Rose Sperry, a state committeewoman for Arizona’s G.O.P., answered immediately when I asked her to name the first Republican leader she admired. “I grew up during the time that Joe McCarthy was doing his talking,” Sperry, an energetic 81-year-old, said of the Wisconsin senator who in the 1950s infamously claimed Communists had infiltrated the federal government. “I was young, but I was listening. If he were here today, I would say, ‘Get him in there as president!’”
Sperry is part of a grass-roots movement that has pushed her state’s party far to the right in less than a decade. She had driven 37 miles the morning of July 16, from her home in the Northern Arizona town Cottonwood to the outskirts of Prescott, to attend the monthly meeting of a local conservative group called the Lions of Liberty, who, according to the group’s website, “are determined to correct the course of our country, which has been hijacked and undermined by global elites, communists, leftists, deep state bureaucrats and fake news.” That dismal view of America today was echoed by nearly every other conservative voter and group I encountered across the state over the past year.
Arizona has become a bellwether for the rest of the nation, and not just because of its new status as a swing state and the first of these to be called for Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election. It was and has continued to be the nexus of efforts by former President Donald Trump and his Republican allies to overturn the 2020 election results. At the same time, party figures from Trump down to Rose Sperry have sought to blacklist every Arizona G.O.P. official who maintained that the election was fairly won — from Gov. Doug Ducey to Rusty Bowers, speaker of the state’s House of Representatives. Such leaders have been condemned as RINOs, or Republicans in name only, today’s equivalent of the McCarthy era’s “fellow travelers.”
The aggressive takeover of the Arizona G.O.P. by its far-right wing was made manifest on primary night earlier this month, when a slate of Trump-endorsed candidates — the gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, the U.S. Senate candidate Blake Masters, the state attorney general candidate Abraham Hamadeh and the secretary of state candidate Mark Finchem — all prevailed. As a group, they maintain that the 2020 election was stolen, have promoted conspiracy theories about Covid and have vowed to protect Arizona’s schools from gender ideology, critical race theory and what McCarthyites denounced 70 years ago as “godless communism.” They have cast the 2022 election as not just history-defining but potentially civilization-ending. As Lake told a large crowd in downtown Phoenix the night before the primary: “It is not just a battle between Republicans and Democrats. This is a battle between freedom and tyranny, between authoritarianism and liberty and between good and evil.” A week later, in response to the F.B.I.’s executing a search warrant at Trump’s residence at Mar-a-Lago in Florida, Lake posted a statement on Twitter: “These tyrants will stop at nothing to silence the Patriots who are working hard to save America.” She added, “America — dark days lie ahead for us.” Far from offering an outlier’s view, Lake was articulating the dire stance shared by numerous other Republicans on the primary ballot and by the reactionary grass-roots activists who have swept them into power.
Whether that viewpoint is politically viable in a swing state is another question. Arizona’s two U.S. senators, Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema, are both Democrats. The tissue-thin Republican majorities in Arizona’s State Legislature — 31 to 29 in the House, 16 to 14 in the Senate — are the most precarious the G.O.P. has experienced in over a quarter-century as the ruling party. And, of course, Trump lost Arizona in 2020, in large part by alienating the college-educated suburbanites who have relocated to the Phoenix metropolitan area of Maricopa County in increasing numbers. [Continue reading…]