Arizona Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake at a July 18, 2022, candidate forum in Peoria. (Photo by Gage Skidmore | Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)
The historically good results for Arizona Democrats at the polls this month are the third cycle in a row that MAGA has faltered at the ballot box, and political observers say it should be a clarion call to Republicans that Trumpism is a loser in the Grand Canyon State.
But operatives in both parties say that will be easier said than done, as Donald Trump’s grip on the Republican Party electorate remains strong.
“Conservatism wins in Arizona. Crazy does not,” said Chris Baker, a Republican political consultant who works on congressional and legislative races in Arizona and across the country. “The Republican Party in Arizona is at a crossroads right now. Is this the direction we want to continue in?”
Democrats in Arizona found historic success this year. Mark Kelly was re-elected to the Senate, a win that marks the third straight cycle where Democrats won a Senate seat. Katie Hobbs will be the first Democrat elected governor since Janet Napolitano, who was elected in 2002 and re-elected in 2006. Adrian Fontes won secretary of state, retaining the position for Democrats, following Hobbs winning that post in 2018. And Kris Mayes is nursing a small lead in the attorney general’s race, and a victory would be the first for Democrats since Terry Goddard was elected in 2002 and served two terms.
The 2022 victories come on the heels of 2020, where Joe Biden became the first Democrat since Bill Clinton in 1996 to win Arizona’s electoral votes. That year, Democrats also won a majority of the state’s seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and Kelly defeated Martha McSally in a special election. In 2018, Kyrsten Sinema defeated McSally and Hobbs gave Democrats control of the secretary of state’s office for the first time since Richard Mahoney won in 1990.
The last time Democrats won the top three statewide offices — governor, secretary of state and attorney general — was in 1974. That year, Raúl Castro was elected governor, Wesley Bolin was the people’s choice for secretary of state and Bruce Babbitt ousted a GOP incumbent to become attorney general.
Chad Campbell, a Democratic consultant who worked on more than a dozen Arizona campaigns this cycle, said U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell hit the nail on the head in August when he said “candidate quality” was a problem for Republicans. McConnell was referring to GOP Senate candidates, but Campbell said those problems were the same up and down the ticket.
“If you run whacko candidates, you’re not going to win at the state level in Arizona,” he said. “MAGA is not a winning platform for statewide candidates in Arizona.”
Big expectation, big disappointments
By all accounts, 2022 should have been a banner year for Republicans. Midterms have historically been happy hunting for the party that doesn’t control the presidency. Republicans lost 30 seats in 2006, when George W. Bush was president. Democrats lost 63 seats in Barack Obama’s first midterm in 2010 and another 13 in 2014. Republicans under Trump lost 40 in 2018.
With Joe Biden’s approval rating hovering in the low 40s, the stage was set for Republicans to run roughshod over Democrats. Arizona Republicans spent months touting the coming “red wave” that would sweep them into office at all levels of government, from Kelly’s Senate seat to statewide offices to Congress to the state legislature.
“This was the year they should have run up the score,” Campbell said. “Instead, you lost statewide seats and are hanging on by the skin of your teeth in the legislature.”
Even after favorable legislative redistricting, Republicans couldn’t expand on their majorities at the state Capitol. For the second election in a row, they emerged with the barest majorities: 16 of 30 in the Senate and 31 of 60 in the House of Representatives.
Shane Wikfors, a longtime Republican activist who founded the conservative blog Sonoran Alliance back in the mid-aughts, said he hopes this election serves as “a signal to the MAGA crowd that Trump doesn’t sell well in Arizona.”
“This cycle was a mandate to walk away from this stuff and get back to being the party of (John) McCain and Jon Kyl and Doug Ducey,” he said.
Wikfors said the Republican Party is facing a dearth of leadership, beginning with Trump — still the de facto leader of the GOP — and filtering down to the Arizona Republican Party, which is led by Kelli Ward, a Trump acolyte who facilitated his “fake elector” scheme here, and increasingly intertwined with pro-Trump Turning Point USA.
“The leadership just doesn’t understand what it takes to win a statewide election,” he said.
But DJ Quinlan, a former executive director of the Arizona Democratic Party who now helps run Democratic campaigns, said the problems for the GOP “go much deeper than Donald Trump and Kelli Ward,” who leads the state Republican Party.
Republican primaries were crowded, Quinlan said, and each race was filled with candidates trying to out-MAGA their opponents.
“There were no candidates running in the ‘mainstream Republican’ lane,” he said.
Even the candidates who typically would have filled that lane — like gubernatorial hopeful Karrin Taylor Robson, a businesswoman who comes from a family with a long history in Republican politics — recognized that GOP primary voters were hostile to anyone perceived as being part of the party “establishment.”
Republicans are beginning to tire of Trump and Trumpism, said GOP political consultant and lobbyist Marcus Dell’Artino.
“There’s a segment of Arizona Republicans who are just done with Donald Trump,” he said.
But while that segment may be growing, Dell’Artino said it’s nowhere near large enough to change the course of the party quickly.
“It’s the beginning of a long campaign. It won’t happen overnight,” he said.
MAGA isn’t a message
The continued power of the MAGA movement in Arizona should leave Republicans “petrified” about 2024, Campbell, the Democratic consultant, said. Democrats performed much better than expected in the midterms — and in two years, “Democrats will actually turn out to vote in large numbers.”
“People want adults in charge. They’re tired of MAGA, they’re tired of Donald Trump,” he said. “If you don’t have anything more to offer than that, you can’t win statewide in Arizona.”
That lack of ideas from Republicans was key for Democrats, said Barry Dill, a Democratic consultant and political operative who cut his teeth in Arizona politics in the mid-1980s. The GOP candidates seemingly forgot that it’s impossible to win elections in Arizona without appealing to independent voters, he said.
“You still have to have a message. You have to tell people what you’ll do for them,” he said. “And Republicans this cycle didn’t do that.”
Dell’Artino said that was the defining characteristic of the most high-profile statewide Republican campaigns.
“We never presented an idea. We never presented a vision of the state in the next four years,” he said. “It was all Trump, Trump, Trump.”
The reason there wasn’t any vision presented outside of fealty to Trump, said Baker, the Republican consultant, is that the GOP candidates spent their energy grinding axes against enemies instead of meeting voters where they are. He said polling consistently showed that swing voters were worried about things like inflation and education.
“They campaigned on the issues that were important to them rather than on issues that were important to swing voters, and that is a quick and easy way to lose,” he said.
Tell voters to ‘get out’? Don’t be surprised when they do
And on top of that, the GOP candidates were openly hostile to voters who weren’t in the tank for Trump.
“When voters hear, repeatedly, ‘Get out, we don’t want you,’ I think they listened. And they voted accordingly,” Dell’Artino said.
Baker said that gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake unnecessarily damaged her candidacy when she repeatedly attacked the late John McCain, his family and told McCain-supporting Republicans to “get the hell out.”
That message might resonate in a primary election, where far-right voters have more influence. But in a general election where the only path to victory is to ensure centrist Republicans and right-leaning independents back you, the anti-McCain rhetoric is foolish, Baker said.
“You basically told a bunch of voters you needed to win that you didn’t want their vote,” he said. “You don’t win elections by insulting voters.”
The GOP litmus test for candidates is steeped in the MAGA ethos, said Quinlan, the Democratic consultant. Having the right enemies is more important than policy positions, and Republicans who are civil to their opponents or display pragmatism in governing are viewed as apostates.
And until that changes, Republicans are going to win GOP strongholds in rural Arizona, but struggle to appeal to the educated, suburbanite swing voters that they’ve now largely lost for three straight elections.
“You cannot win statewide with just Yavapai and Mohave counties,” he said.
This story was originally produced by The Arizona Mirror which is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus, including the Daily Montanan, supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.
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