Kelli Ward is a problem, but not the problem

By Robert Robb

Improving the political prospects for pragmatic conservatives doesn't start with the state Republican Party apparatus.


The massive underperformance of Republican candidates for major offices in Arizona has resulted in calls for the resignation or defenestration of Kelli Ward, the state party chairman.

Ward has been a terrible party chairman. But she was a minor contributor to the GOP debacle this year.


More importantly, the party apparatus is light years away from the place to begin to improve the electoral prospects of pragmatic conservatives in Arizona.


The ideal party chairman would be someone respected by the party’s candidates, donors, and grassroots workers. The chairman has two principal jobs: schmoozing with these constituent groups and hiring competent staff to do the actual campaign related work.


The official party can be a convenient and cost-efficient mechanism for performing functions that benefit multiple candidates, such as maintaining and enhancing the voter contact list and turning out the known, loyal vote. The party also has a cost advantage in some limited voter communication activities. And it can act as the nominal source of more extensive voter communication actually organized and funded by others.


Sometimes the party chairman is called upon to say something profoundly stupid that is thought politically advantageous but which candidates don’t want to say themselves. But generally, done most effectively, it’s not a highly public role. The face of the party is its candidates, not the party chairman, who is supposed to be a political mechanic.


Ward, however, wanted a highly public role and to influence what the party stood for, not just make sure the political mechanisms were well oiled and executed effectively. In particular, she wanted the Arizona Republican Party to become the party of Trump and his MAGA movement.


That happened, but not much because Ward pushed the party in that direction. The Republican primary electorate was in a MAGA mood and nominated Trump endorsed candidates across the board. If the party chairman had been a neutral, competent political mechanic, the same candidates would have been nominated and would have faced the same fate in the general election.

For most offices, there were GOP candidates who would have done better in the general election. But, in fairness to Republican primary voters, all of them were also running as Trump supporters and MAGA movement enrollees.


It’s rich, and cheeky, for Karrin Taylor Robson and Matt Salmon to be blaming Ward and calling for her resignation or ouster. They were losing candidates for the GOP gubernatorial nomination. Both professed themselves to be Trump enthusiasts. They didn’t go as far as Kari Lake in casting unwarranted shade at the conduct of the 2020 election by the Republican-dominated Maricopa County Board of Supervisors. But they were both some flavor of election deniers.


The attention on the role of the party apparatus in the GOP underperformance is misplaced and energy spent on trying to rehabilitate it would be wasted. Instead, the energy should go into eliminating the duopoly the Democratic and Republican parties have in determining our general election choices.


The two-party system served the country well for most of our history. But it has out-lived its usefulness, particularly here in Arizona where a third of the electorate declines to identify with either major party. In fact, it is now an obstacle to good governance.

Arizona remains a center-right state. It has appeared purple because of the distorting Trump effect on who the Republican nominees have been in the last three election cycles.


Although the state remains center-right, today a pragmatic conservative doesn’t have much of a path to the general election ballot. And that would remain true even if the Republican Party chairman was a neutral political mechanic. MAGA Republicans are probably around 15% of the overall electorate. But that’s enough to win a Republican primary these days. That’s why Robson and Salmon, both pragmatic conservatives at heart, ran as faux Trumpsters.


Democratic Party primary voters in Arizona have, thus far, been more accepting of pragmatic liberals as their nominees, and now hold both U.S. Senate seats and the governorship as a reward. But that may be severely tested in 2024, when Kyrsten Sinema, who wrote the book on how a Democrat can win a statewide race in Arizona, may face a primary challenge with national progressive groups out to punish her for her bipartisan independence.


A non-partisan top-two primary system would give pragmatic conservatives a realistic path to the general election ballot. And, once there, they would win more statewide elections than they would lose.

Bringing that about, not attempting a rehabilitation of the state Republican Party apparatus, is where their energy should be directed.