Arizona proxy war: Pence and Ducey versus Trump and the Democrats?

AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

Mike Pence hasn’t entered the fray yet, which is why the headline is framed as a question. But Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey versus Donald Trump and the Democratic Party is very real and increasingly spectacular.

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If Ducey doesn’t get reinforcements from big-name Republicans like Pence soon, though, the choice for governor in a key swing state this fall will boil down to a “rigged election” nutter or a liberal. Or maybe a “rigged election” nutter and a liberal, as Kari Lake’s conservative culture-war bona fides remain in some doubt.

Lake is Trump’s candidate for governor and has led in every poll taken in the state this year, but she endured a triple whammy of bad news recently. First, rival Matt Salmon quit the race and endorsed Lake’s more mainstream alternative, Karrin Taylor Robson. Then a poll dropped showing Lake’s lead over Robson down to five points, 40/35, with plenty of voters still undecided. Then came the cruelest cut — Ducey endorsed Robson and cut an ad for her.

Ducey isn’t just the twice-elected governor of the state, he’s the head of the Republican Governors Association. Which means not only is the chair of the RGA taking sides in a primary, he’s doing so against Trump — and not for the first time. Remember that he also rallied in Georgia for Brian Kemp shortly before Kemp annihilated Trump’s candidate, David Perdue. Ducey and Trump have been on the outs since the 2020 election, when Ducey declined to block Arizona’s certification of Biden’s win and earned an eternal grudge from Trump as a result. Ever since, Trump has lashed him almost as much as he’s lashed Kemp. The prospect of more vitriol and a MAGA backlash in the primary probably convinced Ducey not to run for Senate this year, despite the fact that he was the strongest candidate Republicans could have fielded. As it is, Democrat Mark Kelly may hold on to his seat for a full six-year term.

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Ducey backing Robson is partly another revenge play against Trump, but mostly it’s a good-faith effort to keep cranks like this out of high office:

In case his motives weren’t clear:

Trump responded to Ducey’s endorsement of Robson on Monday night by announcing that he’ll hold a rally for Lake in Arizona later this month. He doesn’t want to lose to Ducey twice, particularly in a primary where, unlike Kemp, the non-MAGA candidate lacks the advantage of incumbency.

So it’s war. Battle lines have been drawn for the August 2 primary. And Trump is getting reinforcements from an unexpected source: The Arizona Democratic Party.

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By tearing down Taylor, Dems are playing the same twisted game they’ve played this year in GOP primaries on behalf of MAGA candidates like Doug Mastriano, either boosting fringe Republicans or wounding mainstream ones in the expectation that fringier types will be easier for them to beat in a general election. Their logic is sound as far as it goes — Mastriano probably is the easiest Republican to beat in Pennsylvania, with efforts already under way among Never Trump Republicans there to rally support for Democratic candidate Josh Shapiro. But in a national environment like this one, Mastriano could plausibly win. So could Lake in Arizona. Democrats have aligned themselves with Trump-backed insurrectionists for the most cynical and selfish of reasons.

Ducey sees the danger, which is why he’s backing Robson and hoping others will join him. NBC reports that he’s considering asking RGA donors to fund a new Super PAC aimed at helping Robson defeat Lake. And he’s hoping his old buddy Mike Pence will come off the sidelines again, as he did in Georgia, to campaign on Robson’s behalf. An advisor told NBC that Pence’s endorsement could be coming soon, not just as a favor to Ducey or because Pence is also eager to defeat election trutherism but because Lake has taken potshots at Pence, saying recently, “I don’t think he’s got a snowball’s chance in Phoenix to win. There’s a lot of people [who] are disappointed at Mike Pence for his actions on Jan. 6.”

There’s another endorsement Robson’s team is hoping to land, although I think they’ll end up disappointed:

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Taylor Robson backers hope Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — the second-most-popular Republican in the nation behind Trump and a potential 2024 presidential candidate — gets involved, as well.

“I think every campaign would like to have Governor DeSantis’ endorsement,” the Taylor Robson adviser said. “So there’s no question about that. We would welcome it, obviously.”

But those familiar with DeSantis’ thinking say he is unlikely to wade into the Arizona race, especially because he doesn’t want to fuel public speculation about his White House aspirations.

DeSantis jumping into the Arizona race against would make the political stakes there nuclear, a test of strength between him and Trump before 2024. But DeSantis would lose more than he gains from doing so: He’d piss off the MAGA fans he’s hoping to woo in the coming primary, possibly end up tarred with the “RINO” label for backing the establishment candidate over Lake, and maybe bait Trump into sniping at him publicly, which would complicate DeSantis’s reelection campaign in Florida.

I can’t imagine he’ll do it. But if he does, the Arizona GOP gubernatorial race will become one of the hottest in the country this year.

By the way, Robson’s no angel when it comes to election denialism. Any candidate who flatly affirms that Biden won legitimately is unviable in a Republican primary, and she knows it. The “moderate” position against a devout truther like Lake is to allow that the Democrats are guilty of unfairness but not outright cheating, which is the position Robson took at a recent debate.

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[Robson] said at the debate: “I believe our election was absolutely not fair.”

Robson cited supposed media suppression of news damaging to Biden and supposed anti-conservative bias by “big tech,” “liberal judges” having permitted the imposition of new policies shortly before the election (which was held during the Covid-19 pandemic), and Meta chief executive Mark Zuckerberg having donated a total of hundreds of millions of dollars to local elections offices around the country.

Robson did not answer directly when asked if she would have certified Arizona’s 2020 results as governor, saying she “was not privy” to the information Ducey had at the time. She was the only candidate at the debate to unequivocally say she would accept the outcome of this primary.

If she wins the primary, she still needs MAGA voters to turn out for her in the general. Punting on whether she would have certified the election is the least she can do to pander to them.

Here she is on Laura Ingraham’s show pursuing a shrewd line of attack against Lake, accusing her of being the real RINO in the race. I’m not sure that a history of supporting Democrats is a major liability for a candidate in a party owned by Donald Trump but it might be enough of an excuse for Republican voters who feel iffy about Lake to cut her loose.

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David Strom 8:16 PM | July 17, 2024
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