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Pima GOP's failures are having national implications

What the Devil won't tell you

Pima GOP's failures are having national implications

  • The napping elephant is the symbol of the Pima County Republican Party.
    Adrian Maidment/FlickrThe napping elephant is the symbol of the Pima County Republican Party.

The Pima County Republican Party is still dead.

Progressives like to talk about the importance of strong democratic institutions and whether they like it or not, the Republican Party is a vital democratic institution. It is a vehicle for about 40 to 45 percent of voters with similar world views to secure elected office. The GOP is a vehicle for picking members of their community and forcing them to be in charge — where they actually have to govern and not just whimper, wine and wail. 

I've long griped about the Pima County GOP going out of business, and now the local party's continued shambles are having national implications.

In 2022, the collapse of the Republican Party here may have helped save democracy. However, a stronger GOP means a stronger democracy in the long run. To get stronger, the party is going to have to build coalitions among the sane (I know, that sucks for them, doesn't it?). Otherwise, the party is going to keep having problems nationally.

Up until about a decade ago, Pima County would break 10 points to the Democrats on a good donkey election year.

President Barack Obama won the county by seven percentage points in 2012. In 2014, Gov. Doug Ducey lost the county by less than five points in 2014. Down-ticket races that year broke 55-45 for Democrats. 

Then in 2020, Joe Biden won the county by 18 points. This year, Democrat Katie Hobbs beat Kari Lake by 19 points. That was the margin up and down the board.

When 10-point margins become 20-point margins, 40,000 votes swing in Pima County. Democrats are suddenly winning statewide races by less than 20,000 votes. Arizona is now one of four key swing states so those 20,000 votes have global implications.

Donald Trump lost the state by less than 11,000 votes in 2022.

Here's an example. Donald Trump lost Pima County by 13 points in 2016. Had Republicans just fared that well in 2022, Kari Lake would be governor-elect and Abe Hamedah would be getting ready to be attorney general.

Republican Senate candidate Blake Masters and Mark Finchem's run for secretary of state would still have been doomed. There's only so much you can do for the steadfastly creepy and the adamantly insane.

Well, Pima County has clearly changed, right? Democrats are just flooding in from California and completely changing the math, correct?

In 2012, Democrats in the county held a 6.6 percent edge in voter registration. And 10 years later, that margin has skyrocketed to 6.8 percent.

No, Republicans, the county hasn't changed. You changed. 

Back to 2011

An event happened in 2011 that really signaled the end of the Pima County Republican Party as viable force.

The party's new chairman was a libertarianish former A-10 pilot named Brian Miller. One night, Pima County sheriff's deputies served a no-knock warrant on a home in the South Side and wound up killing ex-Marine Jose Guerena.

That offended Miller's "home-as-castle" sensibilities. Also, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik was a Democrat. Miller saw this as an opportunity to score some points and raise a legit topic. Maybe he could make inroads into the Latino community.

Well, Miller's own party went ape. He didn't show unquestioning support for the cops and failed to show obedience to the party line.

Never mind that this was a way to raise a legitimate point about government overreach and it could put a Democrat in a tough spot. Miller got ridden out of office like a Union Pacific diesel on a one-way track.

At the time, I was working as the communication director of the Pima County Democratic Party. I couldn't believe my fortune. It was like they were performing a script I had written for them to begin alienating voters.

It's only gotten worse.

Tucson City Councilman Steve Kozachik was run out of the party by the end of his first term. Firefighter Gary Watson showed up to run in Ward 3 back in 2017 but the party brass informed him he couldn't support a sales tax for public safety and roadwork. When he said "yeah but we need it," the party said "we don't need you."

Watson had to run as an independent. 

Republicans haven't won a Tucson City Council seat since 2009. They haven't run a competitive race since 2011. 

The party has lost its un-losable Board of Supervisors' seat in the Catalina Foothills and Oro Valley.

It wasn't always thus

It's not like there aren't smart and reasonable Republicans in Pima County. Congressman-elect Juan Ciscomani may prove to be one. Supervisor Steve Christy can be annoying in his nods to Trumpist moans, but he tends toward legitimate gripes. 

The local GOP had been broad enough to support moderates like Pete Hershberger and Toni Hellon and right-wingers like Randy Graf and Frank Antenori.

To me, a guy like Graf always got a bum rap. He was a very conservative golf pro who once compared the rules of that game to the U.S. Constitution. Or vice-versa. He was a hard liner on immigration, just like 90 percent of the rest of the party.

He was probably too conservative for a swing district, but he was treated like a neo-Nazi propagandist on the order of a Nick Fuentes. I once had to tell CNBC's John Harwood, "No, Randy is not a member of the Ku Klux Klan."

Antenori was a total loose cannon, but he was a fun loose cannon who knew the divide in the party was bad for it. A little agent provocateur-ism isn't a bad thing. 

What the GOP did instead was show it had no interest in building an electoral  coalition. Driving out the moderates sent a message that the Republican Party wasn't a party at all. It was a sect devoted to whatever triggered libs on any given day.

When a Hershberger or a Hellon rolls in a crew with a Graf, it makes the base seem more reasonable. It can also knock some of the edges off the fringe.

Outrageousness, for outrageousness' sake is not an ideology. It's a double-dog dare not to vote R. 

Adopting a base-only strategy may be good for creating some party discipline but it sends a message to the other 60 percent voters: "You are not welcome."

Voters in Pima County have gotten the message. They've turned on the elephants like Hemingway on a safari.

A party, not a club

In the 2020s, Arizona is sufficient to swing a presidential election to the Democrats. Votes here have global implications. The dud that is the Pima County Republican Party is a big factor in Arizona voters losing their red religion.

Just cutting the margins in Pima County by five points is a 20,000 to 25,000-vote swing, which would have been sufficient to elect a Republican governor, attorney general and win the state's 11 electoral votes in races during the last two elections.

Nations and markets can change when a decisive swing state changes the course of America's future.

The national party is soon enough going to have to insert itself locally. More likely, it will have to bring the state party to Jesus and install a Phoenix crew to oversee Tucson. 

The party here needs to recruit candidates, raise money, organize and conduct outreach. 

It's time for the Pima County GOP to be a political party and not a clubhouse full of those deemed pure.

Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist, who worked in daily journalism for nearly 25 years and is the former communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party. Now he’s telling you things the Devil himself would rather keep secret.

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