Arizona GOP bows to voter denialism in bid for unity

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PHOENIX — The Arizona Republican Party, reeling from a statewide battering in a historic stronghold, elected a new leader Saturday who managed to hold together a coalition of activists from the warring factions.

Jeff DeWit, the former state treasurer who served as director of operations for former President Donald Trump’s presidential campaigns, was seen by activists as a competent Republican better positioned to appease grassroots demands to change election rules while moving away from focusing on the 2020 contest.

His presidential bid received a last-minute boost from Trump, whose intervention may have widened his margin over far-right activists.

DeWit’s new position may help improve the party’s standing with local conservative donors and the Republican National Committee, which has suffered in recent years under Kelli Ward. The leadership change comes at a pivotal time for the competitive new state, where Arizona Republicans will have another shot at winning a US Senate seat and will be pivotal in the electoral college.

DeWit, 50, who entered the race in December, vowed to improve fundraising, recruit district committee members, remain neutral in the primary and run a transparent operation. He signaled his willingness as treasurer to take on establishment party figures such as former Gov. Doug Ducey (R). In individual calls to more mainstream Republicans, DeWit came forward as the only candidate who could move the party past the intensity of voter denial.

But when he took the stage Saturday, DeWit adapted his message for a pro-Trump audience of “Make America Great Again.” He touted the endorsement of some of the state’s loudest evangelists for Trump’s election falsehoods. Kari Lake, the former television news anchor who lost her gubernatorial bid, failed secretary of state candidate Mark Finchem (right), state senator Wendy Rogers, (right) former national security adviser Michael Flynn and, most notably, Trump. Other hardline validators included former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and former acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker.

“We will get our elections back, we will return electoral integrity to Arizona with me as president,” DeWit said. At the same time, he positioned himself as the unity candidate, urging the assembled party officials to remember that “the real enemy is the Democrats.”

DeWit, who handed out counterfeit $100 bills with his photo taped on them from his time as state treasurer, got a last-minute boost from Trump in an endorsement delivered dramatically from the stage by Lake in a speech that opened the day. During a phone call with Trump on Saturday morning, she told him that she was supporting DeWit, Lake aide Colton Duncan told The Washington Post. Trump “was very enthusiastic and spoke highly of him.”

“President Trump told Kari that she could speak on her behalf to announce that Jeff has his ‘full and complete endorsement’ while she was onstage,” Duncan said.

Most activists expected the six-person race to come down to DeWit and Steve Daniels, chairman of the far-right Arizona Patriot Party. He campaigned to get rid of vote counting machines and restrict voting to one day.

Daniels began and ended his speech Saturday by appealing to harness the anger over the election, so as to outmaneuver Trump, the Trump-backed candidate. “One day, one vote, in person, with ID, on paper, no machines, no mail-in ballots, precinct-level voting, precinct handcount,” he said. “I will get elections or die trying.”

In the end, DeWit won with 71 percent, while Daniels was a distant third.

“I’m you, I’m a grassroots warrior,” DeWit said after his landslide victory was announced. “We are going to unify and we are going to beat the Democrats again and win elections.”

The party avoided the pandemonium that engulfed a Maricopa County caucus of Republican activists earlier this month, where a fight over vote counting by hand or machine delayed the process until the meeting time ran out. Before Saturday’s vote, officials appeared to be consolidating behind the use of manual-backed automatic tabulators. The voting machines were on the floor for all to see.

“The tabs provided a good baseline for hand counting,” Dan Farley, another presidential candidate who dropped out to endorse DeWit, said in an email Friday to supporters. Endorsing DeWit, Farley said Saturday: “It would be healthy for our party to have a decisive winner today.”

The meeting on Saturday was only briefly interrupted when Ward asked security at least twice to remove activists who challenged her with the rules. “I will acknowledge people when the time is right, not when the crowd starts yelling,” she said to applause. “We are not going to repeat what happened today in Maricopa County.”

The dynamic resembled Friday’s election for the RNC chairmanship, where Ronna McDaniel won a fourth term by presenting herself as the best equipped to unite party factions, crushing an uprising that claimed to better represent the rank and file. Members of the Arizona RNC were on the losing side, supporting challenger Harmeet Dhillon.

“I don’t feel like most of them are listening,” Arizona RNC member Lori Klein Corbin said at the party’s state meeting Saturday. “And I think we can pay the price as a party at the national level.”

But handing DeWit the gavel, Ward assured the assembly: “The party is in good hands.”

The balancing act that won DeWit’s presidency is about to define his tenure as the state party struggles to hold together dedicated Trump supporters, pragmatists who want to steer clear of Trump, and newcomers energized by the false claims of Trump voter fraud. DeWit’s ability to please multiple constituents was tested during the campaign when his business ties to influential state Republicans came under scrutiny. DeWit ran a technology company that developed apps for the Trump-aligned youth group Turning Point Action and its affiliates. The company’s board includes the two members of the Arizona RNC. DeWit said he left the post on January 3.

And in leaked audio circulating on social media in recent weeks, DeWit can be heard saying that people urged him to run to stop Daniels and distance himself from Trump.

“I’m getting off the Trump bandwagon, I’m DeSantis,” DeWit says on the undated tape. “I worked for Trump and everything. I’m no good with those people because I didn’t support their idiot Blake Masters,” he added, referring to the US Senate candidate who had Trump’s endorsement but lost in November.

DeWit said in an interview with The Post on Saturday that the audio is “a fake cut tape” of a private conversation he had with a Daniels sponsor last year.

“The part that he cut is the beginning, where I said, ‘People say I jumped off the Trump bandwagon because I wouldn’t support Blake Masters,’” DeWit said. “I have never seen a dirtier campaign tactic than recording a private phone conversation and creatively editing it to try to win an election. It’s despicable.

A Trump spokesman said the result showed the enduring power of the former president’s intervention. “There is nothing more shocking in politics than President Trump’s endorsement,” the spokesperson said. “Compare that to the recent endorsements of other people last weekend who didn’t move a single vote,” referring to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a potential 2024 challenger who endorsed Dhillon’s failed bid to chair the RNC.

The race to lead the state’s Republican Party began in earnest after November’s midterm elections, which led to losses in crucial seats, including the US Senate, governor and attorney general. Many conservative activists are not accepting the losses, pointing to legitimate printer problems that took place on Election Day in Maricopa County and a series of unproven claims of systemic malfunction.

Lake, who lost her gubernatorial race by more than 17,000 votes, continues to fan claims that her election was stolen in 2022 and is scheduled to headline a “Rally to Save Arizona” on Sunday. Although her legal efforts have been unsuccessful, many Trump-aligned conservative activists have accepted her explanations, seeing them as the only reasonable response to an unexplained loss to Democrat Katie Hobbs.

Disbelief in Trump’s defeat in 2020 ignited a new interest in the political process, leading many Republicans to serve on election committees demanding measures to reform electoral systems. Other more pragmatic conservatives who have worked in the party trenches for years are exasperated with that approach and fear it could cost them another US Senate seat and control of the state legislature in 2024.

At Saturday’s meeting, state party members voted to reject a resolution recognizing the legitimacy of the 2020 election.

Also Saturday, the Arizona Democratic Party elected Yolanda Bejarano, an ally of Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), as its new party chair, defeating Hobbs.

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