Trump Ally Kelli Ward Takes Over Arizona GOP as Chair in Surprise Upset Against Establishment

The Associated Press
The Arizona Republic via AP
MATTHEW BOYLE
Washington, D.C.

In a stunning blow to the establishment wing of the Republican Party, President Donald Trump ally Kelli Ward–a two-time Senate candidate in Arizona–has pulled off a surprise victory by ousting the chairman of the state party and taking over.

Ward said in a statement following her surprise win:

I am deeply humbled and honored to have the support of so many of our party’s state committeeman. I want to thank Chairman Lines for his service and commitment. One of my top priorities as chairman is to unify our party so we enter 2020 at full strength. Together, we will ensure a resounding victory for President Trump and Arizona Republicans up and down the ballot. Our party’s future is bright.

Ward ousted the establishment-backed incumbent state GOP chairman Jonathan Lines on Saturday, as state party committeemen chose her over Lines–a decided move by the rank-and-file of Arizona’s GOP to go with a bolder leader for the party heading into the critical 2020 presidential election.

Arizona Republicans have been rankled by divisions in recent years. The late Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), whom Ward challenged in 2016, had been overtly critical of President Trump in his final years of life. McCain’s fellow Arizona Senator, now former Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ)–whom Ward also ran against before he dropped out and decided against seeking re-election–had also been aggressive in criticism of Trump.

When McCain passed away, former Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) was temporarily appointed to his slot in the Senate and Ward faced off against then-Rep. Martha McSally (R-AZ) in the GOP primary in a bid to face then-Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) in the general election for Flake’s senate seat. McSally won the primary, but lost the general election–the first time a Republican has lost a statewide race in Arizona in years, as Democrat Sinema moved on to the U.S. Senate. Nonetheless, McSally was appointed to McCain’s old U.S. Senate seat anyway after Kyl announced his intentions to leave the chamber again,as he had only intended to serve as a caretaker for the slot.

Ward has been close with Trump over the years. Back in 2017, when she was running against Flake before Flake dropped out, Trump praised her on Twitter:

It’s hardly the only time Ward and Trump have been close together.

The fact that a Democrat, Sinema, could win statewide in Arizona has Republicans worried going into 2020, especially with changing demographics in the state. Arizona’s 11 electoral votes are critical to a winning formula for any Republican nominee, especially for the re-election of President Trump.

In 2016, Democrat nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton spent critical time in the closing days of the campaign in Arizona attempting to flip the state her way. While she was unsuccessful, Republicans fear that Sinema’s defeat of McSally could turn Arizona into a major battleground state–instead of a reliable red one–in 2020, forcing Trump to spend time, money, and resources there that he would rather spend in places like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Colorado, or other states he could make a major difference in.

Democrats have also been trying to flip other red states like Texas and Georgia their way, coming close in U.S. Senate and governor’s races respectively in both states in 2018. Democrat Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke nearly toppled Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) in Texas, but came just short, and in Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams nearly defeated the now Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, in that gubernatorial contest.

The move by Arizona’s GOP party faithful away from the establishment way of thinking that cost Republicans key elections, and back towards Trump’s combative style as personified by Ward, is a major sign of the direction Republicans at state levels nationwide want to go in heading into 2020.

What’s more, Ward becoming the new chair of the Arizona GOP may be awkward for the same GOP establishment that tried to wipe her out in previous elections in her two runs for the U.S. Senate. “Ward’s ouster of Lines also raises questions about the state party’s relationship in the near future with the Republican National Committee, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee,” the Arizona Republic wrote about her surprise win.

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