It was an interesting weekend in Arizona as competing visions of the future of the Republican Party were on full display. On Friday evening, supporters of Donald Trump waited for hours in near-100-degree heat to enter the Findlay Toyota Center in Prescott Valley to participate in a rally for Trump-backed candidates.
Pence, on the other hand, made several low-key stops in Phoenix and Tucson, touting his choice for governor, Karrin Taylor Robson. With Trump backing former local TV anchor Kari Lake, the dueling appearances were a study in contrasts.
“Some day they’re going to talk about this in ASU political science classes because it’s such a perfect political science experiment about what wins elections,” said former state lawmaker Stan Barnes.
It’s an experiment in obfuscating reality. The differences between the two candidates are very small with both Robson and Lake pro-life, pro-gun, pro-wall, and pro-Trump. But Robson is not only backed by Pence but by Arizona Governor Peter Ducey as well. Ducey made Trump’s top ten enemies list by refusing to overturn Arizona’s election in 2020.
During an appearance in Peoria, Taylor Robson called Lake a “fraud” because of her past support for Democratic President Barack Obama. In Prescott Valley, Lake didn’t use Taylor Robson’s name, but described her GOP opponent as an “open borders RINO” who was relying on her husband’s wealth and a blank check “trying to buy this election.”
Arizona Democrats, meanwhile, said there was no meaningful difference between either wing of the GOP. It was a message overshadowed by a dizzying day of Republicans battling each other.
The GOP schism in the state has been simmering since before the 2020 election. In fact, disunity is cited as one of the reasons Trump didn’t carry the state. And it certainly had a lot to do with the loss of the GOP’s incumbent senator Martha McSally to Mark Kelly.
The Atlantic’s Elaine Godfrey says Pence is “on a mission” of political damage control.
This race isn’t the first time that Pence has deviated from the Trump script, but it’s probably the most noteworthy one. Robson and Lake represent a larger battle within the GOP, between establishment types, like Pence, who want to preserve an ounce of sanity in their party, and Trump’s cabal of wild-eyed election-fraud fanatics. By endorsing Robson, Pence seems eager to show that today’s Republican Party can be a place for Americans who accept Trump but are not certifiable; a Robson win in Arizona would be a data point in support of that hypothesis.
The split in the Republican Party in Arizona and almost everywhere else is not a fight over issues. It’s not even a fight over Trump. It’s a fight over the perception of the party and what it means to be a Republican.
Trump defines the party in terms of loyalty to Donald Trump. And Trump defines “loyalty” as the extent to which you support him — personally and politically. Many Republicans see nothing wrong with that. Others, like Pence, see that kind of cult of personality as unconservative and dangerous. They take a far more traditional view of the Republican Party and want a return to the GOP’s roots of supporting God, low taxes, and small government.
Pence is fighting a rear-guard action against Trump that has little hope for success. The populist forces driving the Republican Party will not be denied — even if Donald Trump isn’t the candidate.