G.O.P. Women in Arizona Could Decide an Unexpected 2020 Battle

Led by a firebrand loyalist, the state party has lurched to the right under President Trump. That has turned off some Republicans, and Arizona suddenly appears in play for Democrats.

by Elaina Plott

Cindy McCain, the widow of the Republican senator John McCain, appeared last week in a video at the Democratic National Convention detailing her husband’s “unlikely friendship” with Joseph R. Biden Jr. She praised the Democratic nominee for his willingness to reach across the aisle, calling it “a style of legislating and leadership that you don’t find much anymore.”

Before the clip aired, Kelli Ward, the chairwoman of the Arizona Republican Party, who in 2016 lost a bitter Senate primary challenge to Mr. McCain, filmed her own video to share her thoughts on Mrs. McCain’s appearance.

“Well, I just say: Not a Republican,” Ms. Ward asserted as her husband, wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat, nodded alongside her.

Those dueling images — the widow of Arizona’s most popular Republican since Barry Goldwater lauding the Democratic presidential nominee’s character, and the state party’s current leader denouncing her in response as a “pretend Republican” who wants to “cause the destruction of this great nation” — succinctly reflected the political identity crisis currently unfolding in Arizona.

The party’s rightward lurch in the Trump era has left a growing number of Republicans in the state disenchanted and caused Arizona, a longtime G.O.P. stronghold, to suddenly resemble a battleground.

That’s in large part because of women: In 2018, 16 percent of Republican women broke with their party to help make Kyrsten Sinema the state’s first Democratic senator since 1995. Most strategists in the state believe President Trump’s chances there in November hinge on bringing such voters back into the fold.

And if the tenor of the Republican National Convention is any indication — speeches about protecting “quiet neighborhoods” on Monday; attempts to appeal to suburban women and mothers on Tuesday; a lineup of prominent G.O.P. women including Kellyanne Conway, Karen Pence and Joni Ernst on Wednesday — Mr. Trump is beginning to agree.

In Arizona, Mrs. McCain serves as an avatar of sorts for many Republican women — educated suburbanites, including lifelong party members who have perhaps felt alienated by the party’s Trumpist turn. But Ms. Ward, a devout Trump loyalist who dabbles in the occasional conspiracy theory, more closely resembles the kind of voter the party has been devoting its resources to instead.

It is the state-level iteration of Mr. Trump’s national strategy, targeting core supporters even as Mr. Biden aggressively courts moderate Republican and independent women in states that were critical to the president’s success in 2016.

And for now, at least in Arizona, Mr. Trump’s approach is not working so well. Recent polls show Mr. Biden leading the president by as many as seven percentage points.

With 11 electoral votes at stake, this trajectory could have disastrous consequences for Mr. Trump’s path to re-election. And according to some Republicans in the state, it currently shows no signs of changing.

“In a red state like ours, you’ve got to hold your Republicans, and convince your independents,” said Wes Gullett, a G.O.P. strategist in Arizona and former staff member for Mr. McCain. “And right now, we’re losing Republicans and we’re losing independents. And there’s been no effort to appeal to them.”

For most statewide campaigns in Arizona, Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix and accounts for about 60 percent of votes cast in the state, is king. General elections typically boil down to a contest over who can entice the county’s many affluent suburban voters, who in recent years have delivered significant rebukes to the Republican Party.

Before Mr. Trump, Republican presidential candidates had won Maricopa County four cycles in a row by at least 10 points; in 2016, Mr. Trump won by just three. And in the 2018 Senate race, Ms. Sinema affirmed voters’ willingness to swing left when she won the county by four points.

Nevertheless, Ms. Ward has continued to embrace Mr. Trump’s base-centric strategy in her leadership of Arizona’s Republican Party, even as Mr. Biden climbs in the polls.

This was in some ways to be expected. In 2016, Ms. Ward became the year’s most prominent Republican primary challenger when she took on Mr. McCain, highlighting her support for policies like Mr. Trump’s proposed Muslim ban while appearing on ultra-right-wing platforms like Infowars.

Mr. McCain defeated Ms. Ward, but her following became such that he decided to cut an ad highlighting how as a state senator, she had entertained constituents’ concerns about “chemtrails,” the conspiracy theory that claims the government injects dangerous chemicals into the sky via the contrails of airplanes.

Ms. Ward, a family doctor with a master’s degree in public health, was back on the Senate Republican primary trail in 2018. Again, she lost, this time to Martha McSally, but not before pondering on social media whether Mr. McCain had deliberately timed an announcement about his brain cancer to sabotage her campaign. (Mr. McCain died on Aug. 25, 2018, just hours after Ms. Ward’s comments.)

Ms. Ward won her position atop the state party in 2019, and some Republicans in Arizona argue that her tone and instincts have shifted since her campaign days.

“I think that chairman Kelli Ward is very different from candidate Kelli Ward,” said Lisa James, a veteran of Republican politics in Arizona. “As a candidate, she tended to appeal to a certain wing of the party, but as a chairman, she knows you have to appeal to the entire tent.”

In reality, rather than try to adapt the party to Arizona’s increasingly moderate bent, Ms. Ward has seemed more committed to hardening its allegiance to the president and his brand of politics.

In April, for example, she attacked a group of health care workers in Colorado who had counterprotested against people calling for an end to stay-at-home orders, suggesting they were “actors playing parts.” She then urged those opposed to local shutdowns to dress like health care workers as they protested. (Ms. Ward declined an interview request for this article.)

On his Twitter feed, Mr. Trump has made haphazard attempts at appeals to moderate Republican and independent women with messages about how his administration is saving the “Suburban Lifestyle Dream.”

But to the extent that Ms. Ward and Mr. Trump’s campaign have tried to make inroads with such voters, it has seemed to be less of a pro-Trump message and more of an anti-Biden one, said Paul Bentz, a Republican strategist in Arizona. “Instead of trying to bring those audiences to them in a positive sense, they’re trying to scare them away from Democrats,” he said.

Mr. Bentz pointed to a recent Trump campaign ad that features an older white woman scared for her life in “Joe Biden’s America,” dialing 911 during a home invasion, only for no one to answer. In a recent focus group, a mix of Trump, Biden and undecided voters in Arizona condemned the ad, with one female Trump supporter calling it “very far from reality.”

For Mr. Trump, a public-safety message could offer a “real opportunity” for gains among center-right women if done correctly, said Lorna Romero, a Republican strategist based in Maricopa County. But for the most part, she said, even as the country looks drastically different, his campaign in Arizona has changed little since 2016. During a campaign stop in Yuma last week, Mr. Trump used the bulk of his 55-minute speech to discuss illegal immigration.

But as for the women the party lost in 2018, along with swing voters more broadly, “that messaging is not resonating with them,” Ms. Romero said. “For moderate Republican women and independents, the focus is on coronavirus and education.”

The Trump campaign and the state party, she went on, have seemed to focus on issues “that aren’t as important to the average Arizona household right now.” (During Mr. Trump’s speech in Yuma, he mentioned the virus only briefly, to congratulate himself on issuing an early ban on travel from China.)

That lack of resonance poses problems for not just Mr. Trump, but also Ms. McSally, the Republican appointed to Mr. McCain’s Senate seat in 2019, who is also up for re-election.

Polling has consistently shown Ms. McSally, a retired Air Force fighter pilot who lost to Ms. Sinema in 2018, trailing her Democratic opponent, Mark Kelly, a retired Navy captain and NASA astronaut. Mr. Kelly is the husband of Gabby Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman who survived a shot to the head during a mass shooting in Tucson in 2011, and who spoke during the Democratic National Convention.

But like many incumbent Republicans in 2020, Ms. McSally has struggled to disentangle her message and appeal from Mr. Trump’s.

According to E.J. Montini, a columnist for The Arizona Republic, every election in Arizona, “all the way up and down the ticket,” appears poised to be a referendum not on the candidates themselves, but on Mr. Trump.

“It’s not, ‘Are you voting for Martha McSally or Mark Kelly?’” Mr. Montini said. “It’s, ‘Are you voting for Trump, or against Trump?’”

Republicans’ shakier footing in Arizona is not just a product of the president or a rightward shift in party leadership. Demographic changes across the state, including a growing Latino population and an influx of left-leaning millennials, have also weakened the party.

But should the party continue to alienate more moderate members in the months ahead, some Republicans believe it will become impossible in future elections to offset those demographic shifts through plays to the base alone.

“The reason Democrats are making inroads in Arizona is that the arch Trumpists have captured the Arizona Republican Party,” said Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor based in Arizona. “Republicans need folks” like Kelli Ward to come home, he added, “but really need moderate suburban women to join them at the ballot box in November.”

Cindy McCain and Kelli Ward have articulated two starkly different paths that such voters might take, with one framing the election in terms of character and civility, the other as a contest between “socialism” and “freedom.” In Arizona, and perhaps in much else of the country, Mr. Trump’s fate could well be determined by whom Republican women decide they identify with more.


Elaina Plott is a national political reporter based in Washington. She previously covered the White House for The Atlantic, where she also wrote extensively about the transformation of the Republican Party in the Trump era. @elainaplott

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