As Arizona GOP officials gathered in east Phoenix at the Grace Inn to watch Mitt Romney sweep their state, they nibbled hors d’oeuvres served up by members of the Arizona Federation of Republican Women as “The Day the Music Died” played through the speakers.
Meanwhile, at the cushy Hyatt Regency in downtown Phoenix, Sen. John McCain, who, along with Gov. Jan Brewer endorsed Romney for president, beamed as the former Massachusetts governor called him a “hero” during a televised victory speech. Romney’s sons Craig and Matt flanked McCain as their dad praised his former 2008 presidential primary foe.
Unlike Brewer, McCain is not popular with the hard-line conservatives who have taken over the Arizona statehouse and the Arizona Republican Party. But hard-liners don’t view the Romney victory as a voter backlash against their brand of conservatism. Instead, they say, Romney steamrolled social conservative Rick Santorum, largely because Arizona voters viewed Romney as the most electable candidate.
Although Democrats have been pouring research, money, and manpower into Arizona with an eye on wooing moderate Republicans and independents and turning the state blue in the fall, state GOP leaders are confident that Romney, a perceived moderate, will keep Arizona a Republican stronghold.
Shane Wikfors, spokesman for the conservative-dominated Arizona Republican Party, said he invites Democrats to come “throw away your money” in a futile effort to win over Arizona for Obama.
Exit polls indicated that only about 13 percent of Arizona Republican primary voters were concerned about immigration, but Wikfors doesn’t view the Romney victory as a rejection of the politics of Russell Pearce, once the most powerful Republican in Arizona. Pearce sponsored Arizona’s immigration law, SB 1070, and lost his state Senate seat to a moderate Republican last fall in an unprecedented recall.
“In Arizona, most Republicans focused on the end goal—to beat Obama,” said Wikfors. If Romney cements the Republican nomination, the spokesman added, Republicans of all persuasions will rally round him in Arizona.
Besides snagging the endorsements of Arizona’s most prominent Republicans, Romney’s Arizona campaign was strongly supported by Mormon voters.
But Mike O’Neil, a longtime Arizona pollster and political observer, said it’s still too early to tell whether other voters chose Romney because he’s the “strongest” candidate to beat Obama or because they are dissatisfied with hard-line conservatives. The Romney victory could mean even extremist voters “want to beat Obama so badly” they’ll vote for their “second choice” if he’s the strongest candidate, O’Neil said.
In other words, hard-line conservatives might still prevail in Arizona.
And that’s what Democrats say they’re banking on to win Arizona in the fall. They don’t mind painting Romney, who has turned into an immigration hard-liner, as an extremist, either. Louis Heredia, executive director of the Arizona Democrats, said in a statement that Romney, “by pandering to the Tea Party and some of the most divisive politicians in the nation,” has alienated “Arizona independents, moderates, and the Latino community.”
“Romney confirmed that he would be the most extreme presidential nominee of our lifetimes on immigration,” Heredia said. “He called this state’s divisive and anti-immigrant law a ‘model’ for the nation, promised to veto the DREAM Act and derided it as a ‘handout,’ and embraced the inhumane policy of ‘self-deportation.’”
Romney, Heredia said, may have won “a sprint,” but he will lose “the marathon.”