Arizona is moving left. But the state GOP chair, Kelli Ward, is doubling down on Trumpism.
by Elaine Godfrey
Donald Trump needs Arizona on his side in November. Losing the state and its 11 Electoral College votes would, at the very least, mean a drastically narrower path back to the White House. Keeping Arizona red shouldn’t be a challenge; the state has long been a Republican stronghold. But Arizona is changing rapidly, and right now, the forecast for the GOP looks grim: In 2018, Kyrsten Sinema became the first Democrat to win a Senate race in the state since the 1980s, and Joe Biden has been leading in the presidential polls there for weeks. In this year’s Senate race, the astronaut turned Democratic candidate Mark Kelly is ahead of the incumbent Republican Martha McSally by a comfortable margin. And after the state was reopened by its Republican governor, it experienced a massive surge in COVID-19 infections.
One might think that, in its moment of peril, the Arizona GOP would attempt to win over moderates. Yet the person charged with shepherding the party to victory in this most crucial moment is the state GOP chairperson Kelli Ward, a pro-Trump zealot with a soft spot for conspiracy theories, a woman who is most famous for her failed primary challenge to Republican Senator John McCain in 2016. Just as polls show Arizonans—especially those in the suburbs—souring on Trump, the state party has veered sharply to the right.
Despite its history as the home of Barry Goldwater conservatism, the Grand Canyon State has been known, in recent years, for electing gentler establishment types such as McCain, Jeff Flake, and Jon Kyl. The 51-year-old Ward is a different sort of Republican. During her time as a state senator representing parts of the ultra-red La Paz and Mohave Counties in northwest Arizona, Ward paid a visit to Cliven Bundy’s Nevada ranch in solidarity with the rancher’s standoff against the Bureau of Land Management; suggested that the Affordable Care Act was part of a broader plot to push rural Americans into urban areas; and entertained constituent concerns about the chemtrail conspiracy theory, the idea that the government is using airplanes to poison American citizens. In 2016, during her Tea Party–style challenge to McCain, Ward defended Trump’s attacks on the senator’s experience as a prisoner of war. Later, in a primary bid against McSally, Ward made national headlines for suggesting that the McCain family had deliberately timed an announcement about the senator’s brain cancer to damage her campaign. (She lost both primary elections—badly.)
But as Republicans nationwide began to embrace Trumpism, Ward moved from the fringes of the party to its center. She was elected the state party’s chair in 2019, and has since used her perch primarily to help wage the president’s wars. Most recently, Ward, who is a family physician with a master’s degree in public health, made headlines for encouraging protesters planning to demonstrate against local stay-at-home orders to dress like health-care workers. She and her husband, Mike, an ER doctor, appear regularly on Facebook Live to discuss “fake news” and the tyranny of mask laws, while sipping coffee out of bright-red Trump mugs. In the past month alone, Ward has tweeted warnings about the threat of “antifa,” compared The New York Times to the devil, and shared multiple videos of Black teenagers fighting and looting stores.
But now that Arizona’s political sands are shifting, Ward’s leadership is damaging the Republican cause, her critics in the party told me. As presidential candidates, Republicans McCain and Mitt Romney each won the state by nine percentage points; Trump beat Hillary Clinton in 2016 by just four points. For the past few months, Biden has been leading the president in the polls here, and unaffiliated Arizona voters, who typically swing right, are overwhelmingly supportive of Kelly in his race against Trump-endorsed McSally, according to Mike Noble, the chief of research at OH Predictive Insights, an Arizona-based nonpartisan research firm.
This is partly because of the state’s changing demographics: The Latino population, which makes up part of the Democrats’ base in Arizona, has grown, and more left-leaning young people are settling in red states. But the most important shift has been the leftward movement of suburban voters. Maricopa County, which covers the Phoenix area and accounts for 60 percent of all votes cast in the state, has been rapidly trending away from Republicans in the past few years. Barack Obama lost here by 11 points in 2012, but four years later, Trump defeated Clinton by just three points. In 2018, Sinema won Maricopa County 51 to 47 percent.
This leftward shift began years ago, but the president’s rhetoric has expedited it. You can’t win a statewide race in Arizona without keeping a tight grip on affluent Republicans, GOP women, and the unaffiliated voters who make up roughly one-third of the electorate, said the Arizona-based Republican strategist Chuck Coughlin—and those are the exact voters whom the president and his ilk have alienated. “Trump has changed everything,” Grant Woods, the former Arizona attorney general, told me. Woods was a lifelong Republican who once served as McCain’s chief of staff, but after Trump’s election, Woods reregistered as a Democrat. He’s observed a growing gap between Republican voters and their elected officials in the party and believes that gap has been stretched further by people like Ward. If Republicans “want to double and triple down on Trumpism, then she’s perfect,” Woods said. But “she is exactly the wrong person to be the party chairman for the Republicans if they want to have a future in the state of Arizona.” (Ward did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.)
Jeff Flake, the former Arizona senator who retired in 2019, echoed Woods’s concerns. It’s “tremendously damaging,” for moderates and independents to see “virtually every Republican officeholder on stage with the president laughing at his jokes, looking at their shoes while he demeans their colleagues,” he told me. And attracting interest in the local party is difficult when the only issues discussed at precinct meetings are “the deep state or immigration or the latest conspiracy theory.”
The coronavirus pandemic has made a bad situation much worse for Republicans. Voters in poll after poll have been unimpressed by Trump’s handling of the crisis, and Republicans in Arizona have faced similar scrutiny: Cases of the virus surged after Governor Doug Ducey took early action to reopen the state in mid-May. In June, Arizona had the highest infection rate in the country. This spike in cases corresponded with a 13 percent increase in Arizonans reporting that the state was going in the wrong direction, according to OH Predictive Insights. Yet all the while, Ward, like Trump, has been encouraging opposition to stay-at-home orders, and dismissing mask wearing as “virtue signaling” on her daily live-stream. This has been a major turnoff to an important part of the Republican electorate, Flake said. “Suburban women and Millennials have been walking away from the party for a while. In many ways, they’re in a dead sprint now.”
Some on the right, however, dispute moderates’ diagnosis of their party’s problems. These Republicans—best described as pro-Trump populists—believe that the state GOP has not embraced the president enough. Steve Slaton, who runs a store in Show Low selling Trump-themed merchandise, feels that Ward, in her capacity as chairperson, has been too supportive of McSally in the primary, giving her an unfair advantage over Daniel McCarthy, her more populist opponent. Ward “got sucked into the whole McCainite-controlled party apparatus,” Slaton told me. Jennifer Esposito, a former state-committee member from Mohave County, campaigned for Ward back in 2019. “We thought as chairman she would be willing to go against the establishment,” Esposito said. “She appears now to be a sellout.”
Ward’s job, in other words, has in some ways become an impossible one. It’s unclear, at this point, whether there is anything she can do differently to change her party’s trajectory. It’s possible—even likely—that, come November, Arizona will turn blue. That sort of change has happened before. In 2000, Republicans controlled the Virginia state government; they held both of the state’s Senate seats, and they’d just given its electoral votes to a Republican presidential candidate. But Democrats made huge gains in the suburbs, the state GOP moved to the right instead of moderating, and by 2019, Democrats had turned the tables completely. “Unless something big changes between now and the middle of October,” this will happen in Arizona too, said Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
If it does, Woods, the former attorney general and lifelong Republican, told me he’ll be relieved. “I want ’em all to go,” he said. “I hope the Republican party regroups and starts over.”
Elaine Godfrey is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers politics.
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