Arizona’s GOP has been dysfunctional before, but this time feels different

by Robert Robb

The censure of Cindy McCain, Gov. Doug Ducey and former senator Jeff Flake on Saturday by the Arizona Republican Party is a sort of quantum political event, occupying two positions at the same time.

It is both insignificant and a telling sign of a political party in a serious state of deterioration.

Insignificant because official state party apparatuses don’t matter as much as they used to. Politicians in the modern era operate as entrepreneurs, deciding to run on their own and building their own political operations.

Even a hostile party apparatus isn’t that politically consequential anymore. John McCain, Cindy McCain’s late husband, better known as a U.S. senator and Republican nominee for president, was similarly censured by the state’s party apparatus in 2014. He nevertheless thumpingly defeated Kelli Ward, the chairwoman currently presiding over the official party’s deterioration, in a 2016 primary, and rolled to an easy general election victory.

Arizona has also periodically seen Republican Party dysfunction. In the past, GOP bigfoots in the state — such as Barry Goldwater, John Rhodes, Jon Kyl and John McCain — have intervened to restore party control to functionaries interested in being competent and effective political mechanics, not staging public acts of political cannibalism.

This time feels different, for two reasons.

First, there is no GOP bigfoot with the clout or the interest to stage an intervention.

Such interventions are hard work. They require recruiting and successfully running hundreds of candidates for precinct committee member slots, who in turn select the leaders of the official party. It’s a difficult and unpleasant undertaking.

The only current GOP officeholder with the potential moxie to take it on is the freshly censured Ducey. He has a skilled political operation that has won two Republican primaries and two general elections in impressive fashion.

But his political operation is even more personal than most, mainly focused on the governor’s political fortunes to the exclusion of other potential objectives. If Ducey were interested in running for U.S. Senate in 2022, he might have spent some political capital intervening to forestall the party apparatus’s descent into dysfunction. But he has shown no interest in a Senate run.

The second reason this time feels different is the extent to which the rot of Trumpism has infected not just the party apparatus but also GOP officeholders generally.

Donald Trump lost the presidential election to Joe Biden according to the rules in place at the time for conducting the election. And he lost Arizona.

Trump then launched a plot to overcome this democratic outcome by persuading state legislatures controlled by Republicans, such as Arizona’s, to choose Trump electors rather than the Biden ones that voters had chosen. This plot obtained a disturbingly large number of co-conspirators among Arizona GOP officials. Ward was a tireless promoter. Two of Arizona’s GOP congressional representatives — Paul A. Gosar and Andy Biggs — led the effort to reject Arizona’s democratically chosen electors. A large number of GOP state legislators were willing to do the deed.

Dealing with the rot of Trumpism is something that confronts the Republican Party throughout the country. But it is particularly acute here in Arizona.

Arizona has both a U.S. Senate seat and the governor’s chair up in 2022. There will be an open Republican primary for both. The state is likely to obtain an additional U.S. House seat, while redistricting will scramble the lines for existing seats. It’s a big election and an inopportune time to have a dysfunctional party apparatus.

Even with a functional party apparatus, the rot of Trumpism would linger over GOP prospects. Arizona voters, by choosing Biden, had already rejected Trumpism even before the plot to overturn the presidential election.

And the censures raise a question for traditional, mainstream conservatives, the heirs of William F. Buckley and Ronald Reagan. Is the Republican Party still the best political vehicle for the advancement of their ideas? You don’t get more traditionally conservative than Flake, the former head of the libertarian-oriented Goldwater Institute.

Independents are a third of registered voters in Arizona, and the current system of preferential party ballot access and taxpayer-financed party primaries poorly serves them. A top-two primary system was rejected by Arizona voters in 2012. But Trumpism and the deterioration of the Republican Party in Arizona might renew interest in the reform.

Public acts of political cannibalism have their consequences.


Robert Robb is a columnist for the Arizona Republic.

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