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Arizona plots to eradicate 'extremists'

Factions in both parties look to overhaul the battleground state's primaries. Failed GOP candidate Kari Lake called any Republican who backs the move "a Democrat in Sheep’s clothing."
Arizona Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake speaks during a get out the vote campaign rally on Nov. 5, 2022 in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Arizona Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake speaks at a get-out-the-vote campaign rally in Scottsdale on Nov. 5.Justin Sullivan / Getty Images file

Republicans in Arizona are still steaming over their losses last November. They blame the MAGA movement's outsize influence in choosing its party's unsuccessful general election candidates, like Kari Lake for governor and Blake Masters for the U.S. Senate.  

Now, a faction of the GOP isn't just calling for the state chair's head; it wants to overhaul Arizona's electoral system with one overarching goal in mind: stamp out extremists. Democrats are joining in the effort, which aims to put a question on the 2024 ballot that could upend the primary system in a critical battleground state.

Save Democracy Arizona, a nascent Arizona coalition, is heavily focusing on opening the state's primaries to allow voters to cast their ballots for any candidate, regardless of party affiliation, which would allow the growing number of independents in the state to play a role in those contests. In Arizona, like many states, primary voters can cast ballots only for the parties for which they're previously registered. Early discussions also include the possibility of ranked choice voting. 

Getting a question on the ballot to change the electoral system is a huge undertaking that will necessitate 500,000 signatures, a significant persuasion campaign and tens of millions of dollars in fundraising, said Chuck Coughlin, an Arizona-based Republican strategist helping to steer the effort. 

Coughlin said the movement began after MAGA Republicans' "chokehold" on the party brought losses in three election cycles. Arizona Democrats now hold both Senate seats and the governor's post for the first time in more than 70 years.

Coughlin said there's a growing realization within the GOP that MAGA has taken over the party, and that in Arizona, it has been a losing gambit. 

"The relatives threw you out of the house," Coughlin said of the MAGA wing of the party. "Now you want to go back into the house, but the crazy f------ relatives still live in the house — and they're not leaving."

But Lake's defeat was razor-thin, by roughly 17,000 votes out of more than 2.5 million cast.  

"Arizona is MAGA Country, that will never change, and anyone taking shots at America First Republicans and scheming to create an open primary is just a Democrat in Sheep’s clothing," Lake said in a statement to NBC News. 

Arizona Secretary of State Adrian Fontes, a Democrat who is also involved in the effort, said he isn't advocating for one approach over another but wants to help shape the discussion of what the state's future primaries should look like.

"The frustration with the political parties is rife," Fontes said in an interview.

The obstacles independent voters face is also a growing problem, Fontes said. The semi-closed primary system in the state means independents must register with a party to vote in presidential elections and request a ballot from a party to vote in that party's nonpresidential primaries. That's something that just 10 percent of independents do, according to the Save Democracy group.

The number of independent voters in Arizona is rising across the board, and, at one point, there were more nonaffiliated voters in Maricopa County, the state’s most populous, than registered Republicans.

"That says a lot," Fontes added.

In an NBC News exit poll of Arizona voters in last November's election, voters identifying as independent outnumbered those of either party. Forty percent of those asked said they considered themselves independent, while 33% identified as Republican, and 27% were Democrats.

Details are still being hashed out, and Coughlin said focus groups and polling are coming. But there's also an appetite from national groups willing to help underwrite a look at ranked choice voting, which would allow voters to vote for any candidate of any party in order of their preferences. The top vote-getters would subsequently face run-off elections. National groups are already involved, including aiding with fundraising, which will include national and state dollars, Coughlin said. 

The national groups include Unite America and RepresentUs. Also part of Arizona's effort is ranked choice advocate Katherine Gehl, former CEO of Gehl Foods, a major food manufacturer. Gehl backed a similar effort that just passed in Nevada (but must clear one more hurdle in 2024 to become final) and is in place in Alaska.

Should a measure make it onto the Arizona ballot, it wouldn’t be in time to affect Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s 2024 re-election fight – the highest profile upcoming statewide race. Sinema has angered members of the Democratic Party by pushing to the right, and she just changed her party affiliation from Democratic to independent.

"Kyrsten Sinema is an absolute, walking example of what we’re talking about," Coughlin said, referring to her potential allure to crossover voters.

Andrew Yang — a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate who helped form a third party, the Forward Party, and has been active in promoting open primaries and ranked choice voting across the country — pointed to Lake, who denied the results of the 2020 presidential election, as instructive about why open primaries and ranked choice ballots are needed.

"Dodging a bullet is not a sustainable strategy," Yang said in an interview. "She very narrowly lost. If you look up and say, 'Well, everything is going to be fine in the future,' it doesn’t make any sense. What does make sense is having a more representative voting system, where the average Arizonan has their voice heard as much as someone who is participating in a party primary."

Movement toward an open primary in Arizona is underway at a moment when Republicans across the country are agitating for change after lackluster performances in November's midterm elections. New Republican state party chairs are expected soon in battleground states such as Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Arizona and Colorado. In Arizona, Republicans complained that Chair Kelli Ward, who isn’t seeking another term, was too close to Donald Trump and his endorsed candidates, including Lake. 

Ward was also caught up in the Jan. 6 investigation, and her phone records have been subpoenaed as part of the probe. In Nevada, Republican Chair Michael McDonald is serving his term even though there have been calls for him to step down. McDonald likewise is under federal scrutiny, having turned over his cellphone to federal investigators and testified before the House Jan. 6 committee.

Former Arizona Republican Party Chair Matt Salmon, who isn't part of the open primary effort, said he fully expects to see a question about it on the 2024 ballot. Salmon called Republicans' performance in the 2022 midterms a "miserable failure." 

"We lost just about every statewide office," Salmon said. "I think it goes back to one thing and one thing alone: the people who Trump endorsed in the general." 

Salmon said a number of Republicans want to get back to "commonsense politics" but not enough to reach critical mass. "There's still a number of the Trumpistas who follow him closely," Salmon said, arguing that opening primaries to independents could help bring more moderate general election candidates.    

Yang said that while such initiatives are brewing across the country, Arizona was "ground zero for democracy" and said more Arizona businesspeople who are Republicans but "not down with extremists" were expected to join the effort.

"One, it's a swing state," he said. "Two, it's in a region that's growing, and three, it's very much a microcosm for the way a lot of the rest of the country looks — where a growing percentage of Arizonans consider themselves independents."