Will Arizona's GOP Self-Destruct?

Gov. Jan Brewer's blowup at the president on an airport tarmac is emblematic of the Arizona GOP's increasing extremism, and it may be turning off voters. By Terry Greene Sterling

01.28.12 4:00 PM ET

Shortly after Gov. Jan Brewer and President Barack Obama sucker punched each other on an airport tarmac in Arizona, the governor made her usual rounds on Fox News. Smiling from behind what appeared to be professionally applied makeup, Brewer was interviewed by Sean Hannity’s stand-in, Monica Crowley.

The Arizona governor explained that she, warm-hearted, had welcomed the president to Arizona, handed him a letter and asked to meet with him. But, she said, the thin-skinned president didn’t like the way their meeting at the White House in 2010 was characterized in her “truth-telling book.” (She wrote that the president was condescending.) Too bad, Brewer lamented to Crowley, that with America facing such serious problems, the president had to make the conversation all about him.

“You go, girl,” gushed Crowley.

On Thursday, Brewer’s office released her letter to the president. It says, in part: “I’d love an opportunity to share with you how we’ve been able to turn Arizona around with hard choices that turned out to be the right ones. And, of course, my offer to Visit [sic] the border—and buy lunch—still stands!” The letter boxed the president into a corner. If he met with Brewer, she’d likely characterize him as condescending and out of touch. If he didn’t meet with her, she’d characterize him as callously unresponsive, as usual. But Obama didn’t take the bait. Instead, he accused Brewer of inaccurately depicting their 2010 White House meeting in her book, signaling he probably wouldn’t meet with her at all because she had mischaracterized their last meeting.

The tarmac caper went viral. Predictably, Brewer reinforced her feisty-gal-who-takes-on-Obama brand on Fox News, and her book sales soared. Newt stood up for her. Republicans were thrilled that press on the incident overshadowed coverage of the president’s economy-themed speech at a nearby Intel plant. Democrats set up a fundraising website, Brewer Doesn’t Speak for Me, which encourages site visitors to write letters to the governor telling her what they think of her manners.

But political analysts say the incident on the tarmac goes beyond theater and raises serious questions about the future of Arizona’s Republican Party, now widely viewed as being under the control of antibusiness Tea Party–friendly extremists. (The Arizona Republican Party denies this, and says it has the support of moderates and business groups.

In short, analysts question whether Brewer’s stunt was emblematic of an insular Republican party that is increasingly out of touch with Arizona voters. Her tarmac stunt pandered to a Tea Party-sympathetic electorate just as the Tea Party is declining in popularity in Arizona. It brought up immigration even as immigration declines as an issue most voters care about. And it may have alienated some of the state’s most rapidly growing group of registered voters—those fickle, undecided Independents—from the Republican Party.

“We’re at an interesting crossroads,” says longtime Arizona-based political analyst Mike O’Neil. Undecided voters and independents tend to be the least engaged of the electorate, but their votes decide elections.

The recent recall ouster of the most powerful Republican in the state, Arizona Senate President Russell Pearce, he says, indicates that Arizona voters, including independents, may be saying to the powerful state GOP: “OK, enough.”

“There’s a potential,” says O’Neil, for the leasdership of the Republican Party to lose its grip on Arizona, “but I wouldn’t say it has happened yet.” And he notes that current GOP leaders are an insular group, which “increases the chance you can go too far.”

“There’s no longer any room for moderates in the Arizona Republican Party, and that has contributed greatly to the growth of independents, ” says Chris Herstam, a Phoenix attorney and moderate Republican who once served in the Arizona House. “Archconservatives,” he says, control the Arizona Republican Party and the Arizona Republican Party controls the Arizona Senate and House.

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The Arizona GOP already has a set of challenges that it hasn’t faced before. Herstam notes that an energetic petition drive for open primaries is underway. If it gathers enough signatures in the next five months, it will show up on the November ballot. If passed, the open primary system will likely unseat extremists now in the Arizona legislature. Expect both parties to oppose it.

“Some believe the Pearce recall was [like] a pilot project for the initiative,” Herstam says. Everyone voted, including independents. And a moderate, centrist Republican, Jerry Lewis, defeated Pearce in a district he had controlled for years.

These days, Pearce is running for a high (unpaid) office in the Arizona GOP, which supported him during the recall. Arizona GOP leaders view his recall defeat as an anomaly. “We were very disappointed with Senator Pearce’s loss,” says Shane Wikfors, communications director for the Arizona Republican Party.

Characterizing the Arizona GOP as unfriendly to moderates and business, he says, is fundamentally unfair and “not true.” The Arizona Republican Party has a big tent, he says, is doing outreach to moderates, business, and Latinos and is as strong as ever. He points to recently released voter-registration counts that show Republicans still hold a 35.65 percent plurality of voters in Arizona. (Democrats have 30.52 percent of the electorate, and independents now control 32.93 percent.) By November, he says, Arizona will experience a “resurgence in the whole conservative movement with a strong Tea Party flavor.”

"We are adjusting our messaging to correct any misperceptions about the party and avoid being defined incorrectly by our political opponents," Wikfors says.

Brewer, for her part, has about a 37 percent voter approval rating (about the same as the percentage of Republican voters in Arizona), according to a recently released Rocky Mountain Poll. Arizona is starting to recover, and Brewer and Arizona Republicans are taking credit for it.

She probably won’t run for another office in Arizona—she’ll be termed out of the governor’s office in 2014. After years in in the Arizona legislature and county board of supervisors, she was secretary of state when tapped to replace Gov. Janet Napolitano, who joined the Obama administration in 2009. Brewer's not known for her verbal skills, and her famous debate pause has its place in kitschy political history. But Brewer’s no fool, and she knows how to pick her advisers. She shrewdly developed her Sarah Palin-influenced anti-Obama branding after signing S.B. 1070, Arizona’s notorious immigration law that makes it a state crime for unauthorized immigrants to be in Arizona. This branding started with Brewer's visit to the White House in 2010, continued with a series of mean-girl videos on her YouTube channel, Fox News, in her ghostwritten book, and in speeches.

And while Jan Brewer’s tarmac caper might not sway the Independent voters that Arizona Republicans need to win over, it boosted her book sales and fan base, and that includes Monica Crowley.