The proxy battle between President Trump and establishment Republican figures will come to a head in Tuesday’s Arizona primaries, providing an indication of the direction the GOP might take going forward.
The two wings of the Republican Party have provided contrasting messages in the lead-up to Arizona’s primaries, with Trump and his endorsed candidates zeroing in on his unfounded claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him and establishment-backed Republicans focusing on kitchen table issues and being an alternative to Democratic Party control.
This has played out most publicly in Arizona’s GOP gubernatorial primary, where Trump has backed former television news anchor Kari Lake, while former Vice President Mike Pence and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) have thrown their support behind businesswoman Karrin Taylor Robson.
“This certainly feels like ground zero,” said one Republican operative with ties to Arizona, who is supportive of Lake.
The operative added that Pence’s involvement made the dynamic on Tuesday “much more of a larger atmospheric fight.”
“It certainly does feel like old guard vs. new guard,” the operative said.
A survey released last week by the Arizona-based OH Predictive Insights showed Trump-backed candidates leading the pack ahead of Tuesday’s primaries. Lake led Robson 51 percent to 33 percent, while Republican attorney general candidate Abraham Hamadeh led his closest GOP competitor, Rodney Glassman, 31 percent to 16 percent.
Meanwhile, in the GOP Senate primary, front-runner Blake Masters led his closest GOP opponent, Jim Lamon, 36 percent to 21 percent. Both Masters and Lamon have said they would have objected to the certification of the 2020 presidential election if they were serving in the Senate.
“The Trump folks are showing that they have some pretty good momentum,” said Mike Noble, chief research and managing partner at OH Predictive insights.
Other Republicans point out that while there are differences over whether to message on the future or the 2020 presidential election results, there are no major policy differences between the GOP candidates.
“They would all be what you call America First candidates,” said Chuck Warren, a national Republican strategist who has done work in Arizona. “The funny thing about election cycles now is we call people RINOs [Republicans In Name Only] who we agree with 95 percent of the time.”
“You have a bunch of Republicans in Arizona who call Ducey a RINO though the man got passed through a 2.5-percent flat tax,” Warren continued. “I don’t know what planet that’s a RINO on.”
Instead, the race has turned into a contrast between Republicans wanting to zero in on election integrity and the 2020 election results and Republicans looking toward future policy implementation. Pence urged Republicans to not “look back” during an address to young conservatives in Washington last week, arguing that the party’s candidates “need to do more than criticize and complain” to win future elections.
But for Trump and his supporters, the 2020 election results in a key state like Arizona is deeply personal.
“Arizona was unequivocally the launching pad for Trump, for his ascension into the White House, and many of his allies are here in Arizona,” Noble said.
Two years ago, Biden won the state, where Trump made a number of stops during the campaign, by less than a point. Under pressure from Trump, the state’s GOP-controlled Senate ordered a so-called audit of the election results. However, the suit ultimately affirmed Biden’s win in the state.
“It’s a race about the future of the Republican Party,” said Arizona Republican consultant Chuck Coughlin. “And whether or not we’re going to look backward and focus on a demonstrably false narrative that motivates the base, a hardcore part of the base, or if the party’s going to choose to look forward and talk about winning elections in the future.”
Strategists and consultants on both sides of the aisle argue that the only way to win a statewide election in Arizona is to appeal to unaffiliated voters, leading many to question whether Lake and other Republicans who push back on the 2020 election results would be able to win a general election. Many have pointed to the state’s Democratic Sens. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) and Kyrsten Sinema’s (D-Ariz.) electoral successes in the state by running to the middle, while Trump-backed former Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), who was appointed to her seat, lost.
“If I’m a Democrat, that’s what I make the election about,” Coughlin said. “It’s such a demonstrably clear path for them to win in the fall. That seems to be the electoral cul-de-sac that Republicans like Lake, and [secretary of state candidate Mark] Finchem, and our GOP Chairwoman [Kelli Ward] out here are driving the Republican Party.”
While Democrats may have the receipts on Lake’s comments on the 2020 presidential election if she wins, it does not mean she and candidates like her are doomed in a general.
“I think what they do is just attempt to make the opponent, Hobbs in this case, completely unacceptable to a majority of the electorate,” Coughlin said, referring to likely Democratic gubernatorial candidate and Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs (D).
“They’ll bang away at abortion, they’ll bang away at guns, they’ll bang away at every cultural issue imaginable,” he continued, referring to Democrats.
Still, many Republicans are unsure of what the party does going forward if Lake wins.
“Let’s say Kari Lake pulls it off tomorrow and she wins,” said Lorna Romero, an Arizona-based GOP strategist who worked on the late Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) 2016 reelection bid. “I think it’s going to be a bigger issue of what do Republicans do between now and the general election. Is there some kind of bringing the party together behind her candidacy, or is there going to be some elements of the party where they were just so turned off by her primary election campaign and some of the rhetoric?”
“It’s a question of do they put that aside and support her, or does Katie Hobbs actually pull those voters into Democrats?” she added.