Extremism within Arizona Republican Party, and its controversial leader, in national spotlight

Arizona Republican Party Chair Kelli Ward puts her hand in the face of a man who was yelling at her for signing off on a certificate of accuracy for Maricopa County voting machines, after Ward spoke onstage during a pro-Trump rally at the state Capitol in Phoenix, on the day that the U.S. Congress was meeting in Washington, D.C., to certify the results of the presidential election, on Jan. 6, 2021. Pro-Trump supporters rampaged at the U.S. Capitol building later that day.

On Dec. 8 — more than a month after President-elect Joe Biden won the presidency and nearly a month before a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol to try to overturn that result — the Arizona Republican Party passed along a dramatic question on its Twitter account:

"I am willing to give my life for this fight," said Ali Alexander, a supporter of President Donald Trump who helped organize the "Stop the Steal" protests.

Arizona’s GOP asked its estimated 100,000 followers, "He is. Are you?"

The provocative comment was extraordinary, even for a state political party that had for years appealed to those who traffic in right-wing conspiracy theories, white supremacists and hate groups.

The state party’s often-incendiary messaging — led by Chair Kelli Ward — helped establish a baseline of radicalism for conservatives that culminated in the invasion of the Capitol. 

The party's tweets and Ward's growing visibility nationally contribute to an image of Arizona as a hotbed for political extremism.

Under Ward, the state GOP joined a failed lawsuit against Vice President Mike Pence seeking to allow him to overturn the election results. She also urged Pence on Twitter to adjourn Congress to allow state Legislatures to overturn their results.

The state party's takeover by the far righthappened even as Arizona's changing demographics have made a once reliably red state a purple one. It is at odds with many of the state's more moderate Republicans, who cringe at the state GOP's constant, Trump-style attacks on the integrity of Arizona's election and even on the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and his family.

Ward and her communications staff have reaped a short-term payoff in terms of explosive growth in Twitter followers and in national media attention and possibly in financial contributions from across the country. 

She faces little competition to win a second two-year term as state party chairperson on Jan. 23. But the riot at the U.S. Capitol has focused greater attention on the state party and its views, which over the years largely have been ignored by more moderate Republican politicians and many business leaders.

It might remain the party of Trump in the near future. But now, some of those moderates are paying more attention.

The overheated rhetoric is raising increasing alarm among the state's business leaders, particularly after the U.S. Capitol riot in which five people, including a U.S. Capitol Police officer, died.

Glenn Hamer, president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said the state party has “deteriorated to a point that’s really unimaginable to me” in the past two years. 

“It has right now as poor a reputation as you could possibly have,” said Hamer, who is the former executive director of the state GOP. “It’s shrinking and shrinking rapidly. It’s not the type of party that people are going to aspire to join. Does there need to be a refresh in purpose and mission? I’d say obviously the answer to that question is yes.”

Other Arizona Republicans are hoping to see a renewed effort by what they view as the mainstream majority of the GOP, not just its most fervent activists.

“What we have here in the Republican Party right now is a time for choosing, to quote (former President) Ronald Reagan,” said Kirk Adams, who was Gov. Doug Ducey’s chief of staff for five years and was twice elected as the state’s House speaker before that.

“And in our time for choosing, are we going to remain a conservative party or will we be a party of factional loyalists loyal to a single individual, a single personality?"

He called the events of Jan. 6 "a threshold moment for the party, both locally and nationally, to decide what it means to be a Republican.” 

Who is Kelli Ward?

Ward helms a state party that has tilted far right much of its history and runs it with like-minded staffers and volunteers. 

State GOP activists once excoriated the late Sen. Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican presidential candidate who was a central figure in the 20th century conservative movement. His rebuke came for his support for President Gerald Ford over the more conservative Reagan in 1976.

The party made national news in 2014 when it censured McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, as too liberal.

McCain appeared in person before the assembled party officials a year later, earning a mix of boos and cheers. Some in the crowd stood and turned their backs on McCain as he spoke. 

McCain subsequently ran for and won a sixth Senate term, easily defeating challenger Ward in the 2016 GOP primary.

After McCain's death in 2018 and the subsequent GOP losses of both of Arizona's Senate seats, Ward's pro-Trump evangelizing has helped make her a hero to the Make America Great Again, or MAGA, movement and one of the most-talked-about Arizona Republicans in the country.

Since Trump's election loss, she has become a nationally known agitator who echoes the president's election-fraud claims.

But Ward has a long history of political controversies in Arizona.

She is a former state legislator who was rejected by Republican voters in the statewide 2016 and 2018 Senate primaries.

She was criticized for holding a 2014 public meeting addressing her constituents' concerns about the anti-government "chemtrails" conspiracy theory, although she maintained that never gave the theory credence. 

After McCain was diagnosed with a deadly form of brain cancer, Ward said McCain should leave office and offered herself as someone who should be considered for appointment to his seat.

When McCain was on his deathbed in August 2018, Ward suggested his family timed the announcement that they were ending his medical treatment to hurt her Senate primary campaign. 

During that same Senate campaign, Ward distanced herself from Wisconsin white supremacist Paul Nehlen, whom she had posed with for at least one picture and whom she had hosted on her local radio show.

When the time came to name McCain's successor, Ducey first tapped former Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., who served on an interim basis for about four months, and then Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz.

Coupled with Trump's populist message, Ward’s ascension to party leader two years ago further legitimized those who felt unrepresented by the more moderate figures in their party, such as McCain, former Sen. Jeff Flake and Ducey.

Ward appears poised to win a second term for the unpaid job leading the party when it convenes Jan. 23 for its annual state meeting. 

It’s likely too late for more moderate Republicans to mount their own successful rebellion against her ahead of the election. She is backed by Trump. He remains well-connected to Arizona, a battleground state that helped launch his political career but which he failed to carry in 2020.

Bob Lettieri, the state Republican Party treasurer from Scottsdale, is one of three relative political unknowns hoping to unseat Ward. Even so, his differences with her are relatively subtle. 

Lettieri told The Arizona Republic he, too, thinks the election was stolen from Trump and supported efforts to undo the state’s election results: “Debating the validity of the election was a proper thing to do,” he said. 

If she leads the party again, Ward has made it clear that in Arizona, Trumpism won't end with Trump's presidency.

"As the sun sets on 2020, remember that we’re never going back to the party of (2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt) Romney, Flake, and McCain," the state GOP account tweeted Jan. 1. "The Republican Party is now, and forever will be, one for the working man and woman! God bless."

Ward, in a video posted on Twitter, said she talked on Friday with Trump. Their conversation brought her healing and determination, she said. 

“I can tell you that he’s given us an incredible, incredible foundation to build from," she said. "The Make America Great MAGA movement, the America-first policies and movement that we have together is not going away.”

The importance of a state political party 

Disputing Arizona's election win by Bidenseems in sync with the pro-Trump wing of the party, but it’s unclear how many of the state’s 1.5 million registered Republicans share that sentiment. 

Ducey, like many others within Arizona’s GOP and business establishment, rarely involved himself in the party’s messaging and after the November election usually steered clear of the unfounded conspiracies and intemperate statements by Wardand by Paul Gosar and Andy Biggs, two of Arizona's Republicans in Congress. 

FAMILY WEIGHS IN: Some of Gosar's siblings want him expelled from Congress

While that may have helped his own political brand with moderates, Ducey's failure to take a forceful stand against their extremism allowed misinformation and discontent to fester. A spokesperson for the governor did not respond to a request for comment. 

Ward brusquely tweeted at Ducey the hashtag #STHU — shorthand for "shut the hell up" — as she and other Republicans sought to cast doubt on Arizona’s election results showing President-elect Joe Biden won the state over President Donald Trump. Ducey had defended the process.

During a radio appearance, Ward said she intended her "#STHU" post to stand for "shut the heck up."

In a rare public display of anger, Ducey responded: “I think what I would say is the feeling’s mutual to her, and practice what you preach.”

Political parties are less influential than they once were, partly because campaign-finance laws have allowed the biggest political benefactors to have greater involvement through political-action committees with unlimited donations working independently. 

Even so, state parties remain crucial mechanisms for turning out voters, recruiting candidates and working with their slate to coordinate campaign messaging and events.

Kyl, who served three full Senate terms before returning to the chamber for four months in 2018, said the party reflects those who are involved in it.

“Those who choose to become active in the party end up controlling the party,” Kyl said during a phone interview on Friday. “And right now, there are more, really strongly pro-Trump people who are active in the party, who therefore elected state party Chair Kelli Ward, and they will run the state Republican Party. For the candidates who aren’t of that point of view, they essentially will ignore the state GOP to the extent they can, run their own campaigns, and just not bother with it.”

He tells those frustrated about the direction of the Arizona party to get off the sidelines.

“If you get enough like-minded precinct committeemen, then you can vote for your own candidate,” he said. “But don’t complain if somebody else is running the party that you don’t like if you’re not willing to get down and get your hands dirty and do the work that is required as a grassroots party activist.”

Former Rep. John Shadegg, the Arizona Republican who served eight terms in the House of Representatives, said the challenge for Republicans in Arizona is not dramatically different from the challenge for Republicans nationally. 

The party must find a way to carry its message far beyond the pro-Trump base, and within a fraught political environment.

“It's going to require reminding people that we have a tradition of free speech in which you're entitled to view issues the way you do, and I'm entitled to view issues the way I do, and we discuss our disagreements and we work to find middle ground,” he said. “It is sadly no longer the way we deal with problems in the nation. It appears that we set a new standard where if I disagree with you, I'm characterized as evil, or if you disagree, you're characterized as evil.”

Shadegg would not say if members of Arizona’s congressional delegation and Ward contributed to the dysfunction. 

Asked what role he may play in helping to rebuild the GOP, Shadegg said he would help however he could because he cares deeply about the nation, the state and the rule of law. Shadegg's father, Stephen Shadegg, was a longtime Goldwater ally and served as Arizona Republican Party chairman from 1960 to 1961. 

“I’ll play whatever role I can,” he said. “But my days in the trenches are gone, are over.” 

Business is starting to speak up 

One group that historically has understood the importance of being involved is the business community. Many executives were conservative politically, and they saw value in keeping the state’s agenda on a course friendly to their interests.

But ideologues, not executives, have called the shots in the GOP during the Trump era and at other times over the past 20 years. A president who could make or break businesses with a tweet helped squelch dissent.

And the Arizona far right and the business community have had long-standing differences on certain big issues, most notably immigration reform. When the state GOP censured McCain in 2014, his bipartisan leadership on immigration reform legislation was cited as a main offense. 

Now that Trump is leaving Washington, some GOP operatives and leaders of Arizona business groups say they must get more involved to resist radical impulses from both sides of the political spectrum.

“People are going to have to speak out more on some of these broader issues than perhaps they did in the past,” said Neil Giuliano, who leads Greater Phoenix Leadership, a group that represents some of metro Phoenix’s largest employers. “It's clear there's a level of dysfunction of governance being led by people in elected office and people out of elected office that’s just unacceptable for democracy.”

Giuliano,who was a moderate Republican when he served as Tempe mayor in the 1990s and early 2000s but later changed his voter registration to Democrat, said he had spoken to nearly two dozen business leaders in the hours after the rioting. He declined to say which CEOs. 

There’s a growing understanding among business executives of the need to speak out about political and governance issues in ways they haven’t in the past, he said.

Various business leaders may go public with their views in the coming weeks, he said — perhaps at the state Legislature — to denounce the rioting and the political elements that led to them. 

Those elements include "conspiracy theories being made real by people who either are espousing them or because they're not challenging them,” Giuliano said.

Days after that interview, the business group purchased a full-page ad in The Republic to publish a statement written by Giuliano condemning the violence and the direction of the state GOP and some elected officials whose actions contributed to it.

Most members of the group agreed to "no longer support the party and these individuals financially, nor will we continue memberships in organizations that support them financially" until the group sees a change in rhetoric, leadership and return to civic discourse, the statement said.

"That elected members of Arizona’s congressional delegation and state legislature participated and stoked the flames of this travesty is embarrassing and wrong," it said. "They should be held accountable for their rhetoric and behavior."

Arizona’s business community has asserted itself over the past decade to weigh in on legislation it deems harmful to the state’s reputation, and by extension, its economy. Leaders have opposed, for example, anti-illegal immigration bills and religious-freedom legislation, while supporting efforts to bolster funding for education and transportation.

Todd Sanders, president and CEO of the Greater Phoenix Chamber, said business leaders need to help avert what he sees as political extremism from the left and the right.

“I think you're starting to see that type of groundswell on the far left. And I think that's something we have to watch,” he said. “I don't think we did a good enough job when we saw it happening on the far right. I'm not here to point the finger at one side or another. I think we have to keep our eye on the ball, and that is to support those folks who understand that this is about our country or our state first, and party second and not to stoke that tribalism.”

But business leaders were more vague about how involved they should be.

Asked if the business community had a responsibility to denounce the type of rhetoric spread by figures in the state GOP, Hamer of the Arizona chamber said it was nearly impossible to knock down every tweet. 

“We care about the state's reputation,” Hamer said. “We want to have a civic, good-hearted society, and when there’s efforts to disrupt that, if they reach a certain level, we will get involved.”

Adams said the business community has helped lead the state GOP before, and needs to do so again.

Changing the party, Adams acknowledged, will not happen quickly. But he senses the rioting at the U.S. Capitol will help activate people to do so.

“It's hard work. It takes time, and it's not something you can snap your fingers and expect a change in advance of the party election that occurs in a couple of weeks," Adams said. "It's an investment of time and money.”

Reach the reporter Ronald J. Hansen at ronald.hansen@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-4493. Follow him on Twitter @ronaldjhansen.

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