For Republicans, this year’s primaries are a proxy war between former President Trump and those who’d like to see the party move past him, including his own vice president, Mike Pence. Trump and Pence held dueling rallies in the state of Arizona on Friday, where they’re campaigning for opposing candidates in the state’s gubernatorial primary.
Mike Pence backing Karrin Taylor Robson
Mike Pence was there to back Karrin Taylor Robson. She’s a developer, a more establishment candidate preferred by sort of the GOP power structure that’s in place right now in Arizona. Trump, on the other hand, was there to back Kari Lake. She’s a former local news anchor turned Republican who has really bought into Trump’s election lies and has really vehemently supported Trump and those lies on the campaign trail.
Mike Pence was at a tactical gear manufacturing facility in the Phoenix metro area in front of a small crowd, maybe about 250, 300 people. That – talking about the establishment, this was a lot of the local politico types – lobbyists and businesspeople – either with money to gain from a Taylor Robson administration or maybe already invested in her campaign. Trump was in northern Arizona at a small arena with maybe 5- to 6,000 people there really pumped to see Lake and a slate of other election-denying candidates. And like most Trump rallies, it was more of a party than anything else.
2016 marked the Trump takeover
But 2016 really showed the Trump takeover, and it’s fairly complete. And you can see that up and down not just the ballot but the power structures within the states, including Arizona. And you see that in the crowd size there for Trump versus Pence. You see that in, you know, someone like Rusty Bowers, the state House speaker who testified before the January 6 committee, going back to Arizona and then being censured by his own state party. So really, you know, there is a faction that opposes Trump, but it is still well within the minority.
one of the most recent polls showed Taylor Robson is trailing Lake still, but she’s within the margin of error. That was before Pence’s endorsement. So we don’t really have a clear picture yet of, you know – is a Pence nod to Taylor Robson something that can get her across the finish line? Lake, on the other hand, has had Trump’s endorsement for about 10 months now – since September of 2021. And that’s really been sort of the steadying force in her campaign. She hasn’t gained a lot of support since that endorsement. But talking about power structures in Arizona in particular, it’s really solidified her base. And her base is also the actual Republican Party in Arizona, which is led by fellow election deniers like Chair Kelli Ward, who was there at the rally on Friday.
Lake and Taylor Robson talked same policies
Both Lake and Taylor Robson talked about a lot of the same policies. They want to surge the National Guard at the Arizona border with Mexico. They want to build the wall, which they can only do so much as a – you know, the state government here in Arizona. It’s more of a federal issue, but that is kind of the dividing factor. And you heard that in the rallies on Friday. You heard current Arizona Governor Doug Ducey talk about trying to move past 2020, trying to look forward for the Republican Party. But at Trump’s party in northern Arizona, it was all Trump won 2020. Trump was robbed. Trump won Arizona specifically, and we need Trump again in 2024.
I think that Georgia is another example of that where, you know, President Biden won it narrowly, and we’ve seen some close elections and people having to make that pivot into a general election. Virginia was another example with the governor’s race there the last cycle with Glenn Youngkin, the Republican, winning and having to sort of moderate his tone, keep Trump at a bit of a distance but still welcome his endorsement because, frankly, the fact is the middle, the swing voters in this country, whether it’s in a purple state or a blue state or red state, has really shrunk.
The people who you can win over from the other side, it’s a really small number in single digits at this point. So you have to – being so polarized, you have to have your base fully behind you to have a full head of steam going into a general election and then hope you can pick up some of those independents and swing voters in the middle marginally to have them all together to put you over the edge for that 50 plus one.
Arizona is a very different beast than Virginia
I think Arizona is a different beast than Virginia. And whether or not we see some moderating in the general election, that’s going to depend entirely on who wins the primary. Kari Lake is not a candidate who’s going to try to appeal to the middle. She’s going to keep beating the drum for Trump, keep beating the drum for a stolen 2020 election. And there’s a bunch of down-ballot races in Arizona, too, where you’ve got Republican candidates who aren’t going to bend on stuff like election denialism.
If Taylor Robson wins on the other hand, then, yeah, you’re going to see a much more natural shift to appeal to independent voters who are really crucial to winning the election in Arizona. And I think that’s why you’re seeing this establishment push for Taylor Robson. Because maybe the fear is Lake isn’t going to make that shift, and Lake isn’t going to have as good of a chance of winning in November.
Election deniers are running in races all over the country
This is a dynamic that’s playing out well beyond Arizona. There are election deniers running in races up and down the ballot all over the country. we’ve got a lot of Trump-endorsed candidates up and down the ballot all across the country from, you know, positions as high as governor on down to borough presidents, for example. You know, he wants to play in here.
He is seen as the potential front-runner for the 2024 nomination if he wants it. He continues to tease it. And what is at stake really is the heart of the Republican Party. Now, everyone’s going to declare a bit of victory on that because it looks like Republicans are favored to win the House, you know, whether or not they go Trump, whether or not they go moderate because of high inflation and gas prices. And you can guarantee that everybody is going to say, see, this is why we won in this place and that place.
Mike Pence endorsement only goes so far
I think the Mike Pence endorsement is only going to go so far. It’s going to maybe help out with some of those independent voters in the long run. Some independents in Arizona have the opportunity to select a Republican ballot for the primary. So maybe that’s a pickup for Taylor Robson, maybe that helps her get across the finish line here by August 2, the primary date.
But the Trump base is just so solid, so rock solid. The voters that I spoke to in northern Arizona on Friday and the resounding applause that you heard every time there was a Trump candidate mentioned up and down the ballot – from what I heard on Friday afternoon, Trump voters are going to vote for whoever the former president tells them to.
It almost feels like Pence is trying to find an audience, you know? I think that even if you look at polling, like, Republicans don’t think particularly highly of Mike Pence right now in a way that they do Trump. And I wonder what it says more about that dynamic, right? I mean, Pence doesn’t deny the 2020 election. He is still in a – in some ways, loyal to the former president. He doesn’t really criticize him directly. But he doesn’t really seem to have much of an influence, or at least we haven’t seen it play out yet.
Mike Pence is still well-liked among Republicans
Mike Pence is still fairly well-liked among Republicans, you know, sixty-plus percent favorability rating in the latest NPR/PBS Newshour/Marist poll. But Trump is still slightly – you know, a bit higher than that, actually. And, you know, this is where the heart of the base of the party is. It’s with Trump right now. And Pence, you know, was somebody who struggled, frankly – reminds me, honestly, of Joe Biden running in 2008. Really, you know, he got, like, 1% of the vote. Pence was never really the person who fired up any part of the base except for, you know, evangelical Christian, white conservatives. And that is why he was put on Trump’s ticket. And whether that’s enough to propel him in 2024, it doesn’t look like it.
It was remarkable for me to actually listen to Pence on Friday. You know, he endorsed Karrin Taylor Robson in a fairly tame statement a week ago Monday. But on Friday, he really came out swinging and was trying to walk this line between, I’m going to brag about all the things Trump did; I’m going to brag about all the things we and Trump did during that administration. And he was propping up Karrin Taylor Robson as somebody who was supportive of Trump in 2016 and supportive of Trump of 2020, but then he’s also trying to, you know, criticize Lake as this unreliable Republican. Well, Lake is very much a Republican in the mold of Trump as far as converting to the Republican cause and becoming, like, a celebrity here in Arizona the way Trump was nationally.
Trump is really the gravity in the Republican Party. Even Pence, who was his vice president and is now actively seemingly campaigning against him, has to mention him in order to endorse the candidate he wants to win.