PHOENIX — Three days after Joe Biden’s inauguration, Kelli Ward, the combative, hard-right chair of the Arizona Republican Party, was urging her state party to reelect her. A former state senator and doctor who was nicknamed “Chemtrail Kelli” for holding a forum to address constituents’ concerns about the streaks of condensation that flow behind airplanes, Ward ran for US Senate as a right-wing challenger to Republican incumbents and lost twice. Far from being exiled from political relevance as a result, Ward was elected to lead the Arizona GOP in 2019 and has used her position to promote a loyalist agenda shaped around the now-former president.
“Are we going to reelect me and show the state, the country, and the world that we are in America-first Arizona? Or will we go back to the dark days before Trump?” Ward asked the audience at the state party’s biannual statutory meeting on Jan. 23. Republican officials from all over Arizona had gathered at the Dream City megachurch to elect new officers and debate proposed resolutions. Ward had drawn three challengers for her position, but she had a clear advantage: the endorsement of Donald Trump, who had recorded an audio message in support of her that Ward released the night before the meeting. She capped off her speech by playing the recording over the audio system, the disembodied voice of the former president booming in the church’s hall.
It’s unclear what a Republican official in Arizona should find so dark about the days before Trump. In those days, Republicans consistently won statewide elections. Now, Democrats occupy both Senate seats, the state went blue in the 2020 presidential election for the first time since 1996, and thousands of Arizonans have changed their party registration away from the GOP in the wake of an attack on the Capitol fueled by Trump. But this string of failure hasn’t yet prompted a course correction in Republican politics here, instead strengthening Trumpist resolve. Arizona has for decades been the cutting edge of right-wing US politics, an early warning system for where national Republican politics were headed. So the battle here for the post-Trump future, defined by Trump even in his absence, could be the national party’s future too.
What might have been a standard party business meeting proved unusually fractious, at one point being interrupted by far-right former Senate primary candidate Daniel McCarthy, who got onstage and insisted that Ward’s party was colluding with Democrats as part of a “uniparty” conspiracy. Ward tolerated the outburst at first before kicking McCarthy and a handful of supporters out. The party had tried to keep tight control over who was allowed in and who wasn’t, even banning reporters from entering, so all they got to see of this incident in person was McCarthy’s exit onto the church’s patio. Exclusive broadcasting privileges went to Right Side Broadcasting. Ward won reelection at the meeting, but the vote went to a second ballot, and she ended up winning by a mere 42 votes. Some state committee members have raised questions about the validity of the vote — an ironic twist considering her laser focus on amplifying false claims of fraud in the presidential election.
Moderate Republicans saw Ward’s relatively narrow win as a positive sign. But this is still the same state party whose official Twitter account asked followers on Dec. 7 if they were ready to die fighting for Trump. It’s the same party that voted at the Jan. 23 meeting to censure Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, John McCain’s widow Cindy McCain, and former senator Jeff Flake, all for failing to offer adequate fealty to Trump. Arizona Reps. Paul Gosar and Andy Biggs — who were prominently involved with the “Stop the Steal” demonstrations that culminated in the Capitol invasion on Jan. 6 — both spoke at the meeting. And remarks by party officers in Ward’s camp made it clear that a shift of focus away from the voter fraud conspiracies would not be forthcoming.
Tyler Bowyer, one of the two Republican National Committee members representing Arizona, told the audience at the meeting that election integrity is “the most important thing in this entire world.”
“We cannot move one inch forward without taking election integrity and election loss seriously across this country, and anyone that tells you otherwise is crazy and should be ejected from the party,” said Bowyer, who is also the chief operating officer of Turning Point USA, a Phoenix-based political nonprofit aimed at young conservatives. “Party unity means party discipline.” The party was not just there to get Republicans elected, he said; they were there to “hold Republicans accountable to the party platform.” Bowyer’s message seemed clear: policing the boundaries of who is allowed inside the shrinking GOP tent is as much of a priority as trying to win elections.
The Trump era strengthened the Arizonan right’s already established appetite for intraparty fights at the same time that it tied Republicans everywhere to Trump’s unpopular presidency. This hasn’t been a recipe for success. But although moderate Republicans see Arizona’s hard right as a conduit of failure, they’re not the ones dictating the terms of the debate. They’re the ones being pushed out, as Ducey, Flake, and McCain found when the state party censured them in January at the same meeting where Ward was reelected. And it doesn’t seem to matter that the figure demanding obedience is gone. The belief that the election was stolen from Trump has provided a way for supporters to never move on from his loss.
Out of the White House and banned from the social media platforms that gave him an immediate means of punishing any signs of disloyalty, Trump is more distant than ever. But his impact on the party and right-wing politics is iterative, replicating itself in places like Arizona; they constitute a living, and very active, legacy of his presidency. Trump may no longer be president, but his style in American politics lives on, and Arizona won’t let the country forget it.
State Republican parties throughout the country reshaped themselves during Trump’s presidency — which might prove one of his most significant legacies. In the past several weeks, a number of state parties have stepped in to punish Trump’s critics in his stead. The Wyoming Republican Party censured Rep. Liz Cheney, the third highest-ranking House Republican, for her January vote to impeach Trump, and the Louisiana and North Carolina state parties censured their Republican senators who voted to convict the former president during his impeachment trial.
Even among these examples, Arizona stands out as a hotbed of conflict. It was the home of what Trump’s base sees as the original sin: Fox News (correctly) calling the state for Biden on election night, leading to days of feverish and conspiracy-driven protests outside the Maricopa County elections headquarters. As those shock troops took to the streets, Trump’s team tried to pressure state officials, from the governor down. Ward became a fixture of the effort, speaking at “stop the steal” events and focusing the state party’s fundraising appeals and social media on the election results. Arizonans were conspicuous at the Capitol riot; Turning Point Action sent seven busloads of people to Washington for the demonstrations that day.
It’s no surprise that Arizona has taken a leading role in the “stop the steal” push, because it’s always been a breeding ground for the right-wing vanguard. Clashes over immigration and social conservatism in Arizona augured national fights over those issues. And extremists and opportunists of different kinds have flourished here.
Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater’s conservative movement galvanized the right wing — and his 1964 presidential nomination was a disaster for Republicans. Goldwater, who refused to moderate his right-wing message and opposition to civil rights legislation, won just six states — Arizona and five in the Deep South.
The establishment and media had dismissed Goldwater as a dangerous radical and his loss in 1964 seemed to prove their thesis that conservatism was a marginal movement out of step with the times. Lyndon B. Johnson governed as the polar opposite of a Goldwater conservative, the milestone civil rights legislation of the 1960s a repudiation of the racist Southern segregationists who had rallied to Goldwater’s cause. But in Arizona Goldwater remained a beloved figure, getting reelected to the Senate in 1968 and serving until 1986 — long enough to see his legacy come to fruition in the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Reagan had campaigned for him in 1964 and had ridden the current of a conservative movement that had used the Arizona senator as a launching pad to organize a nationwide political machine. From Goldwater to Reagan, the right had gone from a suspect band of wing nuts to the chieftains of the Grand Old Party.
Even 1986, the year “maverick” John McCain won Goldwater’s seat, was the start of another conservative convulsion in the form of new governor Evan Mecham, a far-right car dealership owner who had run several quixotic campaigns and was known for his toupee. He began his term as governor by canceling Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Mecham had won with Goldwater’s support but quickly lost it once in office. He was impeached in 1988 on corruption-related charges and later convicted and removed from office. He insisted for the rest of his life that he was the victim of a grand conspiracy. A handful of Republican lawmakers voted against his impeachment — including Jan Brewer, the future governor.
In the years since, Arizona’s population has boomed and diversified. Latinos now make up 31% of the state’s population. In the mid-1990s and early 2000s, conservatives and Fox News began to talk about the state as a haven for illegal immigration. In 2005, an Army reservist named Patrick Haab was arrested by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office for detaining seven undocumented immigrants and holding them at gunpoint. The sheriff, Joe Arpaio, strongly endorsed the arrest. But the local prosecutor refused to bring charges against Haab, making him a right-wing martyr — a twist that many credited with inspiring Arpaio to turn himself into one of the most extreme anti-immigration figures in the nation, infamous for his brutal methods and racial profiling.
While Arpaio used his law enforcement position to discriminate against Arizona’s Latino population, State Senator Russell Pearce used his berth in the legislature to design bills aimed at giving people like Arpaio even more leeway. Pearce was the force behind SB 1070, the anti-immigration bill that was reviled for its militancy and that became a template for the far right. Pearce’s brainchild ended up defining Brewer, who won her governorship amid fierce debate over the bill. The Obama administration challenged the law even before it went into effect, and the ensuing war between Brewer and the then-president boosted her national profile as a conservative hero. The enduring image of Brewer is that of her wagging her finger in Barack Obama’s face on the tarmac at Phoenix airport in 2012 — a symbol of the uncompromising tea party era and of Arizona’s intransigent right wing.
By the end of her time in office, Arizona Republicans were coming to be dominated more and more by their right flank — like Ward, who in 2015 launched her losing campaign against McCain. Trump won Arizona in 2016 but by a considerably smaller margin than Mitt Romney had over Obama in 2012. The 2016 election in Arizona saw a dramatic uptick in voters choosing third-party candidates, and while Trump consolidated GOP control over the state’s whitest areas, there were troubling signs for the continued electoral success of his wing of the party.
The downward slide continued in 2020, enough for Trump to lose by 10,000 votes and for the open Senate seat to be won by a Democrat. The winning Senate candidates in 2018 and 2020, Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly, showed that Arizona voters were eager for McCain-style candidates even if they weren’t of McCain’s party: independent-minded moderates with big personalities like Sinema’s, or compelling personal stories like Kelly’s. As the Republicans have moved further away from this model, they’ve increasingly become reduced to a rump party, strong in its safe districts but weak across the state.
“The party has gone into the wilderness before and has been pulled out of that wilderness. So there's some history here,” said Kirk Adams, a former aide to Ducey and former speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives. “What's different this time around is in years past, the divisions in the party have really been around policy issues, for example, immigration. This is the first time where it's really been a test of loyalty to one man — in this case, Donald Trump.”
A state party isn’t supposed to draw attention to itself; it’s supposed to help its candidates win elections, raise money, and keep its voters engaged. State party chairs have traditionally been obscure functionaries. But the story of the Arizona Republican Party shows how easy it is for ideological activists to take control of an apparatus, weaken its core functions, and attract uncomfortable scrutiny. It’s this diminishment of the party’s ability to do its job that has even solidly pro-Trump Republicans in Arizona eager to end Kelli Ward’s tenure.
Trump and Ward have piqued the attention of passionate newcomers without existing allegiances. Many of the people who voted in the Arizona GOP leadership elections on Jan. 23, members of the state party committee, were old hands in the unglamorous work of local politics and had served in their precincts and legislative districts for decades. But many were new to the process, their interest driven by the robust media attention around Arizona’s state party under Ward and Trump.
Claire Friedman, a committee member from the 1st Legislative District, said she had been involved “less than a year,” having been unaware of how the party process functioned before Ward started getting media attention.
Dinah Kundert, from Mohave County, first got involved as a precinct committee member three years ago. “I know history. I know the Republican Party. And I knew that the country was in trouble before Trump,” she said. “We were doing good during Trump, and now we really have to fight.” She enthusiastically supports Ward too.
Of these sorts of relative newcomers in the Trump/Ward era, “I think it’s partly probably just the people who have been radicalized that were there before,” said Jim Kolbe, a former Arizona member of Congress. Kolbe left the GOP in 2018. “But [they] were either not that active or were complacent or simply accepting where the party was in the mainstream of Barry Goldwater and [conservative former Congress member] John Rhodes, and those Republicans that represented that mainstream of the Republican Party for so many years.”
Experience is, if anything, a downside in Trump-style politics, which venerate the outsider novice. And the activists who power Ward’s machine, such as it is, have the enthusiasm and passion necessary for taking on the jobs that populate the party structure.
The right wing has “always been the loudest bunch of the party,” said Lorna Romero, a Republican strategist and McCain’s 2016 campaign spokesperson. “And, unfortunately, the most active element of the party when it comes to the actual party's infrastructure, being a precinct committee person, being a state committeeman.”
The conservative youth organization Turning Point USA and Turning Point Action, a related political group, moved from Illinois to Phoenix in 2018 and became an influential pro-Trump messaging organ and force in the state’s right-wing politics. Turning Point played a crucial role in Trump’s efforts to appeal to young people but to little avail; two aides to the then-president told Politico last year that they thought the group lacked effective organizing skills and was “too sycophantic to bring in young voters who might align more closely with conservatism but remain apprehensive about Trump himself.” But from a messaging standpoint, Turning Point has amplified and promoted the same core themes as the Arizona GOP.
Experienced organizers decry what they call Ward’s inability to work with others in the party structure and help candidates win elections. Jerry Clingman, a committee member from Mesa, has worked for years in his area to recruit and vet local conservative candidates. “We were in races all without the state party,” he said. Ward, he added, “doesn't bring other people in. It's been the Kelli show.” Clingman, who is still a Trump supporter and said he thought the Capitol riot was “no big deal,” supported Sergio Arellano, an activist from southern Arizona who served on the Trump campaign’s Latino advisory board, for January’s chair race.
Ward “moved away from what it is that makes us Republicans,” Arellano said in an interview. Ward, he said, “doesn’t know how to communicate and stay on point, on message, with what we represent.” “
Arellano said he didn’t think Trump’s departure would redirect the party’s trajectory in Arizona. Instead, he said, he fears that the leadership would follow Trump’s lead in the internecine battles the former president has signaled he wants to focus on.
Along with a group of state committee members, Arellano requested an audit of the votes held on Jan. 23 because of an error made in the results of one of the elections that day. “It really does look like they’re hiding something,” he said.
Ward has stayed firm in her refusal to reassess the results, even as some state Republican lawmakers have joined in the calls for an audit. She told a local radio host on Jan. 29, “[There’s] no procedure, process, rule that allows for it to be done. And you certainly don’t allow a challenger who lost an election to demand something that they don’t have the right to, and we don't have the responsibility for providing.”
Ward may have a lot of enemies, but she and other election truthers have an advantage over their naysayers: It’s their argument that is bringing in floods of small-dollar donations. Like other Republicans nationally, Ward has found that a surge in grassroots support is the reward for sticking by Trump’s side.
After years of internal complaints about Ward’s inability to raise money, the party’s frequent appeals for cash after November’s election to help contest the results attracted significant donations. A PAC affiliated with Rep. Paul Gosar helped too, transferring $10,000 to the party on Nov. 5.
“They’ve taken in more money over the last two months than practically over the last two years,” said Barrett Marson, a Republican strategist and consultant in Phoenix. “So how much of this is a cry for money versus [a] real, true belief that there was a stolen election?” The party’s legal challenges to the vote were eventually thrown out by the state Supreme Court.
The blast of money, though, hasn’t erased the bad news. Nearly 10,000 Arizonans dropped their GOP registrations in the days since the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, a fact that anti-Trump Republicans point to as a clear warning sign of the political risk of wallowing in the morass of the previous administration. If demographic and electoral trends continue, with population growth in the suburban and urban areas tilting toward Democrats, the party’s ability to win elections could be limited to local races in red areas. “As currently constituted, the Republican Party today, with the issue environment that exists today, is incapable of winning statewide elections in Arizona,” said Chuck Coughlin, a former Republican strategist in the state who is now an independent. “You cannot win elections in Arizona with just Republican voters.”
This is particularly pressing as the 2022 statewide races draw near, including for governor and for Mark Kelly’s Senate seat. The race against Kelly, a candidate with huge fundraising capabilities and a national profile, will be difficult for Republicans. Ducey, at one point considered a leading candidate to run against Kelly, announced last month that he wouldn’t run. Other names that have been mentioned as possibilities include Blake Masters, a close associate of right-wing tech billionaire Peter Thiel’s. Masters lives in Tucson and briefly considered running in the Republican Senate primary in 2020 against McSally. On his Twitter account, Masters has raised questions about the integrity of Arizona’s vote. “Election security will be top priority on the right going forward,” he posted in December. “And we're going to figure out how to win big and make cheating impossible.”
Kirk Adams, the former Ducey aide, said he had met with Masters, who seemed serious about running; another source with knowledge of Masters’ thinking confirmed he’s seriously considering it and may announce in the next few months. Adams himself is thought to be considering a run, which he didn’t deny when we spoke. He said he was waiting to “see how these next few months play out.”
“Is Donald Trump going to start a new party? Is he going to spend his money...to bolster those loyalists across the country that have been unfailingly loyal to him no matter what? I think there's a lot of data points that are not yet clear,” Adams said.
In a statement this week, Trump threatened to "back primary rivals who espouse Making America Great Again and our policy of America First" against candidates favored by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. This could turn the Senate primary into a melee, especially if a MAGA candidate like Biggs, Gosar, or even Ward decided to run. A spokesperson for Ward didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Tyler Montague, a longtime Republican activist in the state, predicted that Trump’s influence on the party would fade as time goes on and that upcoming legislative redistricting would destabilize the political landscape and challenge certain far-right lawmakers. “It will be a window of opportunity where people that have kind of a stranglehold on their district might all of a sudden have half of their district be a new place,” he said.
The situation is still so fluid, though, that the short-term fate of the party isn’t clear. “Rome is still burning,” Coughlin said. “It’s hard to say what direction it’ll go.”
On fencing outside Arizona’s capitol building in Phoenix hung an upside-down American flag. It was the morning of Jan. 20, and on the other side of the country Joe Biden would be inaugurated in a matter of hours. The man who put the flag up, Dave Schwartz, 53, had done it to register his view that the country was “in distress.” The US flag code states that it “should never be displayed with the union down, except as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property.”
Schwartz believes the election was stolen, and he held onto hope that Trump would be inaugurated until the previous night, when the White House had released a taped farewell address. After months of desperate attempts to stay in power, it amounted to the closest thing Trump would ever give to a real concession speech. Schwartz put up the inverted flag as a solitary act of protest.
Solitary isn’t too strong a word; over the course of a few hours, only a handful of pro-Trump protesters showed up outside the capitol. Jan. 6 had put law enforcement agencies on high alert for potentially violent demonstrations outside statehouses across the country, but the day passed without incident. Extremist groups like the Proud Boys warned members not to go out that day, and in Arizona’s case the state Republican party tweeted that supporters should stay home and that no protests were planned. Those who did come out in Phoenix were largely part of a group that had made a habit of demonstrating outside the capitol, pressuring the legislators to push for audits and other measures aimed at contesting the results.
A lone “boogaloo boy” loped around with a rifle, his face covered, between bouts of sitting on a bench and staring at his phone. Another man in camouflage gear and a bulletproof vest, hoisting aloft a torn American flag (another violation of the flag code among this group of patriots), gave an interview to a reporter while holding his long gun across his chest. Cops pulled up and told him firmly to point it toward the ground or it would be taken away. A standoff ensued, mostly made tense by the man’s obvious inexperience with his gun, which he kept trying and failing to point directly at the ground. He eventually did so to the cops’ satisfaction, and after a while he went away.
There was no Biggs, no Gosar, no Q Shaman. But small as the crowd was, it included someone from as far away as San Diego, a more than five-hour drive.
“I’d heard that every state capitol is going to have something going on,” Lori Hatley, 56, said. “So I just took a chance that there might be something going on here.” Hatley had a case of FOMO about what had happened in Washington. It’s not that she’d wanted to storm the Capitol, but, she said, “I felt like I missed out by just not being in that general area of Washington, DC, on Jan. 6, you know, at a historic time, at least to go to the rally.”
Diane Saylors, 66, stood a few yards away, holding up an American flag. Saylors, a retired nurse who lives in Phoenix, said she was among the protesters who made a habit of showing up outside the statehouse, demanding that legislators push for audits of the results. I spoke to her just after Biden was sworn in. “I'm just waiting to see how the movie plays out,” she said. Saylors didn’t believe he had been legitimately inaugurated. So who was the president right then, I asked. Saylors paused. “If he’s not in power, and Trump is not there, then it would be the military,” she said. “They could be. I have to wait for more information.”
As the day went on, more flags went up outside the capitol, including a Confederate one. A rolled-up boogaloo flag lay on the ground. Older folks sat in camp chairs; two retired ladies who wouldn’t give their last names for fear of cancel culture each held a “Women for Trump” sign and homemade “Biden crime syndicate” sign. Someone would occasionally yell “Freedom!” in the direction of the capitol building. A guy with a Gadsden flag got it caught on a cactus’s spines and had to detach it.
To the naked eye, this was not a display of political power but a poignant lesson in what happens as a result of spending too much time on the internet and watching cable news. But that would be too shallow a conclusion. Arizona lawmakers were responding to their concerns in real time. Karen Fann, the Republican president of the Arizona Senate, announced progress that day in a tussle with the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors over subpoenas lawmakers had issued seeking election materials.
Fann insisted in an interview that her goal was not to overturn the results but said she and her fellow lawmakers had been inundated with demands from constituents — like those assembled outside the capitol — to keep investigating the vote.
“I'm not exaggerating. Literally, our members have been getting thousands of emails and phone calls since about the week after the election, and it's been nonstop,” she said. If Arizonans have doubts about the election, she said, “we need to put those doubts to rest.”
Arizona lawmakers have tried a series of other gambits as well, introducing bills in the last month that would give the legislature power to choose electors. Republican state senators escalated their fight with the Maricopa supervisors, holding a vote on whether to hold them in contempt for not releasing enough information in response to the subpoenas — a vote that could have led to the supervisors’ arrest. It failed only by one vote. Hardly any other state has seen this amount of catering to the unrealistic demands of Trump’s base about supposed election fraud. It seems as though Arizona’s “Stop the Steal” believers should have little to complain about.
But the hunger for evidence of “the steal” can never be satisfied. The question is how long Arizona Republicans will remain in the closed loop of rehashing the previous election, and what could prompt them to move forward.
“In the short term, I think there's going to be a continuation of the asinine focus on one man versus conservative policies that the Republican Party in Arizona used to advocate for and support,” said Barrett Marson, the Republican strategist. “You know, there has to be a reckoning at some point.” ●