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Arizona Republicans wrestle with their party’s future

C.J. Diegel scrolled down the Arizona Secretary of State’s website until he saw the box for “no party affiliation.” He clicked it, ending his lifelong registration as an Arizona Republican, in just seconds.

Diegel had hoped that his state party, after seeing the US Capitol insurrection earlier this month, would reverse course away from Donald Trump.

But it didn’t.

“Arizona Republicans took Donald Trump’s side,” said Diegel, a married father of two and Air Force veteran. “It has to stop. Those people don’t represent what being conservative in Arizona means and I finally had to had to say, ‘No, I don’t want to be associated with the Arizona Republican Party.'”

Diegel is one of more than 9,292 Republicans who requested to change their party registration from Republican to independent, Democrat or Libertarian since the Capitol riot, according to numbers compiled by the Arizona Secretary of State’s office from January 6 through January 24. The numbers, while a small percentage of overall GOP registration in Arizona, are a snapshot of how voters are reacting to the Republican civil war taking place in the swing state.

The Arizona Republican Party shows no sign it will slow moves further to the right, dictated by the whims of the former president, even after a bruising election for Republicans in the state. Voters flipped Arizona to Democrats in the presidential election for the first time since Bill Clinton won the state in 1996. And Democrat Mark Kelly defeated Republican Martha McSally in the US Senate race.

“The America First agenda is alive and well,” the state’s GOP chair Kelli Ward said in a video released Monday. “Are we going to continue to be an America first Arizona or are we going back to the dark days before Donald Trump? Luckily for us, we are blessed, we going forward as an America First state.”

“I look forward to keeping Arizona great and Making America Great Again!” she concluded.

‘However Trump rolls is how the Republican party’s gonna roll’

Those electoral losses matter little to Barbara Wyllie and Corky Haynes, who dubbed themselves the “Grassroot Grandmas.” Both lifelong Arizona Republicans, they were among the more than 1,000 members of the Arizona Republican Party in Phoenix for the state party meeting Saturday.

“However Trump rolls is how the Republican party’s gonna roll. This is the Trump Republican Party,” said Wyllie. “And the RINOs [Republican In Name Only] will fall off.”

Inside the meeting, the Arizona Republican Party voted to publicly punish Cindy McCain, the widow of the late Sen. John McCain; Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey; and former Sen. Jeff Flake. The trio of Republicans — all of whom attended the inauguration of President Joe Biden just days before — were formally censured for what the party described as a variety of “failures.”

Ducey was censured for imposing emergency rules as Covid-19 gripped Arizona, saying those emergency orders to contain the virus violated the Constitution and amounted to the governor enacting “dictatorial powers.”

McCain, who endorsed Biden during the election, was censured for supporting “leftist causes” and failing to support Trump.

Flake was condemned for also supporting Biden in the election.

Ducey’s political director, Sara Mueller, discounted the power of the state party’s move to censure the sitting governor.

“These resolutions are of no consequence whatsoever, and the people behind them have lost whatever little moral authority they may have once had,” said Mueller.

After the censure votes, Flake tweeted a picture of himself, McCain and Ducey at Wednesday’s inaugural ceremonies, writing, “Good company.”

McCain called the censure a “badge of honor.”

“It is a high honor to be included in a group of Arizonans who have served our state and our nation so well… and who, like my late husband John, have been censured by the AZGOP,” she tweeted, making note of how the late senator was censured in 2014 by the state GOP for what it then described as a liberal record.

Outside the AZ GOP meeting, Wyllie said she voted for the late Sen. John McCain but now regretted it.

The “Grassroot Grandmas” proudly showed CNN a picture they had taken with Trump during his term. “We’re here to increase the Republican Party by making it a MAGA party,” Haynes said while wearing a “Trump” shirt.

When asked exactly how following Trump, after his loss in Arizona would increase GOP membership, Wyllie said, “I don’t honestly know. But I will be with him, wherever he goes, however he goes.” The women then pivoted to conspiratorial lies that Trump and the Democratic senators did not win their seats, despite the overwhelming facts against their illegitimate claims.

“I am shocked that self-described, life-long conservatives have abandoned their self-proclaimed principles for loyalty to one person, Donald Trump,” said Kirk Adams, the former Arizona Speaker of the House and former adviser to Ducey. “Will see more of this in the coming months? Or will this party go down the rabbit hole of loyalty? Perhaps this fever will break. But if it doesn’t, it spells bad news for Republicans seeking office in this state.”

Ward appeared publicly unconcerned about any warnings from moderates, as she spoke to the assembled Arizona Republicans at the Dream City Church in Phoenix. The venue was closed to nearly all reporters, except for a few hand-selected outlets, including CNN.

Ward, who has embraced far-right conspiracies about the legitimacy of Arizona’s election results, ended her speech ahead of her re-election vote with, “Make America Great Again!” She then introduced a recorded audio message from Trump, where the former president told members, “I give her my complete and total endorsement.”

Ward defeated her challenger by three points in two rounds of voting.

‘I don’t want to be a part of the dumpster fire’

Meanwhile, establishment Arizona Republicans are stepping away from the official party apparatus, hoping to delegitimize the party and attempt to work around it for future elections.

Adams, the well-known former Arizona representative, said Ward and the state party “has been feeding the public a steady diet of QAnon-ic conspiracies.” For the first time in 20 years, Adams said he will not be an elected precinct committeeman in the state Republican Party.

“I don’t want to be a part of the dumpster fire,” he said.

Multiple Arizona Republicans say the political battle against the Ward-led Republicans will take place at the precinct level, working the grassroots and eventually blocking and tackling at the party level. That is unglamorous work, but it’s urgently needed, stresses Glenn Hamer, former executive director of the Arizona Republican Party and now-CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce.

Referencing the more than 9,200 Republicans who left the party since January 6, Hamer fears the political outcome for Republicans.

“This party is being run by a fringe, essentially calling for a purge,” Hamer said. “This is a party that lost the White House, two Senate races, and shows no interest in bringing people together and certainly no interest in expanding the base of Republicans. It’s turned into the circular firing squad.”

“If ignored, the state will go from purple to blue pretty quickly,” he added.

That is a nightmare scenario for some of those who represent the future of the Arizona Republican Party. In many ways, Arizona state senator T.J. Shope embodies a potential “big-tent” future Republican party for the swing state. Raised in a rural part of Arizona, Shope is the son of a Mexican-born mother and local grocery chain owner. The 35-year-old wears an Arizona belt buckle, western hat and boots, with an eye to increasing the tent for the next generation of Republicans.

“I wear a different hat than the guy in the horns,” joked Shope, referencing the Capitol rioter from Arizona who was widely photographed, then arrested, for storming the Capitol wearing an animal headdress with horns.

“We have to turn the page,” Shope said. “If the emphasis continues to be on 2020, then we’re probably not going to win in 2022. And then we’re probably going to end up more like Colorado than we do perennial toss up states like Ohio or Florida. People need to realize it only took Colorado one or two cycles to go from a reliably Republican state to a reliably Democratic state, and that can happen anywhere.”

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