The mission of a state GOP is pretty simple, really. “The Arizona Republican Party exists solely to raise money, recruit candidates, and support Republican candidates and elected officials,” said Matthew Benson, a GOP strategist in the state.
For Robert Graham—who led Arizona’s chapter from 2013 to 2017—the directive is even more straightforward: “Win elections. Period.”
But in the weeks since November 3, a handful of state parties across the country seem to have reinterpreted their mandate to include activities that will almost certainly have the opposite effect: Attacking the highest-ranking Republicans in their states, often with a ferocity that will leave lasting political damage.
“How is it that the governor of Arizona [Doug Ducey] could surrender to the mob and abandon our great President,” the state GOP’s official account tweeted a few days ago. “No loyalty!” The Arizona GOP account also shared posts recently accusing Ducey of being a Chinese sleeper agent, and Dr. Kelli Ward—the chairwoman of the organization—personally charged Ducey with “cowering” under pressure.
Georgia Republican Party Chairman David Shafer boasted last week that he was suing Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s Republican secretary of state. One speaker at a December 5 grievance rally in Dallas promoted by the Texas GOP mocked Republican Gov. Greg Abbott—who was paralyzed at age 26 and uses a wheelchair—because he “doesn’t stand for the national anthem.” Another called for Abbott to be primaried.
Pundits promised a GOP civil war if Donald Trump lost his re-election bid. It’s here, with one’s degree of loyalty to the outgoing president serving as the line of demarcation.
Degree is the operative word here, because both “sides” of this post-election conflict are—and have been—incredibly loyal to the president. Raffensperger gave thousands of dollars to Trump, voted for Trump, and was—by all accounts—hoping for four more years of Trump. Ducey rallied for the president multiple times in the months leading up to the election.
But loyalty has taken on a new meaning since November 3: Will you—in service to Trump—subvert the will of the people?
For the Republican election officials for whom the answer is no—Raffensperger, Ducey, Al Schmidt in Philadelphia, Lee Chatfield in Michigan—the intra-GOP blowback has been intense. Death threats have been levied against Raffensperger and his wife, and he’s been sued multiple times by the RNC and Georgia’s Republican party. (“So which lawsuit are we talking about?” Shafer asked when The Dispatch asked him about his legal action against Raffensperger. “Cause we’ve got multiple lawsuits.”) In Arizona, a longshot Democratic recall effort against Ducey over his handling of COVID-19 is now slightly more plausible after a handful of GOP elected officials in the state endorsed it—for entirely different reasons.
What have Raffensperger and Ducey done to deserve this scorn from their fellow Republicans? Follow the law.
After two recounts in Georgia—one completely by hand—reaffirmed the state’s election results, MAGA forces coalesced around the idea of insufficient signature verification being to blame for the president’s loss in the state. Shafer told The Dispatch on Friday he believes the “volume of absentee ballots completely overwhelmed the verification system,” pointing out the number of Georgians voting by mail increased from about 284,000 in 2018 to just over 1.3 million this year. “We requested in September before the general election that the secretary of state issue a bulletin allowing our absentee ballot monitors to watch the verification process,” Shafer continued. “He promised to issue the bulletin on September 30, but reneged.”
Raffensperger took issue with that characterization, saying that, in addition to there being “no evidence presented of any issues with the signature matching process,” his office “repeatedly told the GA Rep Party, including David Shafer himself, that the signature verification process was—and always has been—public and that they could observe it.”
“We told him to let us know if counties gave him any issues with access,” Raffensperger continued. “He never did. It wasn’t because we didn’t issue a bulletin, it was because he didn’t have the organization in place that he needed.”
But on Monday—after weeks of immense pressure, and with Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp calling on him to do so—Raffensperger finally agreed to a partial audit of voter signatures on absentee ballot envelopes in one Georgia county. “Now that the signature matching has been attacked, again and again with no evidence, I feel we need to take steps to restore confidence in our elections,” he said yesterday. It wasn’t enough for Shafer, who responded to the news by requesting an audit of a different county in the state.
The case in Arizona is even more cut-and-dried: Republican criticism of Ducey stems from the simple fact that he certified his state’s election results for Joe Biden after Biden won the state.
Arizona law “requires the Secretary of State, in the presence of the Governor and the Attorney General, to canvass the election on the fourth Monday following the general election,” Ducey tweeted on November 30. “This can ONLY be delayed if counties DECLINE to certify their results. ALL 15 counties in Arizona—counties run by both parties—certified their results.” He even noted that his certification triggered a five-day window to challenge the results in court, inviting Arizonans to do so. Ward called the certification a “sham.”
It’s easy enough for Republican politicians and activists like Shafer and Ward to lob rhetorical bombs at election officials. It cements their MAGA bona fides, and forces someone else to deliver the base the bad news about Trump’s loss. Sen. Ted Cruz executed this strategy to perfection last week by publicly offering to argue election cases before the Supreme Court while knowing full well he’d never have to: The court would deny certiorari.
But if the state and local officials actually tasked with carrying out the election process behaved as cynically as Cruz—and, at this point, dozens upon dozens of other Republican politicians—the country would have a full-on constitutional crisis on its hands.
“I mean, we have to be constrained by the law,” a source close to Raffensperger told The Dispatch last week. “I suspect there are legislators who may be taking some of these positions, not necessarily enthusiastically, but just because they want to be seen as doing something.”
Some view the antics of Shafer and Ward as a means of deflecting attention from their own role in Trump losing two reliably red states in Georgia and Arizona. “David Shafer and the Georgia GOP need to stop passing the buck for failing to deliver Georgia for Trump and actually focus on getting out the vote in January,” Georgia Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs told The Dispatch.
“It just seems like it’s a feeble attempt for Dr. Ward to be relevant, and not take credit, or be accountable, for the loss of the presidency in our state,” said Graham, who presided over the Arizona GOP when the state went for Trump and its two U.S. senators were Republicans, not Democrats. “Candidly, [Ward] hasn’t raised money. There was no meaningful involvement in any strategy within the state. And there was zero engagement with the minority communities—and any of the other populace—that would help to lift or turn the vote.”
Of course, no one is more responsible for Trump’s loss than Trump himself—which may explain why he’s been working overtime to pin the blame on others. In the weeks since the election, the president has sent countless tweets excoriating Republican officials in Georgia and Arizona, all but labeling them traitors to the GOP.
“What is going on with [Gov. Doug Ducey]? Republicans will long remember!” Trump said after the Arizona governor—whom the president endorsed in 2018—certified his state’s results. The rhetoric against Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp has been even more unhinged, with Trump designating him as both a “fool” and a “clown” and retweeting a post from Georgia lawyer Lin Wood asserting Kemp “will soon be going to jail.” Over the weekend, Trump asked his 89 million followers which of the two is worse, imploring them to vote both of the “RINOs” (Republicans in Name Only) out of office.
Ward—who did not respond to a request for comment for this story—had no problem amplifying Trump’s message about the Arizona governor. But in Georgia, Shafer is focusing all his fire on Raffensperger, leaving Kemp more or less alone. John Watson, who preceded Shafer as chair of the Georgia Republican Party, has noticed.
“In my estimation, the state party chairman and the state party writ large have been very purposeful in not attacking the Governor, and threading a needle that understands and demonstrates that the secretary of state is the constitutional authority over our election process,” Watson told The Dispatch.
Reached by phone on Friday, Shafer did not dispute that characterization. “No, that’s correct,” he said. “The governor has repeatedly called on Secretary Raffensperger to order an audit of the absentee ballot signature matches.”
While Raffensperger has responded to the president’s attacks with a degree of righteous indignation—he accused Trump of throwing him and his family under the bus in a November op-ed—Kemp has more or less suffered in silence as the president proclaims him “finished as governor.”
Although Shafer doesn’t blame the governor for what transpired after the election, he also declined to criticize Trump’s attacks on Kemp when prompted. “Well, the president has urged voters to vote in the January 5 runoff election,” he said, referring to the two races that will decide control of the U.S. Senate. “As we prepare for that election, we are trusting no one and taking no chances.”
The fights in these states are, quite literally, about overturning the results of a free and fair election. But they’re also about much more than that.
“Mark Kelly is going to have to run for election now again in two years, and there’s a lot of thought that this is Kelli Ward bidding for the support of the president and Trump supporters in what will turn into a Senate run,” said Benson, the Arizona strategist. Kelly, a Democrat, just won a special election to fill the U.S. seat the late John McCain won in 2016 and had been occupied by Republican Martha McSally since early 2019.
“I think [Ward] envisions herself running for U.S. Senate. She wanted the U.S. Senate appointment last time around, following McCain’s death,” Benson added, noting that she began publicly agitating for the position within days of McCain’s initial cancer diagnosis in 2017. It’s no stretch. Ward plainly wants to be a senator: She lost GOP primaries to both McCain in 2016 and McSally two years later.
There are murmurings in Georgia that Shafer—who narrowly lost his bid for lieutenant governor in 2018—has his eyes on higher office as well, including, perhaps, secretary of state. But Shafer told The Dispatch on Friday there was no truth to that rumor. “I am solely focused on winning—well, I’m sorry. I’m focused on election integrity, and winning the runoff elections on January the fifth. That is my entire focus.”
For the past four years, rank-and-file Republicans unsure of which way to turn have had a relatively straightforward path laid before them: Agree with the president. Those who didn’t—with relatively few exceptions—were quickly and summarily shown the exits. But that North Star is fading fast, and enterprising politicians aspiring for leadership in a post-Trump GOP are already working to stake out territory in the coming war.
In politics, the fight for influence is zero-sum. Figures like Ward spent years on the periphery of the Republican party, on the outside looking in. The chaotic reshuffling of the GOP during the Trump years presented them with a chance to move from the fringe to the mainstream as the old mainstream splintered—and many jumped at the opportunity.
But Trump’s grip on the political zeitgeist—essentially unchallenged since 2016—is now slipping, and there is a notable fear among this crowd that their newfound relevance will fade as he does. By continuing to embrace the election conspiracies promulgated by the outgoing president, are these Republicans tethering themselves to a sinking ship?
On December 9, Ward posted a video updating her followers on the status of the state GOP’s failing efforts to overturn the election. “Yes, the Supreme Court in Arizona dismissed our case and said that there’s not enough evidence,” she said with a sigh. “There’s still a lot of things out there, folks. This is far from over.”
Later that same day, it was announced that Ducey had been elected chair of the Republican Governors Association. “I am honored to serve as the next chairman of the RGA for this upcoming year,” he said. “I look forward to building on the RGA’s momentum as we work to expand the Republican majority.”