'Dysfunction' and 'Bloodlust': The Arizona Republican Party Is Still Sorting Things Out

Kelli Ward speaks at the January 23, 2021, statutory meeting of the Arizona GOP.
Kelli Ward speaks at the January 23, 2021, statutory meeting of the Arizona GOP. Screenshot via Facebook

On January 23, Arizona Congressman Paul Gosar stood on a stage before a crowd of Republicans and read aloud a scathing text message he'd recently received.

Gosar was addressing the Arizona GOP's biannual Statutory Meeting, where hundreds of Republican party activists from across the state had gathered to vote on party leadership positions, policy-related resolutions, and bylaws. The event was held at Dream City Church, a megachurch in north Phoenix with a capacity of about 3,000. In June, before Donald Trump appeared at a campaign event there, its leaders falsely claimed that the facility's ventilation system was capable of virtually eliminating the risk of COVID-19.

There'd been unity and purpose at that summer rally, a common goal of reelecting Trump and defeating the Democrats. But Trump had lost, as had Martha McSally, who surrendered her U.S. Senate seat to Democrat Mark Kelly. Now, dissent had snuck in under the tent flaps. The most extreme possible version of Trumpism in a purpling state like Arizona, it seemed to some in the GOP, was looking more and more like a losing electoral strategy. Some were openly questioning whether the far-right chair of the Arizona GOP, Kelli Ward, was still fit to lead the party. Pamphlets littering the venue's large patio accused her of failing Trump and Arizona Republicans.

Like Ward, Gosar — a Prescott dentist who represents Arizona's 4th Congressional District — is a Republican extremist. The text he read to the audience accused him of sedition — for helping incite the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol where five people died, and for spreading false conspiracy theories that the 2020 election was rigged against Trump. He jokingly referred to it as one of his "love letters."

"'Your deplorable behavior over the last few days has compelled me, and I hope others, to condemn your acts and words which have incited violence and have clearly resulted in the death of our fellow Americans and the undermining of our democratic institutions,'" Gosar said, reading from his cellphone. "'You are an embarrassment to Arizona. For the good of the state and Republican party, you should apologize to the American people, resign, and accept punishment for your acts of sedition.'"

Gosar then named its author: Andy Kunasek, a Republican and a former longtime elected member of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors. The crowd, many of whose members would later give Gosar a standing ovation, promptly began to boo Kunasek.

Kunasek was at the meeting, attending as a state committeeman for Legislative District 28. He was outside the venue hall getting a coffee during Gosar's speech. But he wasn't surprised to hear that Gosar was going after him publicly. Nor was he troubled when Arizona Senator Nancy Barto approached him later at the meeting and told him that she was "disappointed" in him for writing the letter. As Kunasek sees it, Gosar and other extreme members of his party have been "spoon-feeding" voters a steady diet of misinformation since the November 2020 election.

His concern about the impact of conspiracy-laden rhetoric like Gosar's isn't just anecdotal. Recent polling of Arizona voters shows that over 50 percent of Republicans believe that Trump was the rightful winner of the election, while another 19 percent are unsure who won.

"A bunch of good people have been lied to and fed a false narrative," Kunasek told Phoenix New Times recently.

Kunasek, who served as a Maricopa County supervisor from 1997 to 2016, stands by the letter he sent Gosar. A lifelong Republican, he says he voted for Trump in the 2020 election. But, for him, the riot at the Capitol was the breaking point.

"Some of these people were truly hand grenades waiting for someone to pull the pin," Kunasek said, "and I think Gosar and Donald Trump pulled the pin."

It bothers him as a citizen. But it also bothers him as a Republican in the state of Arizona.

"We’ve gone from two U.S. senators to none," Kunasek said of the GOP in his home state. "We did lose the presidency. We’re razor-thin across the board. People sense we’re losing ground."

Looking for the Exits

Gosar's stunt was hardly the only bit of fireworks at the January 23 meeting. Ward responded to the pressure on her by doubling down on what some might characterize as Trumplike behavior, while the party put forth resolutions to censure three moderate Arizona Republicans: Governor Doug Ducey, former Senator Jeff Flake, and Cindy McCain, the widow of former Senator John McCain. Both Flake and McCain had endorsed Biden in the run-up to the 2020 election; Ducey committed the sin of using "dictatorial" executive power to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the end, Ward and the far-right wing of the party came out on top. The same Republicans who booed Kunasek would go on to reelect Ward. The party also approved the censures, which made national headlines.

But whether Ward's vision is a winning one in most Arizona general elections is another question entirely. The GOP will get an answer to it soon enough, though: In 2022's midterms, Kelly's U.S. Senate seat, the governorship, the Attorney General's office, and many other important statewide offices will be up for grabs.

"Centrist Republicans, they are leaving the party," said Johnny Melton, a Republican state committeeman from Legislative District 21 who was at the January 23 meeting. "I just spoke to somebody today who was at the [January 23] meeting and they’re done — they’re done. They said they don’t want to be involved with this anymore."

"My god, the body passed a resolution to censure a sitting governor," he added. "If we’re publicly lashing our governor, centrist Republicans have to wonder, 'Am I valued here?'"

It appears some Republicans have already made up their minds. A little over 10,000 Arizona voters left the Republican party in January, according to data provided by the Secretary of State's Office. Most of those former Republican voters switched to having no party preference, but almost 1,400 registered as Democrats.

Melton, who voted against the censures of Flake, McCain, and Ducey, and opposed Ward for the chair position, is among those Republicans who believe that more inclusive messaging from the Arizona GOP is needed after the 2020 general election results. After all, this is only the second time that the state voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since the 1950s, and Biden won over a majority of Arizona's independent voters and even some Republicans, according to exit poll data.

"I’m so tired of hearing this purge the party of the Rinos [Republicans in Name Only]," Melton said. "You can’t win elections by narrowing your tent."

Garrick Taylor, executive vice president of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and a former spokesperson and interim executive director at the Arizona GOP, said "the level of dysfunction currently on display, the depth of the divisions," in the state's Republican party is "unusual."

But, he added, "This loyalty to the cult of personality [of Trump] could prove very durable."

The Ward Effect

Lori Klein Corbin, one of the party's representatives at the Republican National Committee, told the crowd at the January 23 meeting to "choose wisely" when voting for the new party chair position, according to a recording that was live-streamed by Right Side Broadcasting, a conservative media outlet. (Members of the media were not allowed inside the venue.)

Klein Corbin's message appeared to be a not-so-subtle dig at Ward.

"I’m not going to sugar-coat things here," she said from the stage. "After our election was over and Arizona lost, we have got to look at what we need to fix. We can no longer reward failure. Doing the same thing over again and expecting different results no longer can be the norm."

Bob Lettieri, the party's treasurer who ran unsuccessfully for the chairmanship at the meeting, said during his candidate speech that Republicans need to reach out to voters beyond their hardcore base.

"That’s how we’re going to win elections, by growing the base," he said. "We will have an inclusive party. We’ll have Reagan’s big tent. I don’t care where you sit in the tent, we’re not going to call you a name, we’re going to invite you in to win."

click to enlarge Arizona Republican Party Chairwoman Kelli Ward - ZEE PERALTA
Arizona Republican Party Chairwoman Kelli Ward
Zee Peralta

Ward ended up getting 46 percent of the vote on the first ballot, and Lettieri only garnered around 25 percent. He then urged his supporters to back the second-highest vote-getter, Sergio Arellano, who served on the Latinos for Trump Advisory Board, in the next round of voting. But Ward emerged with 51 percent to Arellano's 48 percent — a margin of 42 votes. Some Republicans called for an audit of the results to confirm their accuracy, but, ironically, Ward refused, saying in a recent radio interview that "everything was above-board."

If Ward hadn't already laid out her vision for the party before the vote by enthusiastically supporting Trump's effort to overturn the 2020 election results, she made her views crystal clear at the January 23 meeting. To consolidate support for her reelection bid, she played a recording of Trump giving her his "complete and total endorsement" for the chair position before the voting began.

"The president is watching today’s race very closely and the decision is ours. Are we going to reelect me and show the state, the country, and the world that we are an America-first Arizona, or will we go back to the dark days before Trump?" she asked from the stage. "We can’t stop here in Arizona. We have to have America-first members of the RNC, to change the culture there. This election cycle exposed that we have too much cronyism in our party from top to bottom."

click to enlarge A vendor displays Trump swag at the January 23 Arizona GOP meeting in Phoenix. - PHOTO BY JOSH KELETY
A vendor displays Trump swag at the January 23 Arizona GOP meeting in Phoenix.
Photo by Josh Kelety

Ward, who did not respond to New Times' requests for comment, hasn't always utilized antagonistic and divisive political rhetoric. An osteopathic physician, she was first elected to the Arizona State Senate in 2012. That same year, she famously gave an interview to the Yellow Sheet, a newsletter covering Arizona politics, where she voiced opposition to government crackdowns on abortion.

"I think the government has come too much into the doctor-patient relationship in all areas, and I think abortion is one of those areas," she reportedly said during the interview. "My preference would be that a patient and a doctor talk to each other about the risks, the benefits, [and] what is the potential outcome for the mother should she choose to have a procedure like that, instead of having the government trying to make those decisions."

Years later, when she stepped down from her seat in the state Legislature to take on Senator John McCain in the 2016 primary election, Ward tried to shore up her conservative credentials. She attacked McCain for flip-flopping on supporting Planned Parenthood, and wrote in a fundraising email, "If McCain can't even muster the strength to stop abortionists from selling baby's body parts, then there is no chance he will fight for anything else."

Ward lost badly to McCain in the 2016 primary. But two years later she was once again jockeying for power with former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Martha McSally in the race to fill outgoing Senator Jeff Flakes' seat, all of them trying to outdo one another for the prize of Most Loyal to Trump. When McCain died in August 2018 of brain cancer, Ward was criticized for suggesting that the announcement that McCain was discontinuing his cancer treatment was intentionally timed to hurt her campaign for Senate. Ducey later snubbed Ward by picking McSally to fill his seat.

In 2019, Ward was elected to be chair of the Arizona GOP, promising to "make Arizona red again." But since the election, she hasn't been preaching party unity. She famously told Ducey in December to "STHU" [shut the hell up] in a tweet, and on the same day of the riot at the U.S. Capitol, Ward suggested that an alternative to the Republican party was necessary, tweeting, "Can we salvage/save the Republican Party or do we need another option?" and embedding a poll that included the option, "#MAGA Party needed."

Her initial response to the attack on the Capitol was to sympathize with the rioters, and she went on to spread the conspiracy theory that antifascist activists caused the violence.

She hasn't paid much of a price for any of it yet. Republicans at the meeting who believe Biden's win is illegitimate seemed to think she'll help save the party.

Edward Wozniak, who came from Sierra Vista in southern Arizona to attend the biannual meeting, cited Trump's endorsement of Ward for his support for her and her reelection as state chair.

"I hope we get a couple of conservatives back in the party and not a lot of these pseudo-Republicans," he said. "Kelli really went out on a limb, what she did trying to support Trump."

"I'm not sure there was a problem with the vote, I think there was a problem with the count," Wozniak added when asked if he thought the election was rigged against Trump. "I think there was probably some inconsistencies."

David Debaun, a state committeeman from Legislative District 30, told New Times that he supported Ward's candidacy and blamed Arizona's 2020 election results on voter fraud or manipulation. He also called Cindy McCain and Jeff Flake "unkind Republicans" and described himself as a Trump supporter.

Of Arizona's two Democratic Senators, he said, "Were those really Senators that got valid votes? Or were theirs manipulated too?"

"The liberals and the leftists are going to overreach with their control of the national government," Debaun said. "The Republican party will probably be energized, and they'll probably come back a lot stronger."

All Politics Is National

Some observers say the role of the state party has dwindled in recent years as local races have become increasingly nationalized with outside groups and political operatives playing a more dominant role.

Paul Bentz, vice president of research and strategy at the Phoenix-based political consulting firm HighGround, said that the Republican National Committee and the Trump campaign managed phone banking, door knocking, and other voter turnout operations in Arizona. The national groups were involved to the point of dictating local staffing positions for those efforts.

"The impact that Kelli Ward and the Arizona Republican Party had on the last cycle is grossly overstated," said Bentz. "The Republicans’ ability to hold on to both legislative chambers and maintain countywide offices in Maricopa County has less to do with what Kelli Ward did and more to do with what the nationally driven victory effort did."

"In effect, the Arizona Republican Party was told what to do and [was] not in charge of the effort. The national folks were charge of it," he added. "It was all being directed by Trump’s national team and his people on the ground in Arizona."

But Ward's leadership did drag the party down in other ways, some Republicans argue. The Arizona GOP's fundraising dwindled early on in Ward's tenure. And Arizona's business community now has a frosty relationship with her.

Ward's critics cite the fact that the bulk of the funding that the Arizona GOP received in 2020 came from the Republican National Committee and the Trump Victory Committee, and not from the party's fundraising efforts. According to the party's year-end report, which was filed with the Federal Elections Commission on January 29, the Arizona GOP only brought in a little over $2 million in donations, while almost $18 million came from "transfers" from other party or political entities.

"A good, functional, organized party is like a field goal unit in a football game. It can earn a candidate a few points here or there, which in some races could be a difference-maker," Garrick Taylor said. "State parties are supposed to register more voters, get out the vote, and amplify the messages of candidates who are running for office under that party’s banner. Based on the state Republican party’s performance in 2020 when it came to the presidential and the U.S. Senate race, the party’s performance was sub-optimal."

'Endless Errors and Embarrassments'

A group of current and former Republican Party chairs in legislative districts and counties across Arizona signed a letter that was sent to Ward before the January 23 meeting that criticized her role in the 2020 election and called on her to end her bid for reelection.

"Outside groups stepped to the plate while county, local and legislative candidates themselves, salvaged Republican majorities across the state," the letter reads. "However, Republican candidates are sharing the same message from 2020: they won their respective races by themselves and party support was nonexistent. There is no doubt the President and the Trump campaign were their lifelines — not the state party... These groups deserve a State G.O.P. that is an equal partner. Unfortunately, the last two years have been quite the opposite. Endless errors and embarrassments have distracted us from our messaging and detracted from our efforts at the grassroots level."

Robert Graham, a former chair of the Arizona GOP from 2013 to 2017, described to New Times a strategy meeting that he attended in Phoenix prior to January 2020 that was convened by staff with the Republican National Committee and the Trump campaign. Ward was there, and the issue of her divisive rhetoric and subsequent media controversies came up.

"She was not interested in taking anybody else’s advice," Graham said. "She and her team believed they had all the answers and didn't believe they needed an outsider to help."

"If I was chairman and this happened under my watch, I would stand in front of my people and say, 'I'm sorry, obviously, we didn't do our job well enough,'" he added. "They’re trying to deflect. They don’t want to be responsible for the outcome so they’re trying to blame everyone who isn't a Trump supporter, which is bull."

Despite the frustration directed at Ward, Republicans aren't writing off their chances in the 2022 midterm elections just yet. Donors and political groups will look to find ways to back more mainstream Republican candidates while essentially ignoring the Arizona GOP, some say.

Graham said that big Republican donors or "donor activists" are "looking for a plan" — for "someone who is going to do what needs to be done on the ground."

"This time around, the people who backed Ducey and those moneyed forces will conduct their business outside the party," Bentz said. "These groups decrying the Arizona Republican Party have not necessarily said that they won’t donate to Republicans. They’re just not going to donate to the state party."

There is no clear Republican frontrunner to challenge Kelly: Ducey recently told the New York Times that he would not be running for the U.S. Senate in 2022 after he's termed out of the governor's office. But Arizona's new Democratic Senator will have to navigate politically challenging votes on progressive priorities pushed by the Biden administration and Congressional Democrats on issues like immigration and climate change, Bentz said.

"I’ve spoken to a lot of Republicans who are confident that they’re going to do well in 2022," he said. "The biggest thing right now is that Republicans are rallying outside of the party.  They’ll meet the party faithful in the long run on the grassroots side to get stuff done. But right now I don't think Kelli Ward is going to be involved in a lot of that decision-making."

click to enlarge Congressman Paul Gosar gets a standing ovation at the January 23 Arizona GOP meeting. - SCREENSHOT VIA FACEBOOK
Congressman Paul Gosar gets a standing ovation at the January 23 Arizona GOP meeting.
Screenshot via Facebook

Trump's influence and popularity with the base is another factor. In a particularly on-the-nose example of Trump's grip on the party, far-right Arizona state Senator Wendy Rogers recently proposed a bill to rename Arizona State Route 260 the "President Donald J. Trump Highway." His sway over GOP grassroots activists could make the 2022 Republican primary elections particularly damaging to GOP candidates who plan to tack to the center to take on moderate Democrats like Kelly.

"I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for moderate, pragmatic, rational people to get a strong foothold in the Republican Party right now," said Chad Campbell, a political consultant and former Democratic Arizona state legislator. "Look at the last cycle: Heather Carter lost her primary. I think she was one of the last moderate pragmatic Republicans left."

Outside at the January 23 meeting, sporadic rain showers poured down. One vendor selling Trump swag said that business was a little slow. Inside, the atmosphere wasn't much sunnier.

"That room felt — it was exactly how it would feel in a room with people who have lost an election," Melton said. "It wasn’t a celebration."

After Kunasek was told that fellow Republicans were booing him, he wandered back toward the venue hall and stood in a doorway to watch Gosar finish his speech, which amounted to a rambling rant about how he had only called for "peaceful" protest of the election results.

"I just stood there while Gosar was still speaking. He was prattling on about how important he is or whatever," he said. "The guy is kind of a pathetic character."

"It’s very cult-like," Kunasek added, referring to some of his fellow Republicans' loyalty to Trump. "They get that almost bloodlust in their mouth and don’t change direction."
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Josh Kelety is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. Previously, he worked as a reporter for the Inlander and Seattle Weekly.
Contact: Josh Kelety