Just as I don’t congratulate my dog for not soiling his crate while I’m at the grocery store, I don’t think politicians should be praised for doing what’s expected of them—or for stating the plain truth when there are no consequences for doing so.
Such is the case of term-limited Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona, who made waves over the weekend by attacking Kari Lake, the Trump-endorsed frontrunner in the GOP primary for his potential successor.
Ducey’s governorship is something like the Grand Canyon State’s small-scale rendition of a Mitt Romney presidency: He’s a wonky, balanced budget–minded Republican who mandated that the state government “shrink” while taking moderate positions on culture war issues. His tenure followed the nigh-accidental governorship of Jan Brewer, who “flipped” the office from blue to red when President Obama tapped Brewer’s predecessor, Janet Napolitano, to run the Department of Homeland Security in 2009. (Arizona has no lieutenant governor, which put Secretary of State Brewer next in the line of succession after Gov. Napolitano’s resignation to take up her appointment.)
Brewer’s defense of controversial S.B. 1070 helped her pick up a second term, and the emphasis she gave to immigration enforcement prefigured Trump’s earliest talking points.
Arizona governors can serve for a maximum of two terms, and Ducey has hit the limit. Now that he’s on his way out, it’s clear he’s thinking about his legacy in state politics—and he doesn’t want to be remembered as a detour from the main road connecting Brewer to Lake, a former TV anchor and current MAGA opportunist who is narrowly leading the Republican gubernatorial primary. On the other hand, he doesn’t want to be remembered for helping the Democrats to take over state government, either. Hence his attack on Lake and his endorsement of one of her opponents in the primary.
Lake’s political fortunes are a sign that the GOP’s “wacko bird” contingent, as John McCain dubbed it, has almost succeeded in taking over the Arizona Republican Party. Gone are the days of people like McCain and Jon Kyl battling back the J.D. Hayworths of the world, or even of Ducey himself defeating a former “birther” conspiracist in the state’s 2018 gubernatorial primary. In today’s Arizona GOP, the birds have won.
This is the context in which to understand the governor’s recent comments about the current frontrunner for his party’s nomination for his job. On CNN’s State of the Union over the weekend, Ducey called Lake—a proponent of the Big Lie who is even turning her back on former drag queen friends—a fraud and described her recent politics as “all an act.”
Parts of the conservative world are celebrating this denunciation as a brave stand. I’m not sure why.
All Ducey is doing is being a good partisan on the way out while trying to shape history’s first draft of his career. It’s not time to congratulate him—not yet.
Some notes on the last few years of Arizona politics are in order. Had Ducey wanted to become a senator following McCain’s passing in 2018, he probably could have appointed himself without causing too much consternation in the party. Instead, he appointed McCain’s longtime colleague and friend Jon Kyl to fill the remainder of the late senator’s term. But Kyl resigned at the end of the year, and the replacement Ducey appointed over the advice of his advisers—Martha McSally, who’d already lost a senate election to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema—couldn’t beat Democratic candidate Mark Kelly in the 2020 special election. Kelly won, Biden took the state’s electoral votes in the presidential contest, and Arizona went blue three ways.
This is not a great trend line for a Republican governor.
In denouncing Lake, Ducey is throwing a Hail Mary in an attempt to conclude his governorship without turning yet another thing blue in Arizona: his own office. He has joined other GOP stalwarts in endorsing Lake’s opponent Karrin Taylor Robson, someone whom they believe will fare better than Lake against a Democratic opponent this fall. The problem is that while Robson is not as fake or as nutty as some of her opponents, she’s still far from the attitudes and convictions of the state’s reasonable and responsible GOP figures of yesteryear.
Her dignity and sanity are artificially elevated when Robson is considered in relation to her primary opponents. Consider:
The highlights from yesterday's debate featuring the Republican candidates for the Governor of Arizona pic.twitter.com/vqfJoOg12g
— Enda O'Dowd (@endajodowd) July 1, 2022
This debate’s beleaguered moderator is more electable than the candidates—almost anyone would be. Ducey sees the best prospect of success in Robson, whose voice is absent from the highlight reel presumably because she didn’t fly with anything remotely close to these unhinged pronouncements. There are still problems, however—for example, Robson’s mealy-mouthed sop to election truthers:
Joe Biden may be the president, but the election wasn’t fair. States across the country changed their voting rules in the weeks and months before the election; the mainstream media generally refused to cover stories harmful to Joe Biden; and Big Tech actively suppressed conservative voices. No wonder a sizable percentage of Arizona Republicans still feel the way they do about 2020.
Of course, the presumptive Democratic candidate for governor, Katie Hobbs, is not an election truther at all. As secretary of state, she was stripped by Republicans of the ability to defend election lawsuits in court because she believed that Joe Biden won and that the Arizona Senate-led ”fraudit” was completely baseless. Which is to say: She had normal official responsibilities taken away because the Arizona Republican Party has lost touch with reality. Ducey would prefer to remain in the reality-based community, but only if he can find a way to do so that won’t destroy his conservative legacy in the state.
Ducey’s attack on Lake is not only self-serving: It also highlights his fickleness on questions of party versus country. A few months back, Ducey let the mask of principle slip when he defended state senator Wendy Rogers while she was being censured by the Arizona Senate.
Rogers caught the censure for “comments calling for people she perceived as enemies to be hanged from gallows,” as well as promises to “personally destroy” fellow Republicans who opposed her. (She had also spoken at a white nationalist conference and posted racist and antisemitic content to social media, but these actions weren’t addressed in the censure.) Ducey’s response to these scandals was to defend his PAC’s half-million-dollar donation to Rogers’s 2020 campaign and to describe the disgraced pol as “still better than her opponent, Felicia French.”
While Felicia French is indeed to the left of the average Arizonan, when compared to an unrepentant white nationalist and self-proclaimed “charter member” of the Oath Keepers, she is perfectly normal and perfectly sane. But Doug Ducey spent $500,000 to help Rogers defeat her, and then defended that decision amid the even greater controversy his candidate generated after she assumed office.
The only important difference between Kari Lake, whom Ducey condemned, and Wendy Rogers, whom he defended, is that Wendy Rogers believes everything she says.
When Ducey says, “Kari Lake is misleading voters with no evidence,” it’s worth noting that Wendy Rogers did the exact same thing—and more. She misled voters with no evidence, she caused continual damage to democracy through her actions, and she wasted taxpayer dollars with the Cyber Ninjas “fraudit.”
Ducey considered Rogers worthy of his support because her opponent was a Democrat. He indulged in an appeal to principle in Lake’s case only because there were other Republican options still on the table. But if Lake wins the nomination, expect an about-face from the outgoing governor. At that point, her “act” may turn into his favorite show on television.