In 2016, Donald Trump stormed Washington and swept aside a hostile Republican Party establishment. Now, as he seeks reelection, the president has tightened his grip on the GOP nationally as loyalists — whose main credential is fealty to the White House — seize control of state parties around the country.
Trump acolytes have replaced veterans and party insiders in places such as Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, which were crucial to his election, the perennial swing state of Florida, as well as New Hampshire, which holds the first presidential primary.
Here in Arizona, an emerging 2020 battleground, the new party chief is Kelli Ward, a former state lawmaker, fierce Trump devotee and twice-failed candidate for U.S. Senate who campaigned against fellow Republicans the way a battering ram meets a brick wall.
She attacked two of Trump’s nemeses, former Sen. Jeff Flake and the late Sen. John McCain — insulting his family as McCain lay on his deathbed — consorted with conspiracy-mongers and forced her 2018 primary opponent, Martha McSally, to hug Trump so tightly, critics say, that she helped Democrats win their first Senate seat in Arizona in 30 years.
The fact she now presides over the state party delights Democrats and makes no small number of Republicans exceedingly nervous.
Trump carried the state — a onetime GOP stronghold — with less than 50% support, and if anything, polls suggest, has grown less popular since.
McSally, appointed by Republican Gov. Doug Ducey to fill McCain’s term through 2020, is expected to face Democrat Mark Kelly, a former astronaut, in a bid to finish the final two years of McCain’s term. The contest, considered a toss-up, will be central to control of the Senate.
“Instead of Republicans reassessing what they should do for 2020, they’ve doubled down on Trump … with Kelli Ward,” said Paul Bentz, a GOP pollster in Phoenix, who said nearly 200,000 voters — mostly Republican women and independents — backed Ducey for governor and Democrat Kyrsten Sinema for Senate in November.
“It’s not the best face to put forward if you’re trying to win a competitive general election,” Bentz said.
Ward’s response to detractors: “Give me a chance.” Anything else, she said, “is cutting off your nose to spite your face.”
While the installation of Trump allies boosts his reelection prospects by impeding the threat of a primary challenge, the takeover of state parties has sparked animosity between old-line Republicans and those they replaced, and also introduced fringe elements into the president’s campaign.
In Florida, news reports have tied chairman Joe Gruters, a state senator from Sarasota, to alleged anti-immigrant organizations and hate groups. In Pennsylvania, party chairman Val DiGiorgio has faced sniping over fundraising difficulties and the GOP’s dreadful 2018 performance.
No state party leader, however, has done as much as Ward to antagonize fellow Republicans.
Running against McCain in 2016, Ward — a physician — said she knew “what happens to the body and the mind at the end of life” and declared the vigorous 80-year-old senator “old and weak.” She accused him of turning his staff and young volunteers into “campaign terrorists.”
When McCain was diagnosed with brain cancer in July 2017, Ward suggested he quit and touted herself as a replacement. A little over a year later, when McCain’s family announced the end of his cancer treatment, Ward suggested the timing was meant to draw attention from her bid to succeed the retiring Flake — or “Fake Jeff Flake,” as she called the Republican lawmaker.
McCain died soon after and Ward semi-apologized, saying her comment was misconstrued. (McCain’s daughter, Meghan, responded acidly to Ward’s election as party chair, tweeting, “[G]reat day for Az Democrats.”)
Her selection by party activists over a chairman tied to the party establishment came as a shock to Ducey and other GOP leaders who underestimated Ward’s strong backing among grass-roots Republicans. Ward said the White House did not help her win, but she presumes the president was pleased by her January victory. She quoted Vice President Mike Pence telling her, “‘He loves you, you know,’ and I said, ‘I love him, too.’”
There’s a credibility deficit. She’s got to turn it around quick.”
For years, the far right in Arizona has waged war on the conservative but more pragmatic wing of the party, embodied by McCain. Ward became an arch-conservative heroine precisely because she was a grenade-lobbing outsider.
“For so long, the party has kept to itself,” said Tatiana Marchuk, 36, a Republican precinct captain in Phoenix who backed Ward for Senate as well as GOP chair. “Kelli has always been about getting out into the community, talking to people who may not have been traditionally reached out to.”
Those who oppose her, however, say Ward has amply justified critics’ anxiety.
Party fundraising has fallen dramatically since she assumed control, according to the Arizona Republic. Ward, who previously allied herself with conspiracy theorists Alex Jones and Mike Cernovich, continues to be linked to extremists, recently appearing at a right-wing rally where one speaker seemed to advocate civil war. And she has sometimes acted more like an active office-seeker than party functionary.
At a recent news conference outside the Arizona Capitol, Ward urged lawmakers to approve a boost in the state sales tax to increase school funding, subject to voter approval in 2020. “I’m standing before you because Republicans are the party of education solutions and of our future,” Ward told reporters.
Never mind that Ducey, a fellow Republican, opposes the plan, which has all but died in the GOP-run Legislature. “It’s not about one person,” she said in an interview, dismissing the governor’s views. “It’s about the almost … 8 million people that live in Arizona and what their priorities are.”
Aides to the governor did not respond to requests for comment.
Others expressed concern. “The candidates should be the ones delivering the message,” said Glenn Hamer, president of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and a former executive director of the state GOP. “When you’re the chair of a state party, you should be laying out a vision to donors about how you’re going to register voters and get voters to the polls.
“If you’re not raising money,” he said, “you’re probably not making the case that you’ve got a plan to do either.”
Ward reacted in Trump-like fashion, blaming the media and embittered foes for distorting what, by her account, has been a highly successful start to her chairmanship.
“The money is great,” she said of fundraising efforts. “It’s very disappointing when people in the press present things in such a misleading and dishonest way.” As for critics in the party, “They’re used to having all of the power and all of the control. … Change is difficult for people who have been in power for a long period of time.”
The Republican National Committee has signaled its support along with the White House, Ward said, and she, at least, is willing to set aside differences to work with friend and adversary alike. “My goal, ultimately, is to unify the party in Arizona into an unbeatable force to win elections in 2020,” Ward said.
Still, donors and GOP strategists in Arizona and Washington have broached the prospect of bypassing Ward and working around the state party, if need be. They worry, in particular, about McSally’s race, which figures to be one of the hardest-fought Senate contests in the country.
“There’s a credibility deficit,” Tyler Montague, a consultant and longtime Republican activist, said of Ward. “She’s got to turn it around quick.”