Arizona GOP bows to election denialism in bid for unity

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PHOENIX — The Arizona Republian Party, reeling from statewide drubbing in a historic stronghold, chose a new leader Saturday who managed to hold together a coalition of activists from warring factions.

Jeff DeWit, the former state treasurer who worked as chief operating officer for former president Donald Trump’s presidential campaigns, was viewed by activists as a competent Republican best positioned to appease the grass roots demands for changing election rules while moving away from being focused on the 2020 contest.

His candidacy for chair got a last-minute push from Trump, whose intervention may have widened his margin over far-right activists.

DeWit’s new perch 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 change in leadership comes at a pivotal moment for the newly competitive state, where Arizona Republicans will have another shot at flipping a U.S. Senate seat and will be pivotal in the electoral college.

DeWit, 50, who entered the race in December, pledged to improve fundraising, recruit precinct committee people, stay neutral in primary races and run a transparent operation. He noted his willingness as treasurer to take on establishment party figures, like former governor Doug Ducey (R). In one-on-one calls to more conventional Republicans, DeWit cast himself as the only candidate who could move the party past the intensity of election denialism.

But when he took the stage Saturday, DeWit tailored his message for a pro-Trump “Make America Great Again” audience. He touted endorsements from some of the state’s loudest evangelists of Trump’s election falsehoods. Kari Lake, the former TV news anchor who lost her gubernatorial bid, failed secretary of state candidate Mark Finchem (R), state Sen. Wendy Rogers, (R) former national security adviser Michael Flynn and above all, Trump. Additional hard-line validators included former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio and former acting attorney general Matt Whitaker.

“We will take our elections back, we will bring election integrity back to Arizona with me as the chairman,” DeWit said. At the same time, he positioned himself as the unity candidate, urging the assembled party officials to remember that “the real enemy are the Democrats.”

DeWit, who handed out fake hundred dollar bills with his photo plastered 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’s proceedings. During a phone call with Trump on Saturday morning, she told him 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 she could speak on his behalf to announce that Jeff has his ‘complete and total endorsement’ while she was onstage,” Duncan said.

Most activists expected the six-way race to come down to DeWit and Steve Daniels, chair of the far-right Patriot Party of Arizona. He campaigned on getting rid of vote-counting machines and restricting voting to one day.

Daniels began and ended his speech on Saturday with appealing to harness the fury over elections, as if to out-Trump the Trump-endorsed candidate. “One day, one vote, in person, with ID, on paper, no machines, no mail-in ballots, precinct-level polling, precinct hand count,” he said. “I will secure elections or I will die trying.”

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

“I’m you, I’m a grass roots warrior,” DeWit said after his landslide victory was announced. “We’re going to unify and we’re going to get back to beating Democrats and winning elections.”

The party avoided the pandemonium that consumed an assembly of GOP activists from Maricopa County earlier this month, where a fight over counting the votes by hand or machine delayed the proceedings until the meeting ran out of time. Ahead of Saturday’s vote, officials appeared to consolidate behind using machine tabulators with a hand backup. The voting machines were on the floor for everyone to see.

“The tabulators provided a good baseline for the hand counts,” Dan Farley, another candidate for chair who withdrew to endorse DeWit, said in a Friday email to supporters. In endorsing DeWit, Farley said Saturday, “It would be healthy for our party to have a decisive winner today.”

Saturday’s meeting was only briefly disrupted when Ward at least twice asked security to eject activists who challenged her on the rules. “I will recognize people when the time is appropriate, not when the mob starts yelling,” she said, to cheers. “We aren’t going to have a repeat of what happened in Maricopa County today.”

The dynamic resembled Friday’s election for RNC chair, where Ronna McDaniel won a fourth term by presenting herself as best equipped to unite the party’s factions, crushing an uprising claiming to better represent the grass roots. Arizona’s RNC members were on the losing side, supporting challenger Harmeet Dhillon.

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

But in handing the gavel off to DeWit, Ward assured the assembly, “The party’s in good hands.”

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

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

“I’m off the Trump train, I’m DeSantis,” DeWit says in the undated tape. “I worked for Trump and everything. I’m not good with those people because I didn’t support their idiot Blake Masters,” he added, referring to the U.S. Senate candidate who had Trump’s endorsement but lost in November.

DeWit said in an interview with The Post Saturday that the audio is “a fake tape chopped up” from a private conversation he had last year with a Daniels backer.

“The part he cut is the very beginning, where I said, ‘People are saying that I am off the Trump train because I wouldn’t support Blake Masters,’” DeWit said. “I’ve 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 outcome showed the enduring power of the former president’s intervention. “There is nothing more impactful in politics than President Trump’s endorsement,” the spokesman said. “Contrast that with recent endorsements from other people this past weekend that didn’t move one single vote,” referring to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a potential 2024 rival who backed Dhillon’s unsuccessful bid for RNC chair.

The race to lead the state GOP began in earnest after the midterm November elections, which delivered defeats in crucial seats, including for the U.S. Senate, governor and attorney general. Many conservative activists don’t accept the losses and point to legitimate problems with printers that took place on Election Day in Maricopa County and a raft of unproven claims of systemic malfunctions.

Lake, who lost her race for governor by more than 17,000 votes, continues to stoke claims her election was stolen in 2022 and is scheduled to headline a “Save Arizona Rally” on Sunday. Though her legal efforts have been unsuccessful, many conservative activists aligned with Trump have embraced her explanations, viewing them as the only reasonable answer to an inexplicable loss against Democrat Katie Hobbs.

Disbelief in Trump’s 2020 defeat kindled new interest in the political process, prompting many Republicans to fill precinct committee seats where they demand action on overhauling election 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 U.S. 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 on Saturday, the Arizona Democratic Party elected Yolanda Bejarano, an ally of Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), as its new party chair, trouncing the choice of Hobbs.

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