An incumbent president has never had to stand in Arizona’s presidential preference election, a streak that will remain intact next year after the Arizona Republican Party officially scrapped the 2020 primary to guarantee President Donald Trump is the state’s nominee.
The Arizona Republican Party on Sept. 9 officially informed Secretary of State Katie Hobbs that it will opt out of the presidential primary on March 17.
Arizona was a relative latecomer to presidential primaries. The legislature created the presidential preference election in 1992, and it didn’t hold its first such election until 1996. But it has yet to hold a presidential preference election in which an incumbent is on the ballot.
The Arizona Democratic Party withdrew from the primary in 2012 when Barack Obama was up for re-election, and the Arizona GOP did the same in 2004 when George W. Bush sought a second term.
And when Bill Clinton ran for re-election in 1996, Democrats didn’t participate in the state’s first presidential preference election.
But there’s a bit more to the story than that.
Arizona Democrats didn’t want to scrap their 1996 presidential primary. But Republican lawmakers and the Democratic National Committee got in the way.
DNC rules that year stipulated that no state except for Iowa and New Hampshire could hold their primaries prior to March 5. That conflicted with the date for Arizona’s primary, which GOP lawmakers set for Feb. 27.
Blake Morlock, who wrote for the Arizona Daily Sun in 1996 and covered the presidential preference election dispute, said Republican legislators wanted to hold Arizona’s primary early in the belief that it would benefit Texas U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm, who was a top contender for the GOP nomination that year.
Republican operative Chuck Coughlin, who ran Gramm’s Arizona operation in 1996, said he pushed the legislation to set the primary date and provide state funding for the election to benefit the Texas senator, with the backing of U.S. Sen. John McCain and Gov. Fife Symington, who supported “wanting Arizonans to have a larger voice in the presidential preference process.”
The campaign expected Gramm to fare poorly in Iowa and New Hampshire, but thought he would succeed in Louisiana’s Feb. 6 caucus and then notch a big win in Arizona. So, they flouted Republican National Committee rules and set an early date for Arizona’s presidential preference election.
“We thought, given Gramm’s connections in Texas and his relationship with John (McCain) and others, that we could run the table in Arizona,” Coughlin said.
But the maneuvering was all for naught. Pat Buchanan narrowly beat Gramm in Louisiana. Gramm ended his candidacy nine days before Arizona’s first presidential preference election, which saw Steve Forbes narrowly defeat U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, the GOP’s eventual nominee.
This all caused a conundrum for Arizona Democrats. They couldn’t have Clinton on the ballot if they broke DNC rules about the date. But the state wouldn’t foot the bill for another presidential preference election after Feb. 27.
Ultimately, the Arizona Democratic Party held its own election on March 9, a Saturday. The election was open to all registered Democrats, but only about 12,000 of nearly 880,000 eligible voters cast ballots, according to The Arizona Republic’s coverage. The election cost just $10,000.
Morlock said a number of fringe candidates were looking to challenge Clinton in Arizona.
“There were a candidates like the Hemp Lady and the Idaho accountant who knew exactly how to balance the budget who were supposed to be on that one,” he told Arizona Mirror. “(Lyndon) LaRouche was his main competition that year.”
Clinton won 96 percent of the vote.
Many Trump critics, especially Democrats, have accused the state GOP of essentially subverting democracy in favor of an unpopular president by scrapping their 2020 presidential preference election, an argument that ignores the history of such elections in Arizona. And most incumbent presidents, no matter how popular within their parties, have random people challenge them for re-nomination.
Republican political consultant Constantin Querard noted on Twitter that Bush in 2004 faced a challenge from Bill Wyatt, a t-shirt maker who switched from Democrat to Republican in protest of Democrats who supported the Iraq War. Wyatt made it onto the Republican primary ballot in several states, and was on the Democratic ballot in Arizona.
Querard also noted that Obama faced a slew of challenges for the Democratic nomination in 2012, including a Texas prison inmate named Keith Judd who got 41 percent of the vote in West Virginia and attorney John Wolfe, Jr., who got 42 percent in Arkansas. Among Obama’s more colorful challengers, whom Arizonans were unable to vote for, was a performance artist named Vermin Supreme, who became known for wearing a boot on his head.
On the other hand, no incumbent president since Arizona began holding presidential primaries has faced as much opposition as Trump from within his party. Rather than the assortment of random challengers who ran against presidents like Bush and Obama, Trump is challenged by former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, radio host and former Illinois Congressman Bill Walsh, and former South Carolina governor and congressman Mark Sanford.
None seems likely to be more than an irritant to Trump, but they represent a higher caliber of intraparty challenger than most incumbent presidents see in their re-election bids.
Correction: The initial version of this story misidentified the news organization Blake Morlock worked for in 1996.