Jonathan J. Cooper, Associated Press
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 US 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 US 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.
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