Failed U.S. Senate candidate Kelli Ward, a conservative firebrand, will lead the Arizona Republican Party through the 2020 election.
In a contentious three-way race for AZGOP chair, Ward came out on top Saturday, defeating incumbent chairman Jonathan Lines.
Meanwhile, Arizona Democrats opted to retain their party chairwoman, Felecia Rotellini to another two-year term.
Upon her win, Ward issued a message of unity to the thinned out crowd at the AZGOP state committee meeting Saturday at Phoenix’s Church for the Nations.
“I hope that you will join with me because it is time to unite,” she said. “It is time to put past problems, issues, disagreements behind us so that we win big in 2020.”
Ward insisted she will be able to bring together the conservative and establishment factions of the state party by making re-electing President Donald Trump the top priority.
Ward defeated Lines 633-526, with a third candidate clinching 65 votes.
Republican losses in the 2018 election were a common refrain throughout Saturday’s Republican gathering.
Prior to the election, Republicans held all statewide elected offices, a majority of the congressional seats and majorities in both chambers of the Legislature.
Although Republicans kept their legislative majorities, Democrats picked up four seats in the House — bringing the chamber to a 31-29 split. Democrats also won four statewide elections and a majority of Arizona’s nine congressional seats.
Ward, a former state senator, placed the blame squarely on Lines, of Yuma.
“I was with you on Election Day and after, sharing the heartbreak with you of the crushing defeats we had across Arizona despite historic unprecedented efforts,” Ward said
The status quo isn’t good enough, she said. And echoing comments U.S. Sen. Martha McSally made earlier in the meeting, Ward said, “we need to do better.” McSally, though, was talking about Republican election performance as a whole and not specifically about Lines.
McSally defeated Ward in last year’s GOP primary for U.S. Senate. Ward did not immediately endorse McSally after the contentious primary, so it is unclear if the animosity that lingered between the two will carry over into the relationship they will undoubtedly have in working to get McSally elected in 2020.
After her win, Ward brushed off any notion that she and McSally would be at odds with each other going forward.
“I look forward to working with Martha to make sure that when they talk about the female senator from Arizona, they’re talking about Sen. Martha McSally. That will happen,” she said.
In the past, many moderate Republicans have shied away from Ward, who has been seen as part of a more extreme faction of the party. Ward launched her bid for AZGOP chair in late November, mere weeks after the November 6 election.
When she launched her bid for chair, some Republicans joked Ward would have no luck fundraising — a major part of the job as leader of the state party. Ward insisted Saturday backhanded comments like that from members of her own party were just jokes.
“We’re going to raise money across the board,” she said. “Republicans, donors they understand that Arizona is a very important state as a whole.”
Strong fundraising is a part of Ward’s four-pronged vision that she laid out for Republicans after her victory.
She also highlighted filling all precinct committee positions, having more Republican involvement in the state’s Independent Redistricting Commission to make sure it is fair and ensuring election integrity by halting “Democratic ballot harvesting” and ending the practice of emergency voting centers.
Lines, who was elected party chairman in 2017 by 34 votes, conceded to Ward before the certified election results were publicly announced. In a Facebook post, Lines wished Ward luck and said it was his greatest pleasure to serve as party chairman.
McSally, in speaking ahead of the vote for party officers, praised Lines’ leadership during the 2018 election that she ultimately lost.
But the friction in the room was apparent as some people shouted digs at Lines while McSally was still speaking.
“With no results. We lost,” one person shouted from the audience. The snide comments foreshadowed Lines’ imminent loss.
The contentious intraparty GOP election underscored the division within the state’s Republican Party as Trump’s election has created fissures within the party.
Republicans even got into a squabble about the method for selecting a new chair. A portion of those in attendance pushed for a public, roll-call vote. Others, wanted to cast secret ballots, as is done in typical elections.
Former Apache County supervisor Doyel Shamley was a last-minute addition to the race for chair, turning it into a three-way race.
While Arizona Republicans were divided on who should lead the party moving forward, Arizona Democrats overwhelming threw their support behind chairwoman Felecia Rotellini, who was unopposed in her re-election bid.
She was re-elected by acclamation Saturday.
The messaging within the parties couldn’t be more different following the 2018 election where Arizona Democrats made historic gains and Republicans were left licking their wounds.
At the AZGOP committee meeting, Republicans talked of coming together and unifying the party. Meanwhile, Arizona Democrats, after catapulting Democrats into four statewide offices and flipping just as many state house seats, are talking about building on those successes.
“It’s a great contrast for the people of Arizona,” Rotellini told the Arizona Capitol Times. “I feel very confident that the Democratic Party has never been more unified.”
Democrats at the state party meeting, broke out into laughter, cheers and incredulous gasps when they heard the news Republicans had selected Ward as their chair.
Ward’s victory, which could take the state Republican Party in a more extreme direction, could give Democrats a leg up in 2020.
After a “banner year” for Democrats, Rotellini plans to focus her efforts on reaching out to party leaders and precinct committee members across the state to take stock of what worked and what didn’t in 2018.
But looking ahead to the 2020, Democrats will focus on rebuilding party infrastructure by recruiting and training candidates, registering more voters and reaching out to minority and tribal communities, Rotellini said. Democrats will also work to build on the ground game they beefed up last year.
“I feel that [what] we’ve done in the past is great, but we will be able to enhance that with the continued momentum that we have going into the 2020 election,” Rotellini said.
Note: This story has been updated to include comments from Ward.