'You have to fire the coach': After losses, Republicans push for ouster of state GOP chair Kelli Ward

Kelli Ward, chair of the Arizona Republican Party, holds a news conference in Phoenix, Nov. 18, 2020.
Stacey Barchenger
Arizona Republic

Arizona Republicans' bruising losses at the top of the ballot this year have prompted calls for state GOP Chairwoman Kelli Ward to resign immediately and turn the party's focus away from the rightmost flank of conservative politics.

At least one of those changes appears imminent: Ward is not running for chair of the party again, state GOP spokeswoman Kristy Dohnel said in a text Tuesday.

The other is more complicated, as former President Donald Trump announced his intentions to return to the White House in 2024 and one of his key allies, the organization Turning Point USA, has become a powerhouse force in Arizona Republican politics.

Hostile takeover:Turning Point USA and the remaking of Arizona's Republican Party

It all adds up to uncertainty about the future of the Republican Party of Arizona in a state that recently was reliably red but is now a purple battleground, with former leaders already pushing for a change in ideology at the top.

On Tuesday, tensions from the latest round of election losses — including the election of a Democratic governor — came to a head. Phoenix real estate developer Karrin Taylor Robson, a more traditional Republican who ran for governor earlier this year and is a steadfast GOP donor, called on Ward to resign.

"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," Taylor Robson said in a statement. Ward's leadership of the party "has been an unmitigated disaster," she said.

Dohnel, the party spokeswoman, dismissed Taylor Robson's criticism saying "we're not concerned about people who did absolutely nothing to help elect Republicans in the general election." She did not answer a follow up question about calls for the party to shift focus back to issues — and winning candidates.

Former Congressman Matt Salmon, a two-time gubernatorial candidate who also is a past state Republican Party chairman, said the party needs to support candidates who can win based on their ideas for the state, not their loyalty to Trump.

"We need to get back to being the party of ideas instead of the party of some cult personality," he said. "This should’ve not only been a red wave, it should’ve been a red tsunami."

But as of Tuesday night, it was clear that wave wouldn't reach the shore. U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., had won a full six-year term, and Democrats Katie Hobbs and Adrian Fontes were elected Arizona's next governor and secretary of state, respectively. The races for attorney general and superintendent of public instruction were still too close to call, though GOP Treasurer Kimberly Yee won a second, four-year term.

Those losses to Democrats amid a political environment that was expected to favor Republicans this year fall on Ward, Salmon said.

"Treat this like a football team treats it," he said. "(Arizona State University) fired their coach because he couldn’t win.  ... You have to fire the coach."

Four years of losses under Ward

While Ward is on the way out, it's unclear if she might back a like-minded Republican to replace her. Whomever is elected in January will helm the party for a two-year term, a job responsible for helping elect Republicans, raising money, registering voters and energizing the GOP base.

More so than party leaders in other states, Ward has become a national figure notable for her unflinching dedication to Trump. She herself lost two U.S. Senate primaries before ousting sitting GOP party Chairman Jonathan Lines in 2019 by appealing to the party's faction energized by Trump's populism.

"We will make Arizona red again," she said when she was elected in Jan. 2019.

But four years later the state has seen two election cycles that favored Democrats at the same time Trump's Make America Great Again politics have proliferated in the state GOP. Ward herself was part of a group of Republicans who created a slate of alternate electors in 2020, and is under investigation by the congressional committee investigating the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

A slate of "fake electors" casts votes for Donald Trump in 2020.

She has shifted the party from backing all GOP candidates for office, to only backing those who follow the MAGA mantra. Under her leadership, the party censured its own members if they found themselves crosswise with Trump, including House Speaker Rusty Bowers, Gov. Doug Ducey and Cindy McCain, the widow of longtime U.S. Sen. John McCain.

In a statement Tuesday, the McCains' youngest son Jimmy McCain called for Ward to move on, noting her losing record and that "a McCain has never lost a statewide race in Arizona."

"While I can't relate, I imagine it's embarrassing to lose so many elections in such a short period of time," he said. "If she really cares about seeing more Republicans elected, she'll step aside and let someone more competent take her place."

Robert Graham, who led the state party from 2013 to 2017, said he was "mortified" by this year's election results. He attributed it to Ward's divisiveness, saying the party needed to find an incoming leader who could bring GOP factions together, communicate clearly and raise money to restore the financial losses under Ward's tenure.

Graham said Ward was "probably the worst chair ever" who lost the state's top races by picking fights and furthering false claims Trump won the 2020 election, keeping her focus in the rearview mirror.

“People want to look forward," he said.

Reach reporter Stacey Barchenger at stacey.barchenger@arizonarepublic.com or 480-416-5669. Follow her on Twitter @sbarchenger.