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.’”