The battle to redefine America’s political parties is underway — far from Washington. David Siders reports from the road.
In a megachurch where the Arizona Republican Party met over the weekend to chart its course following heavy losses in the midterms, a package of resolutions was up for consideration, including one to censure Republican officials involved in running past elections.
The question on the floor was how.
Stepping to the microphone in the sanctuary, a man who introduced himself as a combat Vietnam veteran suggested that the way the party censures politicians — a punishment previously slapped on the late Sen. John McCain, his widow, Cindy, former Gov. Doug Ducey and former Sen. Jeff Flake, among others – was insufficient for the times.
Instead, he said, “We should duct tape people to a tree in a dog park, so the dogs can pee on them. And then, when they’re there for a few hours and they have to crap in their pants, they can wallow in their own shit.”
Take pictures of them, he said. When I reached him later by phone to make sure I understood, the veteran, a man named Mark Del Maestro, told me the point is “public humiliation.”
On stage, Tyler Bowyer, a conservative activist and Republican national committeeman, deadpanned that Robert’s Rules of Order would let the body “censure anyone however you want.” But, he said, tongue in cheek, “I don’t know how much duct tape we have here.”
What he didn’t mention was that the way things are going in the Arizona GOP, it would need a lot.
In Washington, the lesson many Republican political professionals expected their party to draw from a less-than-red-wave midterm was that the most hard-right politics of the Trump era were weighing them down – that general election voters were tiring of election denialism and, if not Donald Trump himself, his grievances about the 2020 election. Many high-profile candidates the former president rammed through the primaries last year lost in November, and in Arizona, the wreckage was particularly severe.
Kari Lake, a former TV anchor and one of the GOP’s most prominent election deniers, had become such an electrifying candidate that she was compelled to tamp down speculation about a vice presidential run. But then she lost. So did the hard-liners running for U.S. Senate, state attorney general and secretary of state. For too many independents and moderate Republican voters, they were a turn-off.
Arizona was a “perfect political science experiment” for the GOP nationally, Stan Barnes, a former state lawmaker and Republican consultant in Arizona, told me.
“We had the best candidate in anyone’s lifetime in Kari Lake, and she had the Republican wind at her back,” he said. “Yet, Kari lost. And I think the post-mortem is, you can’t stand on, ‘The whole system’s corrupt’ and ‘Elections are stolen’ as a platform for why people should vote for you.”
He said, “No matter what you or I think of the reality of it, if you want to win the election and you want to change things, it’s not the way to win.”
Yet denialism and its attendant conspiracies animate a large swath of the Republican Party — still. And if Arizona is any example, it suggests that a not insignificant percentage of the national electorate is determined to run the same doomed experiment again in 2024.
Inside the cavernous Dream City Church, where a conspiracy movie about the 2020 election called “The Deep Rig” premiered in 2021, and where the GOP now gathered in early 2023, there was no reckoning with midterm losses, at all.
Addressing the rank-and-file, the outgoing state party chair, Kelli Ward, said, “Things at the party are going great.”
In “Ultra MAGA” hats and pins that read “Don’t California My Arizona,” about 2,000 convention-goers streamed into a sanctuary with red and blue backlighting and large screens flanking the stage. They wanted audits of the last election, or the one before that, or of the state party’s finances itself. Some complained about voting machines, including those Arizona Republicans had used themselves that day to elect the new party chair, Jeff DeWit, a former state treasurer and former Trump campaign chief operating officer.
Upstairs, an activist DeWit defeated, Steve Daniels, was sitting alone in the balcony with his unsubmitted ballot on the floor beside him. “Machines are fraud” he’d printed over it by hand in black ink.
Yet if it’s hard to hold your own elections when election denialism is your thing, DeWit was such a consensus choice that his victory was never really in doubt. It’s the elections Democrats won that the assembled Republicans assembled still have problems with. The party rejected a proposal to accept the results of the 2020 election and “not belabor or try to overturn old elections, but work to win upcoming ones.” It rejected a proposal to honor John McCain for being a “dedicated Arizona statesman and a lifelong Republican who embraced bipartisanship.” And it voted by a large margin to censure Republican elected officials in Maricopa County, including Stephen Richer, the county recorder, and Supervisor Bill Gates, for their part in overseeing previous elections.
Distinct from procedural disputes about voting ID or mail voting, majorities of Republicans in poll after poll still adhere to Trump’s lie that the 2020 election was rigged. In the more than two years since Trump lost, as allegations of fraud have repeatedly been shown to be unfounded and nonfactual, it persists as an article of faith—– more an assertion of a belief that Democrats could not possibly have beaten them, even if they did.
In the courtyard, Sally Kizer, who, with her husband, Carl, started a tea party group in Yuma County, told me Lake “was robbed.”
The election “stinks,” said M.J. Coking, a state committeewoman from Chandler.
“Throw out the election and run it again,” said Chad Moreland, a Republican in an American flag blazer.
There were things Republicans could do better, they were sure. They could raise more money or run more sophisticated turnout operations than they had last year. A candidate like Lake could learn to “pivot” more effectively for a general election audience, one strategist told me.
But these were tactical concerns. There was no reason for a more wholesale overhaul if — as nearly everyone I came across maintained — Republicans didn’t really lose.
Trump, Coking told me, is “the only one who can fix anything.”