Trump can still be the Republican Party’s future. Just look to Arizona.

Arizona Republicans came to support Trump during a demonstration at the state capitol in Phoenix on Jan. 6./ Nick Oza / Reuters

By Rosie Gray | BuzzFeed News Reporter

Arizona Republicans keep losing — but the state party has already turned itself into a Trump machine, still trying to win an election that’s long over. And that might be the future of conservatism.

Three days after Joe Biden’s inauguration, Kelli Ward, the combative, hard-right chair of the Arizona Republican Party, was urging her state party to reelect her. A former state senator and doctor who was nicknamed “Chemtrail Kelli” for holding a forum to address constituents’ concerns about the streaks of condensation that flow behind airplanes, Ward ran for US Senate as a right-wing challenger to Republican incumbents and lost twice. Far from being exiled from political relevance as a result, Ward was elected to lead the Arizona GOP in 2019 and has used her position to promote a loyalist agenda shaped around the now-former president.

“Are we going to reelect me and show the state, the country, and the world that we are in America-first Arizona? Or will we go back to the dark days before Trump?” Ward asked the audience at the state party’s biannual statutory meeting on Jan. 23. Republican officials from all over Arizona had gathered at the Dream City megachurch to elect new officers and debate proposed resolutions. Ward had drawn three challengers for her position, but she had a clear advantage: the endorsement of Donald Trump, who had recorded an audio message in support of her that Ward released the night before the meeting. She capped off her speech by playing the recording over the audio system, the disembodied voice of the former president booming in the church’s hall.

It’s unclear what a Republican official in Arizona should find so dark about the days before Trump. In those days, Republicans consistently won statewide elections. Now, Democrats occupy both Senate seats, the state went blue in the 2020 presidential election for the first time since 1996, and thousands of Arizonans have changed their party registration away from the GOP in the wake of an attack on the Capitol fueled by Trump. But this string of failure hasn’t yet prompted a course correction in Republican politics here, instead strengthening Trumpist resolve. Arizona has for decades been the cutting edge of right-wing US politics, an early warning system for where national Republican politics were headed. So the battle here for the post-Trump future, defined by Trump even in his absence, could be the national party’s future too.


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February 2021