PHOENIX — Simmering discontent among a segment of Arizona Republicans over John McCain's famous penchant for bucking his party boiled over in the winter of 2014 with the censure of the longtime U.S. senator.
McCain's allies responded with an all-out push to reassert control over the Arizona Republican Party. Censure proponents were ousted or diminished, and McCain went on to defeat his far-right challenger in a blowout during the 2016 primary.
Less than a decade later, the right wing forces that McCain marginalized within the Arizona GOP are now in full control, with profound implications for one of the nation’s most closely matched battlegrounds. Arizona Republicans have traded McCain for Donald Trump.
“We drove a stake in the heart of the McCain machine,” Kari Lake, making a dramatic stabbing gesture, said in a speech days after she won the Republican primary for governor in early August.
Lake, a well-known former television news anchor, has delighted segments of the state's GOP base that have long been at odds with their party’s establishment and want their leaders to confront Democrats, not compromise with them.
She draws large, enthusiastic crowds that are unusually energized for a midterm election. Her fans erupt in rapturous applause when she takes a shot at the media or pledges to repel the “invasion” at the southern border.
“She’s for border control. She’s a MAGA person. She is fighting the establishment. And that, to me, is enough,” said Bob Hunt, a Republican in Tucson who attended a Lake rally this summer.
McCain, who died in 2018, never lost a race in his home state. But his maverick brand of Republicanism is in retreat after election-denying allies of the former president swept GOP primaries this month from governor and U.S. Senate down to the state Legislature.
Kelli Ward, the primary challenger McCain trounced in his last re-election campaign, was elected state GOP chair in 2019. She broke with precedent for party leaders and campaigned openly for Trump's slate of candidates ahead of the primary this year.
It is in some ways a return to roots for Republicans in Arizona, a state with a long history as a crucible for emerging strands of conservatism.
Barry Goldwater, an Arizona senator from the 1950s through the 1980s, pushed the GOP in a new direction, laying the groundwork for conservative and libertarian movements. He gave voice to anti-elite grievances and racial anxieties that have contributed to Trump's appeal.
McCain replaced Goldwater in the Senate, representing an Arizona reshaped by decades of migration. Young families flocked to affordable neighborhoods in and around Phoenix, and retirees escaping the snow settled in new golf communities attracting seniors.
McCain eventually built a national profile as a fiscal conservative unafraid — even eager — to buck GOP leadership. He helped pass campaign finance reform legislation and worked on unsuccessful immigration reform and climate change legislation. In one of his last defiant decisions, he gave a dramatic thumbs down vote to kill legislation that would have repealed former President Barack Obama's health care law.
McCain won over independents and some Democrats to overwhelmingly win reelection. But the apostasies that appealed to more moderate voters made him a pariah to many within his own party.
Democrats think this year's slate of Trump-backed nominees gives them a fighting chance to win some of the top offices on the ballot. If the Republicans win, officials who refuse to accept Trump’s defeat in the 2020 election will hold the levers of power with the ability to set election laws and certify results in a state that plays an important role in determining control of Congress and the presidency.
Ideological factions are always at tension within political parties, and Arizona Republicans have long hosted a particularly raucous tug-of-war. Pro-business, limited government conservatives — such as McCain, former Sen. Jeff Flake and termed-out Gov. Doug Ducey — are derided as “Republicans in name only” by a base eager to fight culture war battles.
Still, a large chunk of Republican voters like the establishment brand. Lake had a tough primary race against Karrin Taylor Robson, a conservative businesswoman and longtime donor to mainstream candidates from both parties. Lake, Finchem and the other successful Trump allies all won their primaries with less than 50% of the vote in multi-candidate fields.
“The people we put up are not conservative,” said Kathy Petsas, a Republican activist who backed mainstream Republicans in the primary. “There’s nothing conservative about lying about the results of the 2020 election. When we undermine our democratic institutions, there’s nothing conservative about that.”
But rarely have the insurgents been as dominant as they are now in Arizona. The GOP nominees for nearly all statewide offices push lies about the 2020 election.
Lake incessantly went after Ducey, McCain, Flake and others she labeled “Republicans in name only” on her way to winning the GOP nomination for governor. She joined with Mark Finchem, who won the primary for secretary of state, in a lawsuit seeking to require hand-counting of ballots; they lost, but filed an appeal this week.
U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar was censured by the House and lost his committee assignments for posting a video depicting violence against Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
The primary winners represent those who control the Arizona Republican Party today and are fiercely loyal to Trump, who was just the second Republican since the 1940s to lose Arizona.
Last year, the party censured McCain’s widow, Cindy McCain, for endorsing Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, along with Flake and Ducey. Flake decided not to run for re-election in 2018 after his criticism of Trump infuriated the base and promised a fierce primary battle.
“Unfortunately, all these election deniers were successful here in Arizona, in a swing state,” said Bill Gates, the Republican chairman of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, which has faced vitriolic backlash for defending the 2020 election against Trump’s false claims of fraud. “So we’ll see if those folks are able to win in the general election. I think that will give us a feel on where this party is headed in the future.”
Gates was censured by Legislative District 3 Republicans last month for saying election-denying GOP candidates may have to lose for the party to find its way.
Rusty Bowers, the staunchly conservative speaker of the state House, also has found himself ostracized by his party for taking a stand against Trump’s lies. He lost the primary in his bid to move to the state Senate.
Bowers last month said Trump has “thrashed our party” and that the Arizona GOP faces a “hard reckoning” if it continues to bully those who don't fall in line with the former president's demands.
For now, the far-right wing of the party is ascendant and sees no need to moderate.
Days after Lake won the primary for governor, her campaign shared a video of Goldwater’s speech accepting the 1964 Republican nomination for president.
“I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” he said. “And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
The crowd erupted. Goldwater went on to win just six states in the second most lopsided defeat in a presidential race in U.S. history, but he remained a hero to many in his home state.
Lake's official campaign Twitter account said a united party would bring “a Conservative revival” to the state in the general election: "The Party of Goldwater has risen like a Phoenix.”
Associated Press writer Ali Swenson in New York contributed to this report.