PHOENIX — A collection of resolutions, including one to condemn Republican leaders involved in overseeing previous elections, were up for discussion at a megachurch where the Arizona Republican Party gathered over the weekend to map out its future after suffering significant losses in the midterm elections.
How was the question that was being asked phrased?
Taking the podium in the sanctuary, a man who identified himself as a combat veteran of Vietnam said that the party's method of censure of politicians—a sanction that had previously been meted out to the late Sen. John McCain, his widow, Cindy, former Gov. Doug Ducey, and former Sen. Jeff Flake, among others—was inadequate for the times.
Instead, he said, "Let's duct-tape humans to trees at dog parks so the dogs may pee on them." Then they may swallow in their feces when they have to pee in their pants after being there for a few hours.
He urged you to take photographs of them. The veteran, a man by the name of Mark Del Maestro, told me the goal is "public humiliation" when I called him later to make sure I understood.
Tyler Bowyer, a Republican national committeeman and conservative activist, joked on stage that Robert's Rules of Order would permit the body to "censure anyone you want." "I don't know how much duct tape we have here," he said with a smile.
He neglected to explain that the Arizona GOP would require a lot given the current state of affairs.
Many Republican political insiders in Washington anticipated that their party would learn from a less-than-red-wave midterm that the hard-right politics of the Trump era were weighing them down and that general election voter were sick of election denialism and, if not Donald Trump himself, his complaints about the 2020 election.
Several well-known candidates who were pushed through the primaries by the former president last year lost in November, and the damage in Arizona was particularly bad.
Kari Lake, a former TV anchor and one of the GOP's most prominent election skeptics, had grown so popular as a candidate that she was forced to put a stop to rumors that she could run for vice president. She eventually dropped out, though. The hardliners running for secretary of state, attorney general, and the US Senate did too. They turned off far too many independent and moderate Republican voters.
Stan Barnes, a former state senator and Republican strategist in Arizona, told me that the state of Arizona served as the GOP's "ideal political science experiment" for the entire country.
In Kari Lake, he claimed, "We had the finest candidate in anyone's lifetime, and she had the Republican wind at her back." Kari nevertheless came in last.
The conclusion, in my opinion, is that you cannot use the claims that "the entire system is crooked" and "elections are stolen" as justifications for people to support you.
Regardless of what you or I may believe about the facts, he said, "If you want to win the election and change things, this isn't the way to win."
Denialism and the associated conspiracies, however, continue to drive a sizable portion of the Republican Party. And if Arizona is any indication, a sizeable portion of voters nationwide may be motivated to repeat the same failed experiment in 2024.
There was no reckoning with midterm losses within the enormous Dream City Church, where a conspiracy film about the 2020 election titled "The Deep Rig" debuted in 2021 and where the GOP was currently assembling in early 2023.
Kelli Ward, the departing state party chair, addressed the membership and remarked, "Things at the party are doing beautifully."
A crowd of around 2,000 convention attendees poured into a sanctuary with red and blue lights and giant screens flanking the stage while wearing "Ultra MAGA" hats and pins that said, "Don't California My Arizona."
They demanded audits of either the most recent election, the one before it, or the state party's financial records. Some others voiced complaints about voting machines, including Arizona Republicans who had used them to elect Jeff DeWit, a former state treasurer and chief operating officer of the Trump campaign, as their new party chair.
Steve Daniels, the activist DeWit defeated, was seated by himself in the balcony up there, his uncast ballot lying on the floor next to him. He had handwritten "Machines are frauds" over it in black ink.
DeWit was such a popular pick that his win was never really in doubt, even if it might be challenging to hold your elections when election denial is your thing.
The Republicans in attendance still have issues with the elections that the Democrats won. The party rejected a suggestion to accept the outcomes of the 2020 election and "fight to win subsequent elections, not belabor or strive to reverse prior elections."
The motion to recognize John McCain for being a "committed Arizona statesman and a lifetime Republican who embraced bipartisanship" was defeated. And it decided unanimously to oust Republican county supervisor Bill Gates and county recorder Stephen Richer for their roles in monitoring prior elections in Maricopa County.
In contrast to formal disagreements over voter ID or mail-in ballots, the majority of Republicans continue to support Trump's false claim that the 2020 election was rigged. A notion that Democrats could not possibly have defeated them, even if they had, has persisted for more than two years after Trump's defeat, even though accusations of fraud have repeatedly been demonstrated to be unjustified and untrue.
Sally Kizer, who along with her husband Carl founded a tea party organization in Yuma County, told me Lake "was robbed" in the courtyard.
M.J. Coking, a state committeewoman from Chandler, claimed that the election "stinks."
Republican Chad Moreland, wearing a jacket with an American flag on it, urged "throwing out the election and running it again."
The Republicans were certain that there were some areas they could improve on. They might raise more money or carry out more complex turnout strategies than they did the previous year. One strategist told me that a candidate like Lake might learn to "pivot" better for a general election audience.
However, they were tactical issues. If Republicans didn't lose the election, as almost everyone I spoke to said, there was no need for a more comprehensive makeover.
Trump is "the only one who can solve everything," Coking told me.
"I'm awaiting marching instructions," she remarked.
For devout believers, "it's this whole chicken-and-egg thing," according to Republican strategist Barrett Marson in the region. Did Democrats rig the election, or did we lose due to denialism?
"It makes no difference that it is untrue," he said. How would you stop that?
Like many other more conservative Republicans, Marson had hoped that the party's defeats in November would spur reflection. But he had stopped relying on it.
He then stated that "the party may have to die to be resurrected" at this moment.
When I was in Arizona right before the November election, it seemed to many political watchers from both parties that Lake may win the governorship and that Arizona would likely be the first state where American democracy collapsed after 2020 and the Capitol riot.
Lake had previously stated that she would not certify the results of the 2020 election and that she would only accept the outcome of her own campaign "if we have a fair, honest, and transparent election." The Republicans had set up camp in front of the voting machines. Men with masks and tactical gear were observed close to one another.
It didn't take long to identify the cause of Lake's defeat.
Thousands of voters who would have otherwise voted Republican were turned off by Lake and other hard-right candidates, according to an analysis of the vote in Maricopa County, where the majority of votes in Arizona are cast.
This analysis was conducted by a group of elections experts, including Benny White, a former data analyst for the state Republican Party. Around 33,000 of the 40,000 Republicans who supported Lake in other races on their ballots supported the Democrat Katie Hobbs in the contest for governor.
White informed me that Lake's emphasis on stoking the base's addiction to election denial was at least partially to blame for the high number of Republican-leaning people who switched parties.
"Most of this stuff is garbage, but it's really difficult to refute it," he said. It's challenging to convince individuals to change their minds once they start thinking in such terms because it becomes ingrained in how they perceive the world.
"I'm not a psychologist or a psychiatrist," he declared. Most of the time, I have to deal with reality, and I just find it confusing.
One issue is that losing might not be sufficient to change the opinions of Republicans who believe in conspiracies. If anything, it can make it more difficult for them to let go rather than easier.
Republican voters had more confidence in election administration nationally than they did after the presidential election, according to a survey published last month by the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation and Research.
This was especially true when Republican voters were asked about elections in their home states, where 82 percent said they were run well overall.
Less Republicans, though, voiced trust in the process in areas like Arizona where Republicans suffered substantial losses in elections. Only 56% of Republican voters in Arizona indicated they were confident in the way local elections were conducted.
I asked David Becker, the group's founder and executive director, whether there was one state in particular about which he was concerned about election denialism in the run-up to the 2024 on a conference call with reporters.
Yes, said Becker, a formerly employed attorney in the civil rights section of the Department of Justice. Other than Arizona, this won't surprise anyone.
It was the location of the absurd "audit" that acted as a rendezvous for election truthers from all around the country following the 2020 election. At this point, Lake is still defiantly contesting the results of her losing midterm campaign by appealing a dismissed court claim.
Becker claimed that "the election denial has taken hold."
It's simple to take a party gathering too seriously. The most ardent party members are drawn to state conventions; these are the folks who not only know who their state party chair is or what resolutions they're passing but also care.
Republicans, though, observed something resembling a convergence of the hard-right views of Arizona's convention-going class with its primary electorate last year.
It was no longer the party whose fringe despised McCain but couldn't stop him from winning primaries when non-activist conservatives voted, like in 2016 versus Ward.
They discovered someone in Lake who could overcome the traditionalists—in her case, she defeated Karrin Taylor Robson, a respectable candidate from the center. She continues to be the focal point of the Republican universe here, despite losing the general election.
The basis of her popularity became clear the evening following the convention when a sizable group of fans crammed into a stuffy space and overflowed into the lobby of a Scottsdale golf club for a rally in the manner of a campaign for Lake.
She was referred to as a "winner" in one of her warm-up performances. In addition, Trump called Lake while she was on stage. Despite a sluggish start to his 2024 campaign, Trump is still widely considered the favorite to win the nomination.
The audience erupted in jeers when Lake mentioned Richer and Gates, the two Maricopa County officials the party had criticized.
Gates anticipated the criticism. When we had coffee the day before the state party convention, he informed me that "election deniers dominate the institutions of the Arizona Republican Party."
Gates had also been a part of the institution before gaining national attention for his opposition to election deception in Arizona, to the point that he was compelled to temporarily vacate his home with a security detail after the midterm elections.
In the 1980s, he collaborated with Republican Gov. Jan Brewer's son, Michael, to start a teen Republican group at his high school. He then served in the party as a precinct committeeman and a state committeeman. However, he was now shunned by the party.
He said, "They refer to us as the establishment." We truly are not. They represent the institutions inside the party. "Right now, we are observing from the outside."
"I believed we would face a reckoning after losing all these races," the man replied. However, it's moving the other way.
At the state party conference, Republicans made repeated claims that they were aware of the divisions within their party. During the Pledge of Allegiance, Rep. Paul Gosar, a far-right Republican, requested attendees "especially stress the phrase "indivisible." Pledge of Allegiance, Rep. Paul Gosar, a far-right Republican, requested attendees "especially stress the phrase "indivisible."
Democrats, according to DeWit, are the party's "true enemies." There had to be something Republicans could do to win over "normals," if not the party members who are frequently mocked as "Republicans in name only," or "RINOs," the "many people in the [political] middle," according to Tim Rafferty of Riders USA, a gun rights organization promoting a rally in Arizona a few weeks later.
He said, "That's a hard nut to crack."
We have too much internal conflict, according to state committeeman Mac Rojo, which makes the party's situation "tenuous."
The solution, according to Rojo, a former sheriff's investigator who was pushing two Maltese-Chihuahua mix dogs into the church in a stroller, was neither for Republicans to moderate nor to put off the 2020 election.
There was also the pragmatic issue of Republicans losing races that they had won, in his opinion. Then there was the moral case, where it was said that the Democratic Party was "evil" and that the elections that brought them into power were crimes, similar to "if someone shot their mother or raped their daughter."
It's feasible that a Republican—either a presidential nominee or a contender for statewide office in 2024—will emerge who will win over both more moderate Republicans in the party and Republicans like Rojo. DeWit, the party's chair, may serve as proof of this.
On his shirt, Rojo had a DeWit sticker. DeWit was generally thought to be the candidate that orthodox Republicans would find most agreeable. However, he also received Trump's support and attended the Lake event, giving him "all the necessary qualifications to be the mayor of Crazy Town," in the words of one Republican strategist.
DeWit is "definitely not crazy," according to Marson, but "crazy-adjacent."
That strategy may also work for those running for public office. To survive a Republican primary here, it nearly has to be. But in a party that has not advanced past 2020, that is a tough line to walk. Or, now, 2022.
Barnes informed me, "That's where it becomes tricky." " I believe that those who want to steer the party forward—possibly even those who want to run for office—are attempting to hold both positions at once. They don't want to give up the support they receive from audiences who respond to their America First and smashmouth rhetoric.
However, such zeal comes at a price that party officials seem to be thinking about. "These are not simpletons," he declared. "I believe someone is going to emerge and start reshaping the party's personality such that it once again appeals to the majority in Arizona."
I questioned him about who it may be, and he said, "I don't know." Seven million people live here. We need someone.
Right now, even after losing, Republicans like Lake are in power. When she was referred to as "the actual governor" inside the convention center, cheers erupted while conservative Republicans like Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell received loud jeers.
There was a mixture of laughter and praise for Del Maestro.
Del Maestro claimed he made his duct tape idea at the convention to "lighten things up" inside. Del Maestro made local news in 2020 when he remarked at a rally that he didn't want to "shoot" anybody again. His success was shown by the loud laughter in the room.
Even if they weren't serious about it, the whoops and clapping indicated they enjoyed the concept. After that, he said that someone had informed him that taping someone to a tree without their consent would be against the law and that the police would consider it to be an abduction.
However, he assured me that there are limits to what is permitted and what "you can get away with."
He remarked, "It's like, who's counting the votes?"
He claimed that if you repeated that action a few times, the RINOs would disappear.
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