Kelli Ward and the forbidden endorsement
Republicans fear that the AZGOP chair’s repeated bashing of Republican candidates who aren't "America First" enough will cost them the general election.
Arizona Republican Party chair Kelli Ward doesn’t just see her job as electing the most Republicans possible in Arizona.
“Not all Republicans are created equal,” she said. She wants to elect the “best Republicans.”
Ward has come under intense scrutiny among Republicans for her penchant for backing certain “America First” Republicans in the primary election while attacking those she sees as not pure enough to represent the party on the general election ballot.
And she won’t commit to supporting whichever candidate makes it through the gubernatorial primary, dodging a direct question when asked multiple times, saying:
“My goal is to elect Republicans. Period,” she said.
Ward insists she hasn’t formally endorsed any candidates, but that’s a distinction without a difference. She’s tweeted in favor of, and urged people to donate to, candidates in contested GOP primaries such as gubernatorial prospect Kari Lake and Arizona Senate candidate David Farnsworth. She’s raged online against their opponents, particularly gubernatorial hopeful Karrin Taylor Robson and House Speaker Rusty Bowers.
A “debate” among GOP governor candidates became a one-on-one with Lake after the other candidates either weren’t invited or refused to attend because they didn’t view Ward as a neutral moderator.
Playing favorites among Republican candidates is unheard of for a state party chair, and her quest to cleanse the party of those who dare to oppose former President Donald Trump in any way will only alienate Republicans and hinder AZGOP’s prospects in a general election, according to former Republican Party chairs.
While past party chairs say the job is solely to get Republicans elected after voters have chosen their nominees in the primary, Ward says it’s to get the best Republicans elected. “And it starts in the primary,” she said in a series of texts.
But her critics say that’s an important distinction that could have lingering negative effects on the state party’s role as a “big tent” GOP and could cost them the 2022 election in several statewide races.
The Arizona Agenda is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Jonathan Lines, Ward’s immediate predecessor as state party chair, said the divisions Ward is creating within the Republican Party will be difficult to heal after the primary election.
“That is my biggest concern: Do we turn the election over to the Democrats?” he said. “I mean, if we’re very fractured, how will she bring everybody together? I can’t imagine everybody getting on a bus (after the primary) singing kumbaya and driving around the state.”
Ward argues that days when Republican Party chairs stayed neutral are over. And at the national level, the Republican National Committee faces similar complaints — some contend its ability to maintain neutrality in the 2024 presidential primary is already in question, considering Trump’s name is the single greatest driver of campaign donations the organization has at its disposal.
“The people who have had trouble uniting historically are the Establishment types who would rather have a Democrat than a conservative Republican,” Ward said. “This year that changes.”
The endorsement wars serve as a solid metaphor for many Republicans’ larger problem with Ward’s leadership: People don’t feel comfortable being a part of her Republican Party, and that weakens the party as a whole.
“Not to pick on Dr. Ward, but I think her entire tenure as chairman has been the eye off the ball. So she’s not focusing on elections at all, she just focuses on colorful statements and her career,” former AZGOP chair Robert Graham said.
Lines recalled sitting in the Oval Office before the 2018 primary while Trump urged him to back Republican challengers to Arizona’s members of Congress and the Senate who he opposed (Lines wouldn’t say who, exactly). He said he imagines Ward received the same speech.
“He asked me several different times with different questions,” Lines said. “I told him that’s not the function of the party. … You don’t get involved in the (primary) races. You allow the people to put forth the person they want to represent them.”
Nowhere in the country is it standard practice for a party chair to endorse candidates in the primary, he said. If he had chosen a side in the primary, he would have been “excoriated” by party activists.
“The party chair is elected to build the party, not individuals. You’re violating that position. You’re violating the trust that people have placed in you to build the party,” he said.
The rule is unwritten
The Arizona Republican Party’s bylaws don’t prohibit the chair from picking favorites in the primaries. (The Maricopa County Republican Committee’s bylaws prohibit members from endorsing non-Republicans, though.) Still, past party chairs and GOP activists and candidates say it’s a strongly held unwritten rule and tradition, and disregarding that neutrality is a strategic mistake.
The Arizona Democratic Party’s bylaws do explicitly say the party “shall remain neutral” in contested primaries.
“They will neither endorse any candidate in a contested primary, nor take actions that could imply endorsement, nor otherwise give favor to or demonstrate bias toward a specific candidate,” the bylaws state.
Behind the scenes, it’s common for party leaders and activists to sort out who they think is most electable, on both sides of the aisle. Democrats have long faced criticism that they “clear the field” for the party’s preferred candidate before the primary even begins. Those preferred candidates might get more favorable treatment or access to party resources (like the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primary). But it’s rarely as public or explicit as Ward’s full-throated support and opposition toward particular candidates.
Graham, who chaired the state Republican Party from 2013 to 2017, tried not to take photos with candidates during primaries, he said, because he figured they’d use the photo to imply he supported them over another Republican.
“When you weigh in, you bounce a whole bunch of people off the back of the trailer,” he said. “It is the most counterproductive thing a state chairman can do outside of not raising any money. If you really want to be insignificant or impotent, that's what you do.”
Staying out of primaries nets more resources for all Republicans, conserves energy for general elections, protects the party’s integrity and provides better long-term prospects for good, electable candidates, he said.
People who support a different candidate won’t donate to the party, believing their money will go toward a candidate they don’t like, which can hurt candidates further down the ballot, Graham said. It prevents strong candidates from running if they believe they won’t get a fair shake from their own party. It pulls headlines away from Republican issues and toward infighting and fracturing.
The party chairman’s sole job is to win general elections and put Republicans in office, Graham said.
“It makes it so that they're fighting for the wrong things,” Graham said.
In Ward’s sights
For candidates who don’t get support from Ward or who end up on the receiving end of her tweets, it all seems counterproductive, at the very least.
The state party should be training its ire and resources at the Democrats, not at fellow Republicans, Matthew Benson, a spokesman for Robson, said.
“The messaging coming out of the Arizona Democratic Party is really no different than what Kelli Ward has been saying,” Benson said, referring to a press release Democrats sent out thanking Robson for her past contributions to Democratic candidates.
There’s typically an expectation of support, both financial and infrastructural, once a GOP candidate wins the primary to propel Republicans through the general. Volunteers and paid workers knocking on doors and making calls usually promote the full Republican slates, up and down the ballot. It’s not clear if that will still be the case this year, depending on who wins.
At this point, Robson’s campaign isn’t counting on support from the AZGOP if she makes it to the November ballot.
“We won't be reliant on the Arizona Republican Party,” Benson said.
Trey Terry, a Republican running for a House seat in Legislative District 29, said he doesn’t use the Republican Party’s campaign software to track voters and donors during his campaign for fear Ward will tell his primary opponent his every move.
Ward has urged people to support his opponent and has repeatedly mocked Terry online, taunting and calling him names online and using her platform of more than 200,000 followers to boost attack ads against him.
Ward calls his accusation that she would feed information to his opponents “ridiculous.”
Terry is an Army veteran and West Valley school board member who has worked on conservative campaigns since 2010. Ward used to ask him for campaign advice when she was a first-time candidate, he said. But he’s been critical of Trump and Ward in recent years. And ever since he opposed Ward’s re-election to state party chair, she’s been openly attacking him online.
Still, Terry says, it doesn’t matter for his race. He actively campaigns on the fact that Ward dislikes him, reminding his West Valley district of her many stumbles as party chair, including closing the AZGOP’s West Valley office. Even if he loses the primary, he knows his deep-red district will elect another Republican. His bigger fear is how that will play out in hotly contested statewide races, where Ward has clearly aligned with the Trump-endorsed “America First” slate.
Lines, who led the AZGOP from 2017 to 2019, noted that a lot of people have expressed that same fear about using party resources to him. When people like Terry don’t use the Republican Party’s campaign software, it hurts not only the candidate, but the entire team, Lines said. Republican knocking on doors and calling donors and logging that information into the system creates more, better data points for the Republican Party as a whole.
Bowers, a frequent mark on Ward’s social media, especially since he testified before the Jan. 6 committee about his standoff with Trump over the 2020 election in Arizona, recently told the Deseret News he thought the favoritism and Trump purity tests would narrow the party considerably, to the point “when they finally can fit in a phone booth.”
“I don’t think it’s helpful,” Bowers told the news outlet. “When the (Arizona) party chair comes out in a primary and tells everybody what a jerk I am and what a RINO I am, and to vote for my competitor in this election, and that’s the chair? We’re supposed to be neutral in the primaries, and then you jump behind your candidate in the general! But it’s just on its head here.”
Farnsworth, the Trump-endorsed state Senate candidate who recently said, not metaphorically, that the devil stole the 2020 election, said he didn’t want to publicly condone or criticize Ward for backing him in the primary.
An endorsement by any other name
Ward claims she hasn’t made any endorsements, but that her “tweets and other posts speak for themselves.” (The repeated “Vote Farnsworth” tweets sure seem like endorsements, if they’re speaking for themselves.) And she pointed to endorsements from Gov. Doug Ducey, another Republican leader, questioning how the two were different.
“Have you asked the guy the media calls the leader of the Republican Party in AZ, Governor Ducey, about his endorsements? He’s actually made some!” Ward said.
But governors, by tradition, very frequently endorse their preferred successors. And while they’re a de facto leader of their party, they are not actually in charge of the party infrastructure. Former Gov. Jan Brewer endorsed Scott Smith, for example, over Ducey in the 2014 primary to succeed her. She immediately rallied behind Ducey, however, once he won the primary.
“These roles are different,” Ducey spokesman C.J. Karamargin said. “Gov. Ducey has a very real interest in who his successor is going to be. This shouldn’t come as a surprise — Gov. Ducey is a conservative, and he wants Arizona’s next governor to be a conservative.”
All kinds of theories pepper the discussion of why the state party leader would wade into such a tricky position: Ward may be hedging her bets that Lake will win, given her frequent frontrunner status, and think it won’t affect the general, at least for the governor’s race. She may be aligning the party around her personality and fervent support of Trump, including his constant, unsupported refrains of 2020 election fraud. She could be building a party that solely pleads allegiance to Trump, where any Republicans require an America-First purity test, lest they be considered Republicans In Name Only. And in some instances, her social media posts simply seem petty, based on past beefs between her and other Republicans.
Ward shot down the most persistent rumor about why she’s so openly breaking with tradition to support Lake: that Lake promised her a job in her potential administration. Ward insists she has “no job offers” and that she’s “focused on THIS job that I do totally as a volunteer.”
Her own races clearly play a role in how she views playing favorites. When she ran against incumbent, longtime U.S. Sen. John McCain, in the 2016 primary, the AZGOP prohibited her from using its data, she said, and many Republicans spent money to smear her.
After Ward lost the 2018 primary for U.S. Senate — when an outside group supporting Martha McSally smeared her as an ISIS supporter — she still worked to elect the party’s contestant in the general election, Ward said. That’s something “NONE of the yapping class has done,” she said.
And while many Republicans fear her tenure has alienated volunteers and donors, Ward touted robust fundraising, candidate training (including training 500 Republicans this year on how to run for school boards) and voter registration. (That fundraising, in part, can be attributed to the AZGOP’s support for the Arizona Senate’s audit of the Maricopa County election, despite the state party not financing the audit.)
“So the haters are going to hate. The whiners are going to whine. And I’m going to keep working relentlessly to elect good, solid Republicans with skills, talents, and abilities as well as with hearts, spines, and souls,” Ward said.
The Arizona Agenda is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.