What Do the Grassroots Do Now?

Arizona Republican Party Chairwoman Kelli Ward speaks during a campaign rally on November 7. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Where will the Republican Party go from here? This question—front of mind for sore GOPers in the wake of this month’s disappointing midterms—won’t have a definitive answer until 2024’s presidential nomination contest. But we’ll get some early hints over the next few months at the state level, where some state Republican parties now face questions about whether they tied themselves too tightly to MAGA politics in recent years.

At their core, a state political party’s responsibilities are simple: advancing that party’s principles and supporting that party’s candidates via fundraising and get-out-the-vote coordination. In recent years, however, some state GOP organizations have taken on another role: policing candidates’ loyalty to former President Donald Trump. Take for instance the crucial swing states of Arizona and Georgia.

In Arizona, party chairwoman Kelli Ward—first elected in 2019—oversaw the party apparatus as it became a weapon to fight Trump’s personal battles. The party backed his stolen-election conspiracy theories, with Ward herself leading the bungling effort to empanel a slate of false Arizona Trump electors after the 2020 election. And it led a vengeance campaign against state Republicans seen as insufficiently loyal to Trump, holding censure votes against the likes of Cindy McCain, widow of the late Sen. John McCain, and House Speaker Rusty Bowers, who committed the sin of testifying before the January 6 committee.  

“Please don’t use @azgop and McCain in the same sentence & tag us while I’m chair,” Ward tweeted last year. “I am leading an #AmericaFirst GOP here in our state.”

In this year’s midterms, state party officials didn’t wait until Republican voters had chosen their nominees to throw their weight behind MAGA nominees. In the gubernatorial primary, Trump-endorsed newscaster Kari Lake faced establishment pick Karrin Taylor Robson, a real estate developer and daughter of a former president of the state Senate. Taylor Robson was also endorsed by Gov. Doug Ducey. Throughout the primary, Ward was a cheerleader for Lake on Twitter and spoke alongside her at several rallies.

In the wake of Lake’s general-election loss to Democrat Katie Hobbs—accompanied by a slew of other statewide underperformances—Taylor Robson wrote a letter laying much of the blame at Ward’s feet and calling for her resignation as party chair.

“On Ward’s watch, the Arizona GOP has allowed our state to vote Democrat for President for the first time in a generation; has lost two United States Senate races, along with the Governor’s office,” Taylor Robson wrote. “More concerned with stoking division and settling old scores, Kelli Ward has led our party into a deep morass with no real plan for the future.”

A spokesperson for Ward said last week she doesn’t intend to seek another term as party chair, although her supporters maintain it had nothing to do with the midterm results and was her longstanding plan. “Old news,” party spokesperson Kristy Dohnel told The Dispatch. Her likely heir apparent would be her former party vice chair Pam Kirby, now the state party executive director—as staunch a Trump supporter as Ward herself, but one with a less swashbuckling personal brand. Kirby did not respond to a question from The Dispatch Tuesday about whether she would seek the chair.

The election will take place in January via a vote of grassroots-level party officials from across the state. “Those are precinct committeemen who were elected in the same primary that nominated Kari Lake,” said GOP consultant Jon Seaton, who advised Taylor Robson during the primary. “So that particular electorate is pretty strongly pro-Trump. Having said that, a very similar electorate only reelected Kelli Ward by a handful of votes in [2021], when she had the full-throated endorsement of Donald Trump and the Trump organization behind her.”

In Georgia, the state party is facing a different but parallel problem—not questions about whether they’re culpable for Republican losses, but criticism that they were largely irrelevant to signature Republican wins.

Georgia GOP Chairman David Shafer isn’t as notable a MAGAsphere personality as Ward, but under his leadership the party followed Trump just as far into the stop-the-steal swamp in 2020. Shafer himself declined to endorse the reelection effort of incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp, who had earned Trump’s enmity for declining to go along with Trump’s attempt to steal the state. And Shafer’s vows to remain “neutral” in the primary rang hollow as he went on to speak at Trump rallies where the former president derided Kemp as a worse governor than Democrat Stacey Abrams would have been.

But Kemp, as the incumbent in Georgia, had advantages Taylor Robson lacked in Arizona. His strong conservative policy record helped immunize him against Trump’s charge that he was a RINO or a squish. Kemp went on to embarrass Trump-backed challenger David Perdue in the primary by 50 points before cruising to a 7.5-point win over Abrams in November.

No less notable is how Kemp achieved that win. Taking advantage of a new Georgia campaign-finance law allowing gubernatorial candidates to raise and spend unlimited sums via new entities termed “leadership committees,” Kemp’s leadership operation, the Georgians First Leadership Committee, was set up to handle many of the direct-outreach election duties usually tackled by the state party—making millions of phone calls, knocking on millions of doors.

“If you’re in the fight of your life, of which the governor was … then you want to control your own destiny,” former Georgia GOP chairman John Watson told The Dispatch. “And the effort that the governor made and his team made to stand up what are more traditionally party-like activities, in my mind, demonstrated that they were gonna do just that … They just simply weren’t gonna let anybody else hold their own fortune for them.”

In making this decision, Kemp was aided by a simple fact: In the wake of the state GOP’s total embrace of Trump’s stolen election conspiracy theories, many Republican-sympathizing donors just didn’t see the party as a reliable place to park their election donations anymore. Kemp’s newly unleashed leadership committee was happy to present itself as an alternative.

“The state party has not been effective or seen as an honest broker, both among political leaders and incumbents and also the corporate community,” one Kemp adviser told The Dispatch. “Essentially you have a state party that is not respected by just about any of the current officeholders in the state, and also can’t raise money, because—for a variety of reasons—corporate entities and folks that typically gave to the state party in the past don’t feel comfortable doing that anymore. And they are increasingly coming to groups like [Georgians First] … as entities that are doing the infrastructure work that state parties used to do.”

Nor are there signs Kemp intends to wind down his formidable new political apparatus, despite being term-limited and unable to run again for governor in 2026. Instead, he seems to be carrying his operation forward as a sort of shadow state party. Fresh off his victory over Abrams, Kemp tapped two top aides, Cody Hall and Amelia Hawkins, to advise Georgians First during his second term. And during Georgia’s Senate runoff, Kemp is lending his machine to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s Senate Leadership Fund to run get-out-the-vote efforts for Sen. Raphael Warnock’s Republican challenger Herschel Walker.

The success of Kemp’s ignore-the-party strategy isn’t lost on operatives in the state. 

“The state party has become so distant from anything of impact in conservative politics,” one prominent conservative activist told The Dispatch. “I don’t know if there’s been self-reflection on their part that will lead to change, but everyone’s calculation is built on ignoring the party apparatus.”

What’s next for the GOP in Georgia? They’ve got a bit more time to figure it out—the party state convention isn’t until next June.

Correction, 11/23/22: An earlier version of this article misstated the year in which Kelli Ward was reelected as Arizona Republican Party chair. It was in 2021, not 2020.

Comments (38)
Join The Dispatch to participate in the comments.
Load More