The simmering discontent of a portion of Arizona Republicans over John McCain’s famous penchant for opposing his party boiled over in the winter of 2014 with the longtime U.S. senator’s censorship.
McCain’s allies responded with an all-out push to regain control of the Arizona Republican Party. Censorship supporters were ousted or diminished, and McCain went on to defeat his far-right challenger in a blowout in the 2016 primary.
Less than a decade later, the right-wing forces that McCain marginalized within the Arizona GOP are now in full control, with profound implications for one of the nation’s closest battlegrounds. Arizona Republicans traded McCain for Donald Trump.
“We’ve driven a stake through the heart of the McCain machine,” Kari Lake said, making a dramatic stabbing gesture, in a speech days after winning the Republican gubernatorial primary in early August.
Lake, a well-known former TV news anchor, has delighted segments of the state’s GOP base who have long been at odds with their party’s establishment and want their leaders to take on Democrats, not compromise. with them.
It attracts large enthusiastic crowds who are unusually excited for a midterm election. Her fans erupt into rapturous applause when she attacks the media or pledges to repel the “invasion” at the southern border.
“She is for border control. He is a MAGA person. She fights the establishment. And that, to me, is good enough for me,” said Bob Hunt, a Republican from Tucson who attended a rally on the lake this summer.
McCain, who died in 2018, never lost a race in his home country. But his Republican brand of republicanism is on the back foot after the former president’s election-denying allies swept the GOP primaries this month from governor and U.S. Senate to the state legislature.
Kelli Ward, the main challenger whom McCain defeated in her last re-election campaign, was elected state GOP chairwoman in 2019. She broke with precedent for party leaders and openly campaigned for the slate of Trump candidates ahead of the primary this year.
It’s a homecoming of sorts for Republicans in Arizona, a state with a long history as a melting pot for emerging streams of conservatism.
Barry Goldwater, an Arizona senator from the 1950s to the 1980s, pushed the GOP in a new direction, laying the foundation for the conservative and libertarian movements. He voiced the anti-elite grievances and racial anxieties that contributed to Trump’s appeal.
McCain replaced Goldwater in the Senate, representing an Arizona reshaped by decades of migration. Young families flocked to affordable neighborhoods in and around Phoenix, and retirees fleeing the snow settled in new golf communities attracting seniors.
McCain ultimately built a national profile as a fiscal conservative unafraid — even eager — to topple GOP leadership. He helped pass campaign finance reform legislation and worked on unsuccessful immigration reform and climate change legislation. In one of his latest provocative rulings, he gave a dramatic vote to kill legislation that would have repealed former President Barack Obama’s health care law.
McCain won over independents and some Democrats to win re-election with an overwhelming majority. But the apostasies that appealed to more moderate voters made him an outcast to many within his own party.
Democrats believe this year’s list of Trump-backed candidates gives them a shot at winning some of the top spots on the ballot. If Republicans win, officials who refuse to accept Trump’s defeat in the 2020 election will hold the levers of power with the ability to set election laws and certify results in a state that plays a significant role in determining the control of Congress and the presidency.
Ideological factions are still in tension within political parties, and Republicans in Arizona have long hosted a particularly noisy tussle. Pro-business, limited government conservatives — such as McCain, former Sen. Jeff Flake and Governor-nominee Doug Ducey — are being derided as “Republicans in name only” by a base eager to fight culture war battles.
Still, a large portion of Republican voters love the establishment brand. Lake had a tough primary race against Karrin Taylor Robson, a conservative businesswoman and longtime donor to both parties’ mainstream candidates. Lake, Finchem and other successful Trump allies all won their primaries with less than 50% of the vote in the multi-candidate fields.
“The people we put in place are not conservative,” said Kathy Petsas, a Republican activist who backed mainstream Republicans in the primary. “There’s nothing conservative about lying about the 2020 election results. When we undermine our democratic institutions, there’s nothing conservative about it.
But rarely have the insurgents been as dominant as they are now in Arizona. GOP candidates for nearly every state office are pushing lies about the 2020 election.
Lake has consistently pursued Ducey, McCain, Flake and others she has called “Republicans in name only” en route to winning the GOP gubernatorial nomination. She joined Mark Finchem, who won the primary for secretary of state, in a lawsuit to demand the manual counting of ballots; they lost, but appealed this week.
US Representative Paul Gosar was censured by the House and lost his committee assignments for posting a video depicting violence against Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
The main winners represent those who control the Arizona Republican Party today and are fiercely loyal to Trump, who was only the second Republican since the 1940s to lose Arizona.
Last year, the party censured McCain’s widow, Cindy McCain, for supporting Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, along with Flake and Ducey. Flake decided not to run for re-election in 2018 after his criticism of Trump infuriated the base and promised a fierce primary battle.
“Unfortunately, all of these election deniers have made it here in swing state Arizona,” said Bill Gates, the Republican chairman of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, who has faced a vitriolic backlash for defending the election. of 2020 against Trump’s false fraud allegations. . “So we will see if these people are able to win in the general election. I think that will give us an idea of the direction this party will take in the future.
Gates was censured by Republicans in Legislative District 3 last month for saying that GOP candidates refusing the election may have to lose for the party to find its way.
Rusty Bowers, the staunchly conservative speaker of the State House, has also found himself ostracized by his party for taking a stand against Trump’s lies. He lost the primary in his bid to advance to the state senate.
Bowers said last month that Trump had ‘beat our party’ and that the Arizona GOP faced a ‘tough record’ if it continued to bully those who failed to comply with the former president’s demands. .
For now, the far right of the party is ascendant and sees no need to moderate.
Days after Lake won the gubernatorial primary, his campaign shared video of Goldwater’s speech accepting the 1964 Republican nomination for president.
“I remind you that extremism in the defense of freedom is not a vice,” he said. “And let me also remind you that moderation in the pursuit of justice is not a virtue.”
The crowd erupted. Goldwater won just six states in the second-most lopsided defeat in a presidential race in U.S. history, but he remained a hero to many in his home state.
Lake’s official campaign Twitter account said a united party would bring “conservative renewal” to the state in the general election: “Goldwater’s party has risen like a phoenix.”
Associated Press writer Ali Swenson in New York contributed to this report.
This story was originally published September 18, 2022 8:14 a.m.