Leave it to Robert Graham to make pounding your adversary into submission sound like something graceful.
Seated in a Starbucks in Tempe, dressed in a yellow baseball cap, shorts, and flip-flops, the 44-year-old, two-term Arizona Republican Party chairman and his 10-year-old son Jackson are fresh from a class in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, the combat style employed by UFC gladiators to get their opponents on their backs so they can pummel them till they tap out.
Sporting a barely noticeable black eye from a punch he took earlier in the day, he tells New Times in an exclusive interview that Brazilian jiu-jitsu, which he took up about a year ago for exercise and relaxation, is like chess, but with full-body contact. He notes the parallels to politics, which involves assessing your opposition, choosing a strategy to take them down, and executing it.
“You can be ultra-aggressive and be a fool, and you exhaust yourself and your resources,” he says, as his bespectacled son amuses himself with Dad’s cellphone. “Or you can be very intentional in everything you do, and usually your opposition will take care of itself. Either because they’re overconfident or they project their moves so much that you can counter them very simply.”
Without a doubt, the Democrats and their allies had been overconfident in Arizona, bragging in the weeks and months leading up to the November 8 election that they’d turn the traditionally red state blue for Hillary Clinton. Democrats and various progressive groups poured millions of dollars into the state, and Hillary and her surrogates stumped Arizona in hopes that the pundits and pollsters who saw an opening for her here were on to something.
To some degree, they were. In early ballot returns statewide, the Democrats were beating the Republicans, who maintain a historical registration advantage in Arizona. Graham’s executive director, Indian-born numbers savant Avinash Iragavarapu, informed Graham that the early deficit was caused by underperformance among regular GOP voters ages 45 to 65 — the folks the Rs usually can count on.
“For some reason, they were not voting,” Graham recalls. “So we put a full-court press on GOTV [Get Out the Vote], shifting all our phone calls and door-knocking to these people. In a matter of days, we went from a 3 percent deficit to a 6 percent advantage [in returned early ballots], which is unheard of.”
Graham and his team, along with hundreds of volunteers, had righted the listing ship, leaving the party’s presidential nominee, Donald J. Trump, victorious by about four points, and Arizona safely in the red column. Graham had been neutral in the presidential contest up until Trump won Arizona’s presidential preference primary in March, then he was all-in, appearing at six of the seven rallies Trump held in the state and three in other states, marshaling a fierce defense of the billionaire against critics in the Republican leadership.
Which is no doubt why Graham is being mentioned as one of several possible candidates to replace Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus, who has been tapped as chief of staff for the new administration. The situation is fluid, and a decision could come any day. During Graham’s two terms as state party chair, the charismatic former businessman has revived the Arizona GOP from the doldrums of previous leadership, which was seen as incompetent, divisive, and self-defeating. That Graham has any shot at all is testament to his ambition and to the skill set he displayed at the state level and beyond.
While campaigning in 2013 for his first two-year term as state chair, Graham garnered the support of both the state party’s far-right Tea Party faction and the GOP centrists that the far right regards as RiNOs, or “Republicans in Name Only.” After he was elected with more than 70 percent of the vote, he refilled the party’s coffers and by 2016 registered enough new Republican voters to surpass the “no party preference” category that the Rs came in second to in recent years, with the Ds a distant third.
As party chair, he fought back an attempt to censure him by disgruntled Republicans and deftly played both sides of the party’s longstanding divide over U.S. Senator John McCain, who is variously loved and loathed by the GOP faithful.
And despite the Republican Party’s hardline stance on border security, interior enforcement, and refugees, Graham has, without backpedaling on these issues, fought to make the party of Lincoln as inclusive as it should be, at least in Arizona. By sheer force of personality and an abundance of goodwill — driven in no small part by enlightened self-interest — Graham reached out to ethnic and religious minority groups in Arizona, pulling them into the Republican Party’s big tent, a feat that if reproduced nationally could help Trump and the Republican Party retain power for the next eight years.
A president-elect traditionally will pick his or her candidate for party chair in the weeks before the inauguration and start lobbying RNC members on the person’s behalf. It’s generally assumed that the president-elect’s pick will be the new RNC chair, though it is up to the RNC’s 168 members to ratify that decision with an election sometime in January. The chair leads the committee in organizing the party, defining a national strategy that will win elections, and, perhaps most important, fundraising.
Other than Graham, possible picks include Trump’s campaign point man in the key swing state of Pennsylvania, David Urban, who is given a lot of credit for Trump’s crucial win there; Matt Pinnell, former chair of the Oklahoma Republican Party and Priebus’ liaison between the RNC and the state parties; Fox News contributor Mercedes “Mercy” Schlapp, a first-generation Cuban-American and wife of Matt Schlapp, chair of the influential American Conservative Union, which hosts the annual Conservative Political Action Conference; David Bossie, Trump’s deputy campaign manager, now deputy executive director of the transition staff; Michigan GOP chair Ronna Romney McDaniel, Mitt Romney’s niece; and, most recently suggested, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Trump supporter and former rival who was recently booted from leadership of the transition team.
Graham’s name had been floated as a possible challenger to Priebus as far back as a year ago, and he has not been shy about his ambition. A party he hosted in Cleveland on the last night of the Republican National Convention featured a performance by Kid Rock, and gave Graham a chance to schmooze with possible supporters for a bid to replace Priebus.
One member of the Trump transition staff who openly supports Graham is Arizona Treasurer Jeff DeWit, who in January 2016 became the first statewide elected official in the nation to endorse Trump for president, when most politicos thought Trump was little more than a sideshow. Thereafter, DeWit became Trump’s man in Arizona, and when Trump handily won the Arizona primary, DeWit became the campaign’s chief operating officer and was recently given the title of special adviser for operations within the transition staff.
“I believe Robert Graham would make a fantastic RNC chairman,” DeWit enthused when contacted by New Times. “He is a hard worker and a unifier, and has done a spectacular job of building up the state party. He has a level head and the ability to connect with everyone and is a very effective organizational manager. He is also a great ground-game guy, which is playing a bigger and bigger role in elections each cycle.”
Other sources close to the transition confirm that Graham definitely has a shot at becoming RNC chair, but that others might have an edge. One insider indicated that Graham is liked by most, including Trump and Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, but that Priebus may be less of a fan, given that Graham was seeking the chairmanship long before Priebus’ new position with the Trump team was announced.
Graham also was critical of those who chided Trump for his 2005 hot-mic conversation with then-Access Hollywood personality Billy Bush, when the video was made public in early October. Top GOP bigwigs, such as U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan and Priebus, were among those who lambasted Trump over his talk about grabbing women “by the pussy,” among other off-color comments.
“No woman should ever be described in these terms or talked about in this manner. Ever,” read a statement by Priebus after the video hit TV.
Trump apologized, but in a press release issued by the Arizona GOP on October 10, Graham went after those in his own party who were wagging fingers at Trump, invoking the Jesus-quote, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” Graham then defended Trump, though he admitted in the statement that he couldn’t defend Trump’s words.
“I will not condemn or abandon a man that has every right to forgiveness as I do,” Graham said in the release. “Nor will I give up on the people of this great nation. We must lead. It is my responsibility, as a member of the Republican National Committee, to elect our Republican nominees and defend our country against all enemies.”
The statement was reported by Politico as a less-than-veiled jab at Priebus. But then, considering where Priebus is in the new Trump administration, and given Priebus’ past, sometimes-withering criticism of the president-elect, Graham’s verbal volleys and maneuverings against Priebus could be to his credit in Trump’s world. Think of that classic Star Trek episode, “Mirror, Mirror,” where inhabitants of an alternate Enterprise advance in rank by killing off their superiors.
Trump’s transition team didn’t respond to a request for comment on Graham’s chances. Graham, however, told New Times that he received a vetting call from team Trump, during which he was put through his paces on his plans for the party, should he get the nod.
Certainly, Graham cannot be faulted for a lack of loyalty. Not only did he have Trump’s back when others wavered, he continued to campaign enthusiastically for victory in Arizona and other states such as Nevada, Hawaii, and elsewhere.
Graham’s family helped out too, particularly Graham’s well-spoken, 13-year-old daughter Faith — one of six children Graham has with his wife Julia (including a foster child). Faith, along with her dad and DeWit, helped warm up the crowd during Trump’s last rally in Arizona, October 29 at the Phoenix Convention Center.
Faith stole the show, speaking before a crowd of thousands, with women in the audience waving pink pom-poms and pink signs that read, “Women for Trump.” Her message — in support of a candidate branded as anti-woman — was perfectly calibrated for the moment, as the Trump campaign headed into the final stretch.
“My name is Faith Graham,” she said. “I’m a 13-year-old girl, I’m educated, and I support Donald J. Trump.”
She went on to bash Hillary Clinton as a serial liar, likened her to King George III, and announced that Trump was the candidate who wanted what was best for the people.
“Do you want to know why Hillary Clinton will not be the first woman president of the United States?” she asked in a closing zinger. “Because I will be the first woman president.”
Faith was a hit, and video of her speech went viral. Graham seems particularly proud of the moment. He said he wished people could see Trump behind the scenes, where the candidate was charming and “like a grandpa” to his children and his wife.
“After her big speech, Trump sent me an e-mail,” Graham said. “He said, ‘Your daughter did great. The worst thing about my speech is that I had to go up after her.’”
Graham’s personal and political history offer ample evidence that he’d excel in the GOP’s top leadership position, according to several politicos who spoke to New Times.
Among these is veteran Republican political consultant Nathan Sproul, of Tempe’s Lincoln Strategy Group, who has worked on behalf of national campaigns for President George W. Bush and presidential wannabe Mitt Romney. “Graham certainly has done a good job in Arizona,” Sproul said. “He’s proven he’s a successful fundraiser and has the résumé to back it up.”
Indeed, the state party was considered by many to be a laughingstock under previous chairman Tom Morrissey, who lucked into the position in 2011 when he was recruited at the last minute by the Tea Party wing, earning the endorsement of party icon Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
Graham made a run for party chair that year, too. The owner of a successful wealth-management firm in Scottsdale, RG Capital, and formerly the owner of the technology company iNation, Graham had briefly thrown his hat into the 2010 gubernatorial race, back when Governor Jan Brewer’s favorability rating was in a ditch almost as deep as the recession the state was then experiencing.
Brewer’s political skin was saved when she signed Arizona’s anti-immigration legislation, Senate Bill 1070, which catapulted her to Republican rock-stardom, aided and abetted by her frequent appearances on Fox News. Despite his wealth, Graham couldn’t compete with all of Brewer’s free publicity and folded his campaign. Though he’d written a union-bashing book, Job Killers: The American Dream in Reverse, which made him welcome at conservative forums like the American Legislative Exchange Council, he was hardly a household name, even in state GOP circles.
Still, Graham survived the first two ballots at the party’s January 2011 state meeting, only to end up in third place on the third ballot, with Morrissey triumphant.
“Nobody knew who I was,” Graham recalled. “I came out of nowhere. But I made a decision right there that I was going to stay involved.”
He started locally, using as a guidebook The Blueprint: How the Democrats Won Colorado (and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care), which told the story of how the Democrats flipped Colorado from red to blue within four years, from 2004 to 2008, by putting aside ideological differences and building the political infrastructure for success.
Using some of what he learned in the book, Graham formed an independent expenditure committee called the Arizona Truth Project, which in 2011 targeted three members of the Gilbert town council based on their records, sweeping them from office. Total cost to Graham’s committee? $5,000, which Graham now calls “a very smart investment.”
Graham and other local players, including former state House speaker Kirk Adams, soon were after bigger game. The Arizona Truth Project morphed into the 501(c)(4) advocacy group Americans for Responsible Leadership, and in 2012, ARL donated mega-millions in dark money to battle a tax-hike proposition favored by Governor Jerry Brown and support an anti-union measure favored by ARL.
On both counts, ARL failed, and the organization ultimately was dinged with record fines by the state of California for campaign finance violations. ARL was forced to disclose the source of its funding, most of which came from a group tied to the conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, according to a report by OpenSecrets.org.
Still, for Republicans, it was a good fight, even if it was a lost cause. Governor Brown went so far as to suggest that the Arizona group might be funded by terrorists, which Graham still recalls with pride.
“In the 2012 election cycle, we raised 26 million bucks,” he said of ARL. “And we picked a lot of fights ... The big controversy was in California. But that was like the red badge of courage. Jerry Brown called me a terrorist. But we made them work. They had to work hard to get that tax passed.”
Next up for Graham was a retry for Arizona GOP chair. This time, the consensus was that under Morrissey, the state party had become a bad joke. Fundraising suffered. The party’s administration was beset by controversies, and when a poorly planned state convention in 2012 ended with Libertarian supporters of Congressman Ron Paul nearly hijacking the proceedings, it seemed everyone was ready for new leadership.
Graham lined up a list of endorsements from the center and the far right, the latter even including recently recalled former state Senator Russell Pearce. Morrissey abandoned a bid at re-election, opening the door for Graham to win with 70 percent of the vote.
The new chair set his sights on 2014, when eight of Arizona’s statewide offices would be in play, and he made a conscious and not always successful effort to calm the tension between the moderates and the rabid Tea Party types.
Mike Noble, a Republican pollster and strategist with the Phoenix consulting firm OH Predictive Insights, recalled the sea change from the Morrissey regime to Graham’s leadership. “Graham was able to work between both sides,” Noble says. “Morrissey ... was hard conservative right, but he didn’t get along with the moderates, so the party had no money to do anything. Then Graham got in, and he was basically able to bridge the money gap between the hard right and the moderates.”
That is to say, the right-wing ideologues, or the “crazies” — as they’re referred to in GOP circles — often have no money, while the moderates, dissed as RiNOs by the wingnuts, usually have the wherewithal to make their own money without relying on a government pension or sinecure, as so many wingnuts seem to in Sand Land.
Organizationally and morale-wise, the Arizona GOP improved under Graham’s watch, and in November 2014, the GOP swept all eight statewide elections, with Governor Doug Ducey at the top of the heap. The AZ GOP also flipped the Second Congressional District with a win by Republican Martha McSally, giving the Rs a 5-4 majority of the U.S. House delegation. Additionally, Graham fought that year to elect the hapless, wingnutty Diane Douglas as state superintendent of public instruction, despite many Republicans publicly disavowing her for a far more qualified Democratic candidate.
For Graham, the goal was a unified front, victory, and the calming of intraparty squabbles and ideological purity tests. But he also remained fairly neutral. For instance, in early 2014, when a hard-right faction led by Maricopa County chair A.J. La Faro brought a resolution to the floor censuring U.S. Senator John McCain — largely for his support of the so-called Gang of Eight immigration reform — Graham allowed the party radicals their day in the sun, and the measure passed on a voice vote.
But a year later, when McCain came before the annual state meeting to speak, he was booed by many in the audience, with some screaming foul language and at least one McCain hater shouting out that McCain was a “war mongrel,” though he clearly meant “warmonger.” After McCain finished his address, most of which was unintelligible given the noise, Graham rose to chastise his fellow Rs.
“I’ve just got to tell you,” he said. “When my kids do what you just did, I [scold] them for horrible behavior.”
Some booed Graham, others clapped and thanked him afterward. Graham, nonetheless, was re-elected by an overwhelming margin.
Still, for the anti-McCain fanatics, neutrality is not an option. So at the 2016 January meeting, a smaller group of anti-McCain tuskers sought to bring a censure resolution against Graham. Wise to the move, Graham turned the meeting over to a parliamentarian brought in by the party, who ruled the motion against Graham out of order.
Graham had survived, but he was already eyeing RNC chair Reince Priebus’ job.
Perhaps Graham’s most surprising achievement is his outreach to Democrats, Latinos, Native Americans, Muslims, and various other ethnic and religious minorities in the state. That outreach has not been welcome to all GOPers, particularly some older, Anglo Republicans who view with suspicion the sort of multiculturalism that is normally associated with Democrats.
“The Republican Party has to be inclusive to grow,” Graham says. “And what I’ve found is there are more similarities around conservatism than liberalism. Way more. People want jobs, opportunity, prosperity. That’s what is naturally inclusive. You ask anyone, regardless of party, they’re going to say they want that.”
Themes of hard work, independence, the value of education, and national security have universal appeal, Graham says, with the confidence of an evangelist who knows it’s only a matter of presenting people with the “good word,” and the rest will take care of itself.
Yet not all Arizona Republicans want to reach out and engage. Graham recalls a controversy when he decided to speak at the international “Mother Language Day” at Arizona State University, celebrating native tongues from around the world. Graham dropped another fundraising engagement to attend, and not all GOP campers were happy.
“You guys are already Republicans,” he told them. “I’m going to go where these people aren’t Republicans, so we can start building these relationships.”
One part of this effort was formation of the state party’s Asian-American Coalition, to which Graham appointed lifelong Republican and former state Representative Barry Wong as chair.
Wong, a Chinese-American whose grandfather emigrated to the United States from Communist China in the 1950s, says the coalition is an umbrella that covers a wide array of ethnicities and nationalities, including Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, Bangladeshi, Indian, Pakistani, Filipino, and more.
Past state chairmen had given lip service to such coalition-building, says Wong, who stepped down as chairman this year and now serves as executive director of Governor Doug Ducey’s Office of Equal Opportunity. But Graham followed through as no Republican Party official had ever done. Wong said their first goal was identifying community events that the party could participate in and that Graham could attend. The events ran the gamut: celebrations of the Lunar New Year, private Chinese family events, Filipino Independence Day, beauty pageants, Pakistani kite festivals, you name it.
“When Robert Graham started accepting invitations and attending these events — not once but twice, three times or more — he truly started to get to know the people,” Wong says. “He became respected among their community leadership. To me that was a testament to his leadership and true commitment to party-building.”
Though some Asian communities have traditions of staunch anticommunism, that didn’t necessarily translate to an affinity for one party. But the fact that such a high state party official was taking a keen interest in small ethnic communities registered with them.
Wong recalled the old Woody Allen line that 80 percent of life is showing up, and boy, did Graham show up, sometimes with the family in tow, sometimes with his wife, Julia, outfitted in a traditional Vietnamese or Indian dress provided to her by members of that community. But Graham also addressed the communities’ needs and fears.
The coalition’s current chair, Farhana Ahmed, is a Muslim, originally from Bangladesh, now an American citizen. She admitted that some of Trump’s early talk about a freeze on Muslim immigration worried many in her community, but Graham helped allay those concerns.
“Chairman Graham went to the mosque and let people know that we need more prayer,” she recalls. “Later on, president-elect Trump kind of modified what he was saying and came up with the idea that not all Muslims are bad or a threat for the country, but that those who are coming from controversial areas or countries ... we need to screen them.”
As a representative of the Republican Party in Arizona, Ahmed has had to address concerns from Muslims that Trump may start deporting them. “It’s common sense,” Ahmed says. “I just tell them that if you are not a criminal and do not have any illegal status, you have nothing to worry about.”
One of Graham’s triumphs was his hiring of an Indian national as his party’s executive director. Avinash Iragavarapu had cut his teeth in Indian politics, helping to turn out tens of millions of people to vote for the YSR Congress Party. In 2014, while visiting his wife, who was working at Intel in Chandler, he became intrigued with Doug Ducey’s campaign for governor and volunteered.
Graham was impressed by Iragavarapu’s facility with raw data and numbers and hired him as the Arizona GOP’s political director, and finally, executive director. Iragavarapu, however, is not a U.S. citizen, much less a registered Republican, and this rubbed some of the GOP’s old guard the wrong way.
“It was simple,” Graham says he told naysayers. “Avinash was the best and most qualified for the job. It doesn’t matter where he came from as long as he was documented and legal ... His temperament was incredible. He’s service-oriented and committed to excellence.”
Graham’s view was that of a businessman who wants the best person for the job. Still, he and Iragavarapu sat down with some of the critics, spent time with them, and won them over. Graham counts Iragavarapu as crucial to Trump’s success in Arizona, and points out that when early voting began, and the Democrats were eerily outpacing Republicans on ballots returned, it was Iragavarapu who spotted the trend and helped reverse it.
In turn, Iragavarapu credits his boss’ foresight in reaching out to nontraditional areas for Republicans. For instance, in an interview with New Times, former Democratic state Senate minority leader Leah Landrum Taylor, an African-American, credited Graham’s leadership as making her feel comfortable enough to switch from a longtime D to a GOPer last year.
Similarly, though tribal communities have often favored Democrats, Graham helped convert conservative Democratic state Senator Carlyle Begay into a Republican in late 2015.
Though many Democrats always regarded Begay, who is Navajo — or Diné, as the Navajo refer to themselves — as a Republican in disguise and discounted Begay’s switch, it was still a coup for the state GOP. Begay also helped broker a meeting between Trump and some Arizona tribal leaders, where Trump attempted to explain his insult of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s claim to Native American heritage by referring to her more than once as “Pocahontas.”
“He said they should really be insulted by what Warren had said” about having Native American blood, Graham says.
Still, most Navajo leaders snubbed Trump during his visit.
Graham, however, is not easily discouraged. One of the offices that the state GOP opened up this year was in the Democratic stronghold of Nogales, where Graham has done his best to win over locals by participating in festivities there, and, in one case, shipping down a truckload of turkeys for distribution to the needy.
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“Service” is something Graham stresses for his party. This exuberance for volunteerism is driven in part by his faith. Though he was raised Catholic, he converted in his 20s to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Significantly, both faiths stress community service and seek to include all races and nationalities.
“Not to be cheesy,” he says, “but ... we’re all sons and daughters of God. Our job is to serve, not to ostracize.”
Whether The Donald is down with that heartwarming Christian sentiment remains to be seen. Cynics believe Trump is all about serving himself. And ostracism seems to be an art form in president-elect’s hands.
But even a Machiavellian billionaire would recognize the value of someone like Graham, an eternal optimist who wants to make voters of every race, religion, and ethnicity Republicans, and given a role like RNC chair, he just might come close to doing it.