Donald Trump Could Turn Arizona Blue

This leftward shift began years ago, but the president’s rhetoric has expedited it. You can’t win a statewide race in Arizona without keeping a tight grip on affluent Republicans, GOP women, and the unaffiliated voters who make up roughly one-third of the electorate, said the Arizona-based Republican strategist Chuck Coughlin—and those are the exact voters whom the president and his ilk have alienated. “Trump has changed everything,” Grant Woods, the former Arizona attorney general, told me. Woods was a lifelong Republican who once served as McCain’s chief of staff, but after Trump’s election, Woods reregistered as a Democrat. He’s observed a growing gap between Republican voters and their elected officials in the party and believes that gap has been stretched further by people like Ward. If Republicans “want to double and triple down on Trumpism, then she’s perfect,” Woods said. But “she is exactly the wrong person to be the party chairman for the Republicans if they want to have a future in the state of Arizona.” (Ward did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.)

Jeff Flake, the former Arizona senator who retired in 2019, echoed Woods’s concerns. It’s “tremendously damaging,” for moderates and independents to see “virtually every Republican officeholder on stage with the president laughing at his jokes, looking at their shoes while he demeans their colleagues,” he told me. And attracting interest in the local party is difficult when the only issues discussed at precinct meetings are “the deep state or immigration or the latest conspiracy theory.”

The coronavirus pandemic has made a bad situation much worse for Republicans. Voters in poll after poll have been unimpressed by Trump’s handling of the crisis, and Republicans in Arizona have faced similar scrutiny: Cases of the virus surged after Governor Doug Ducey took early action to reopen the state in mid-May. In June, Arizona had the highest infection rate in the country. This spike in cases corresponded with a 13 percent increase in Arizonans reporting that the state was going in the wrong direction, according to OH Predictive Insights. Yet all the while, Ward, like Trump, has been encouraging opposition to stay-at-home orders, and dismissing mask wearing as “virtue signaling” on her daily livestream. This has been a major turnoff to an important part of the Republican electorate, Flake said. “Suburban women, Millennials have been walking away from the party for a while. In many ways, they’re in a dead sprint now.”

Some on the right, however, dispute moderates’ diagnosis of their party’s problems. These Republicans—best described as pro-Trump populists—believe that the state GOP has not embraced the president enough. Steve Slaton, who runs a store in Show Low selling Trump-themed merchandise, feels that Ward, in her capacity as chairperson, has been too supportive of McSally in the primary, giving her an unfair advantage over Daniel McCarthy, her more populist opponent. Ward “got sucked into the whole McCainite-controlled party apparatus,” Slaton told me. Jennifer Esposito, a former state-committee member from Mohave County, campaigned for Ward back in 2019. “We thought as chairman she would be willing to go against the establishment,” Esposito said. “She appears now to be a sellout.”