Proxy War: Establishment Tries to Take on Trump Again, This Time in Arizona

Former US President Donald Trump and Kari Lake, whom Trump is supporting in the Arizona&#0
ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

The old guard of the Republican Party in the state that once sent Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) to the U.S. Senate is now laying it all on the line in a gubernatorial primary in an attempt to prevent the return of former President Donald Trump to power.

What has become a proxy war between Trump and several elements of the old donor class and seen skirmishes in other states like Georgia and Nebraska in gubernatorial primaries this year has now burst out into the wide open just two weeks ahead of the all-important August 2 election.

The battle that has been playing out all year has seen victories and losses for both sides — albeit far more wins for Trump and far more losses for the donor class establishment, though some early strategically-placed victories for the old guard had some wondering if Trump had lost his fastball. Trump is perfect in U.S. Senate primary endorsements so far this cycle, and also has a perfect endorsement record across 23 states after a win this week in Maryland’s gubernatorial primary against Never Trump Gov. Larry Hogan’s (R) handpicked candidate. But the establishment delivered victories for its candidates against his in a handful of places like Nebraska’s gubernatorial primary and in Georgia in several races. But Trump’s 147–10 record overall nationwide — many of these wins in heavily contested primaries, such as Senate races in Ohio or North Carolina or the gubernatorial primary in Maryland — suggests a former president firmly in control of the future of his party.

However, this Friday will foreshadow maybe one of the biggest tests yet, where Trump and his former vice president, Mike Pence, will both appear in Arizona, campaigning in separate parts of the state in support of opposing candidates. The split-screen just two weeks ahead of Election Day — while ballots are already out and people are already voting early by mail — is the most intense direct contrast this ongoing proxy war for control of the party has seen this year. It also comes immediately on the heels of Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), an ardent Trump foe, predicting that if Trump runs again in 2024 he will face a crowded field presumably containing people like his former wingman Pence, and possibly others like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), a bevy of U.S. senators who might give it a go, or former cabinet officials who may be planning to run themselves.

While those battles are not happening yet directly in front of the public — they very much are playing out behind the scenes with consultants and party power brokers trying to change the landscape to deliver advantages to their favored players — Friday’s events in Arizona could very well be a major preview of things to come in the months and years ahead for Trump and for the party as a whole.

Trump’s candidate in Arizona’s gubernatorial race, Kari Lake, is a former longtime local television anchor running a fervently pro-America First campaign focused largely on taking on the Republican establishment. Lake will appear alongside the former president Friday for a rally in Prescott Valley. Lake told Breitbart News in an interview this month the “McCain machine” is at play in her race, a reference to the late Arizona Republican who served as U.S. senator for Arizona for more than three decades.

McCain has “his hand up, pulling up from the grave, trying to hold on to complete control of Arizona, and the America First MAGA movement is saying, ‘No, it’s not going to go that way this time,’” Lake said.

Lake’s top rival, businesswoman Karrin Taylor Robson, has deep pockets and a wide array of backers intent on tipping the scales in the contentious battleground, which Trump lost in the general election by less than half a percent in 2020. Robson, who has nearly tripled Lake in fundraising by self-funding more than half of her money raised, is backed by Pence, as well as Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R).

Pence’s appearance at two events this Friday, in Phoenix and southern Arizona, will mark his most public divergence from Trump yet as he vouches for Robson in the same state and on the same day Trump will be rallying for Lake.

This internecine fight between the two sides of the GOP also offers the latest test of Trump’s strength in primaries for state executives. While Trump has been perfect in Senate endorsements and most House endorsements save for a couple in Georgia — those are much more national political fights than gubernatorial races — Trump has had a more mixed record in gubernatorial primaries.

Trump picks, such as incumbent Govs. Greg Abbott of Texas and Kristi Noem of South Dakota, among others, easily dispatched primary opponents earlier this year. But when Trump tried to topple Kemp in Georgia, it did not work out so well.

KENNESAW, GEORGIA - MAY 23: Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) stands with former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence at a campaign event at the Cobb County International Airport on May 23, 2022 in Kennesaw, Georgia. Kemp is running for reelection against former U.S Sen. David Perdue in tomorrow's Republican gubernatorial primary. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp stands with former Vice President Mike Pence at a campaign event at the on May 23, 2022, in Kennesaw, Georgia. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Similarly, when Trump tried to upset the powers-that-be in Nebraska with a rabble-rousing firebrand against the hand-picked successor of the outgoing Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) — a member of the powerful Ricketts family of TD Ameritrade donor class wealth and fame — it did not work either. Trump picks in other open governor primaries, like in Maryland this week and in Nevada earlier this summer, have been more successful.

It is from some sitting Republican governors, like Hogan in Maryland or Ducey in Arizona — Ducey is extremely tied to the highest levels of the donor class establishment, as McConnell attempted unsuccessfully to woo him into the U.S. Senate primary this year — where Trump faces some of his biggest resistance in completing a total takeover of the Republican Party even in his post-presidency.

This race is not the first time Pence has bucked his former president, as he backed Kemp in Georgia as well as even sending staff down to help the governor and holding an event with him in the final days.

But instead of just notching their wins earlier this year and moving on, it seems the donor class is getting eager to knock Trump out and challenging him more aggressively in some of these later primaries. Since Trump has not yet endorsed in Missouri’s competitive U.S. Senate primary, where donor class forces are firmly against former Gov. Eric Greitens — Trump has said he is opposed to Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-MO) but has not narrowed down further between Greitens and Attorney General Eric Schmitt — the biggest landscape left on the intra-party primary battlefield in 2022 is Arizona.

It is in Arizona where Trump is all in in the governor’s primary and in the U.S. Senate primary — his candidate there, Blake Masters, seems to be cruising to the nomination and not facing the same kind of resistance from establishment forces as Lake is in the governor race — and therefore the most exposed to a potential embarrassing loss.

But that sword swings both ways. The race in Arizona is a far different picture than, for example, Georgia, as Lake is a clear frontrunner in polls. As writer Laurie Roberts observed in an Arizona Republic op-ed, more is therefore on the line politically for Pence and the others as they invest in boosting the opponent of Lake, and, by proxy, Trump. And if the establishment fails to stop Lake — and thereby Trump — here in this race, they in effect are clearing the way for him in 2024 and giving the former president a massive booster shot of momentum in the arm and making his potential victory that much sweeter.

Trump, who is widely expected to make a third run for president in 2024, has repeatedly floated the idea publicly during rallies this year and, according to the New York Times, has “accelerated his planning in recent weeks.”

Pence has not ruled out taking Trump on in a presidential primary contest, though the former vice president has not exceeded single digits in primary polling and has consistently come in behind DeSantis, whom polls show Republicans favor should Trump decide not to run. Trump, when polled against them all, generally but with very rare exceptions leads significantly — the latest poll shows him up 30 points nationally over everyone else — and having friends in high places later could come in very handy for the former president if and when he needs a break somewhere in a possible crowded field.

But the donor class is clamoring to stop Trump, with this latest battleground in Arizona being one front in the proxy war that establishment forces are hinting at everywhere, and many have even explicitly made their intentions to oppose him clear.

One donor class scion, former Republican National Committee chairman and former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, for instance, told the Times, “I don’t think anyone is inevitable.” Maybe so, but the donor class betting it all against Trump — especially if they lose in McCain’s home state — could very well make a Trump comeback that much more “inevitable.”


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