoid style” of American politics liable to arise wherever “the normal political processes of bargain and compromise” break down. He had in mind the rise of another uncompromising Arizonan Republican, Barry Goldwater, whose Senate seat Mr McCain occupied. Yet the psychosis and breakdown he described are even truer of Mr Trump’s politics and the proliferation of hucksters, conspiracy theorists and strange ideologues it has ushered into American public life. Non-aligned voters may find the character of the president’s party as off-putting as any of its policies.

Principled Republicans do, too. “We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries,” wrote Mr McCain in a farewell letter. “We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down.” So much for the danged fence he claimed to want. He will be missed.


This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition of the Economist under the headline “Shadows across the sunbelt.”

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