Arizona Republicans pick former Trump official Jeff DeWit as next leader in landslide win

Jeff DeWit, Arizona Republican Party chair candidate, speaks during the Arizona GOP biennial statutory meeting at Dream City Church on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023, in Phoenix.
Ray Stern
Arizona Republic

In a tense meeting in Phoenix on Sunday, Arizona Republicans rejected a hardcore election denier as their new state leader and instead chose Jeff DeWit, a former Trump official who aims to bring a level of unity to the fractured party.

DeWit, who also is a former state treasurer, touted his fundraising prowess and ability to energize the party to achieve more election wins.

"We are going to unify and we're going to get back to winning elections," DeWit said after now-former party Chair Kelli Ward announced that he had received 71% of the vote among the other candidates. "We have the right message. We are fighting for freedom. It’s about our kids. It’s about taking back our kids — taking back our country."

The election for a new party chair was a chance to steer the increasingly right-leaning organization toward more unity and the possibility of more election victories than seen in the past four years. Former President Donald Trump's dramatic loss in 2020, the far-reaching images of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol and attempts by some Trump supporters to overturn the election in Arizona and other states increased division in the party.

Moderates and supporters of the late Republican Sen. John McCain found themselves with a slate of Trump-endorsed candidates on November's ballot, and election results showed many of them voted for Democrats or didn't vote at all for the top statewide candidates.

DeWit wasn't the favorite of the far-right party members who support massive changes to the election system — that was Steve Daniels, an activist and leader of a political action committee called the Patriot Party who wants to eliminate early and mail voting, remove "machines" from the election process and announce a result at the end of Election Day.

But DeWit, as a former state treasurer, had gathered the most momentum and big-name endorsements among the six contenders for the two-year post.

State committee members cast 1,225 votes for DeWit, far more than the other five candidates. Daniels got only 129 votes, coming in third to Vera Gebran, who received 243 votes. The other three party chair candidates — Dan Farley (who ended up dropping out), Lori Ann Martinez and Sheila Muehling ― received fewer than 100 votes each.

Despite Daniels' failure, resolutions voted on by the state committee members made it clear that election security remains a high priority for Republicans. Members voted for several election-oriented resolutions, including one that called for a similar "one day, one vote" election process that Daniels' supporters want.

They also voted overwhelmingly to turn down a resolution added to the ballot stating that Joe Biden was the legitimate winner of the presidential race in 2020.

DeWit brings resume of Trump bona fides

In his three-minute pre-vote speech, DeWit brought election-conspiracy icons Sens. Wendy Rogers, R-Flagstaff, and Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, to stand at his side and bragged that he had raised more than a billion dollars for the former president. He called himself a "grassroots warrior" and touted the endorsements of Trump, unsuccessful governor and secretary of state candidates Kari Lake and Mark Finchem, retired Gen. Michael Flynn and former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, making his election-denial credentials clear.

State committeewoman Karen Wood of Gilbert said she voted for DeWit because he'll "do a good job uniting the party" and will "bring decorum" to the post.

"He has a lot of experience, he has a lot of connections," she said. "He's also grassroots and America First."

DeWit worked as the top campaign official for Trump in Arizona in 2016, and then nationally in 2020. Trump appointed him as NASA's chief financial officer in 2018. During a recent campaign forum, he told a crowd he had worked hard for Trump on "election integrity," but his name was as prominent in efforts nationally or in Arizona to overturn the 2020 election.

Unlike Ward, he did not play a role in the effort to send fake electors for Trump to Congress before the Jan. 6, 2021, vote certification. His name appeared in emails related to the state Senate's partisan audit of the 2020 election in Maricopa County in a discussion with former party chair and audit official Randy Pullen whether a fundraising organization for the audit was legitimate.

“So they are OK to donate to? Trump asking,” DeWit wrote in an April 28, 2021, text to Pullen. He later explained that he wasn't asking on behalf of Trump directly, but was referring to the body of supporters for Trump.

Farley, Gebran, Martinez and Muehling received less applause from the crowd than either Daniels or DeWit as they appeared to support a more moderate approach to party leadership. Farley, during his speech, said DeWit was "unquestionably the best-qualified candidate for the job" and asked state committee members to cast their votes for DeWit instead of him.

DeWit later told The Arizona Republic he was looking forward to "hitting the ground running" on Monday, with one priority being to find and recruit new candidates for 2024.

"I think our party knows we need to come together," DeWit said. "We’ve had infighting but we need to remember that we’re all here for a common goal. It’s our principles that will win the day and we’ve got to get back to focusing on that."

Raucous crowd for gathering at church

Fourteen-hundred state committee members and their guests attended the gathering at Dream City Church in north Phoenix. The festive event included dozens of tables representing conservative groups or politicians, food trucks and local political celebrities like Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., Lake and numerous state legislators.

Before voting took place, the division in the party was on full display as the now-former party Chair Kelli Ward fought onstage with grassroots members who demanded time to speak against the event's agenda and rules.

"Point of order!" several members of the crowd shouted as she spoke.

"I will recognize people when the time is appropriate, not when the mob starts yelling," she said, asking security to remove state committeeman Joe Neglia from the room until "he's able to exercise self-control."

The move brought loud boos from the crowd and Neglia wasn't removed. Another would-be speaker got into a shouting match with Ward. She asked for voice-votes from the crowd and continued when it appeared a majority moved to approve the agenda and rules.

Tristan Manos, an observer and precinct committeeman from Phoenix's Legislative District 5, said he was "shocked" by Ward's attempt to "censor" Neglia, a registered parliamentarian Manos believes has helped the party.

Mike Steffans, a state committeeman from Legislative District 3, a Republican stronghold that includes north Scottsdale, Cave Creek and Fountain Hills, said before the program began that he planned to listen to all six candidates for party chair before making a choice. He hoped whoever won could avoid division and focus on issues and Democratic opposition.

"Republicans have been known for having that circular firing squad and picking off their own," he said.

Republicans also chose several other officers: Christine Ong Cothrun as party secretary; Elijah Norton as treasurer; and Rob Canterbury as sergeant-at-arms.

The new officers likely will work well with DeWit, which is another plus, conservative activist Merissa Hamilton said after the vote.

"They were quietly rooting for each other," she said of DeWit, Ong Cothrun and Norton. "They're going to be a powerful trio."

Arizona House Majority Whip Rep. Teresa Martinez, R-Casa Grande, was one of several people who expressed relief that Daniels wasn't elected.

"I'm very happy with the outcomes," Martinez said. "I think the magic with DeWit is he was an elected official, he knows the difference between how to be an activist and how to govern, that makes him uniquely qualified to do this job."

Reach the reporter or 480-276-3237. Follow him on Twitter@raystern.