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They carried zero real-world weight. But in Arizona this weekend, the public censures against the incumbent Republican Governor, a former Republican Senator and the widow of a second Republican Senator at the state’s GOP’s convention said plenty about just how hard it is going to be for his critics to exorcise Donald Trump from the party.
The sins of Gov. Doug Ducey, former Sen. Jeff Flake and Cindy McCain, the wife of the party’s 2008 presidential nominee? Being insufficiently supportive of Trump’s failed re-election bid and his false claims after Nov. 3 that he actually won. It didn’t matter that Ducey actually was a Trump supporter during the campaign and was in frequent contact with the White House; he fell out of favor when he didn’t do everything Trump thought he could to save him. There had to be a price.
Trump may be gone, but his spiteful brand of politics still pervades the rank-and-file party activists. Crossing Trump still means trouble, and it’s not immediately clear how long that will last.
As long as Trump’s popularity with a certain set of voters holds, he can continue to wield power from the exile of Mar a Lago. Trump is out of official office, but his power over the GOP — and his threat of forming a third party — will do nothing to help Republicans hold seats in 2022 or reclaim the White House two years after that. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, the mainstay of conservatiave opinion in his country, summarized the fall-out thusly: “Sensible parties that lose elections try to reunite in opposition even while they debate policy differences and examine why they lost. They don’t excommunicate people who could help rebuild a majority.”
Meanwhile, the Arizona GOP also re-elected chairwoman Kelli Ward, a combative figure in Phoenix and a national loyalist to All Things Trump. In what is believed to be Trump’s first post-White House foray into politics, he recorded a video message that she played during the event at Phoenix’s Dream City Church as she kept the crowd riled up against the elites, the insiders and the grifters.
Trump’s quick return signals that he plans to make good on his promises to back his pals and exact revenge from perceived enemies, including the ten House Republicans who voted for his second impeachment. The Ward message was a warning for any of the Republicans in the Senate who may be tempted to follow suit in the upcoming trial.
It’s no coincidence that earlier today, Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio announced he won’t be seeking a third term in 2022, citing “partisan gridlock.” The alumnus of the George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush administrations has decided to call this his last term and opens the door for what will be another Trump-tinted primary battle for the soul of the Republican Party.
It’s a friction already playing out in Arizona and Ohio, but don’t expect it to stop there any time soon, especially if Trump figures out how to return to social media. Across the map, Republicans are privately worried about holding their seats in Iowa, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Missouri — all of which are on the ballots in 2022.
To be sure, Arizona has its own brand of conservative politics. It’s the land of Barry Goldwater and John McCain. In 2010, the Tea Party recruited a talk-radio host and former Congressman as a primary opponent to McCain. They came up short, but in 2014 forced the state GOP to censure McCain. Months later, he purged the state party of troublemakers ahead of what would be his final re-election bid in 2016. Even then, conservatives attempted to deny McCain that role, mounting a campaign from Ward herself. McCain, of course, prevailed — but those close to him also recognized just how much of a threat the hardcore, no-compromise wing of the party rising in Arizona could be on the Right.
Ward would return in 2018 to run for Senate again. She was more polished than the 2016 race, as I observed watching her campaign on the ground. But she didn’t get the primary win that time, either. A year later, she was still campaigning as an antagonist to the McCain clan and won the state party chairmanship as a pro-Trump loyalist heading into his re-election year.
And while the Right was fired up, it was the middle that spelled trouble for Republicans in last year’s presidential race. Arizona is home to what is essentially America’s largest suburb in Maricopa County, a vast area that is larger than four states and more populous than 23 of them. If ever you want to understand what’s happening in the ‘burbs, Maricopa County is where political strategists look for that focus group on steroids. Joe Biden’s win in Maricopa County by 0.3 percentage points — and his narrow victories in other suburban counties with like-minded voters who just wanted the Trump era to end — put him over the top.
Arizona Republicans have now lost three Senate races in a row as they embraced Trumpism.
Ducey, a successful businessman who co-founded Cold Stone Creamery before selling it in 2007, was seen by the party as a solid contender to run for the U.S. Senate in 2022. Ducey is in his second term as Governor and can’t run for a third. But, after meeting with Mitch McConnell in Washington last week, he has said he’s not interested.
Judging from how his own party is treating him, it is likely that Ducey is telling the truth. He and Portman — and maybe others who will hang up their badges in coming weeks — can compare notes on how the party isn’t shedding its Trump-era tone but is losing contenders who could rebuild.
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