‘Negligent in every way’: AZGOP spent $530K on a bus tour and party

Instead of spending to drive independent voters, the party poured money into ‘vanity projects’

By: - Wednesday January 25, 2023 10:32 am

‘Negligent in every way’: AZGOP spent $530K on a bus tour and party

Instead of spending to drive independent voters, the party poured money into ‘vanity projects’

By: - 10:32 am

Arizona Republican Party Chairwoman Kelli Ward takes the stage at the AZGOP’s Election Night Watch Party at The Scottsdale Resort at McCormick Ranch on Nov. 8, 2022. The party spent about $330,000 on the event at the ritzy hotel, plus another $200,000 on a three-day bus tour in the final days of the campaign, expenses that some Republicans say came at the cost of losing close races. Screenshot via Republican Party of Arizona/Facebook

Arizona Republican Party Chairwoman Kelli Ward takes the stage at the AZGOP’s Election Night Watch Party at The Scottsdale Resort at McCormick Ranch on Nov. 8, 2022. The party spent about $330,000 on the event at the ritzy hotel, plus another $200,000 on a three-day bus tour in the final days of the campaign, expenses that some Republicans say came at the cost of losing close races. Screenshot via Republican Party of Arizona/Facebook

Hundreds of red, white and blue balloons were suspended over the massive ballroom inside the swanky Scottsdale Resort at McCormick Ranch in the early morning hours of Nov. 9. 

But rather than fall onto a joyous crowd of Republicans cheering on their candidates in the midst of a “red tsunami” sweeping GOP candidates to victory across Arizona, the night ended with the balloons nestled against the ceiling.

Those balloons cost $3,348, a mere drop in the bucket of the more than $325,000 that the Arizona Republican Party spent on its extravagant election night party, according to the Arizona Mirror’s analysis of campaign finance records. 

Combined with another $205,000 or so spent on a three-day bus tour during the critical final weekend of the campaign, Arizona Republican Party Chairwoman Kelli Ward and her team spent more than $530,000 on what one GOP consultant said were “vanity projects” designed to boost her ego instead of winning races.

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The election ultimately ended in disaster for Republicans in Arizona: For the first time in nearly 50 years, Democrats won the top three statewide races plus the U.S. Senate contest. 

Two of those races were close, but Republicans came up short. Kari Lake lost the governor’s race by about 17,000 votes, while attorney general nominee Abe Hamadeh was defeated by a mere 280 votes out of some 2.5 million cast, the narrowest margin in state history.

“It’s no surprise we didn’t fare well in the election,” said Robert Graham, who chaired the Arizona Republican Party during the 2014 and 2016 elections. “Ward didn’t use resources to win, she used it for parties.”

The current leadership at the AZGOP has consistently placed a higher value on flash rather than substance. It makes you wonder what impact that money could have had on so many close races.

– J.P. Twist, former Republican Governors Association political director

The Arizona Republican Party did not respond to multiple requests to interview Ward or to defend its spending choices.

But Sheila Muehling, who has been the party’s elected treasurer for the past two years, said she was outraged at the decision to spend so much money, so late in the campaign, on things that weren’t aimed at helping Republican candidates locked in close races.

“To me, it was negligent in every way, shape and form,” she told the Arizona Mirror. “I wish I could tell you what the point was. It made no sense at all.”

Muehling, who is one of three candidates to replace Ward as party chairman when the AZGOP elects new leadership on Saturday, said she aims to remake the party into an organization “with a laser-like focus on training our volunteers, raising money and helping our candidates win their elections.”

Even Trump questioned Ward’s spending priorities

In the months leading up to the election, Republicans hadn’t been shy in voicing their concerns about Ward’s spending priorities — including former President Donald Trump, who reportedly had a heated conversation with Ward in late October about the AZGOP sitting on more than $1 million in the final weeks of the campaign, saying her explanation was a “bullsh** excuse,” according to Politico.

“Ward’s refusal to spend to the bottom of her organization’s coffers has baffled top Republicans, and it remains unclear to those outside the state party leadership why exactly she is hoarding the funds,” Politico wrote.

It seems a large portion of those funds were earmarked for a three-day bus tour and an extravagant election night party.

That the party ponied up more than $500,000 on a party and a days-long bus tour was disappointing, but not surprising, said J.P. Twist, who was the political director for the Republican Governors Association during the 2022 election

“The current leadership at the AZGOP has consistently placed a higher value on flash rather than substance,” Twist said. “It makes you wonder what impact that money could have had on so many close races.” 

That’s why the RGA opted not to work with the AZGOP as it supported Lake’s campaign in the fall. Instead, the group, which was helmed by Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, coordinated its support of Lake with the Yuma County Republican Party. 

Hundreds of red, white and blue balloons were suspended over the crowd of attendees at the Arizona Republican Party’s Nov. 9, 2022, election watch party. Those balloons, which cost more than $3,300, never dropped onto attendees because the night ended with GOP candidates in premier races badly trailing their Democratic opponents. Photo via Arizona Right Wing Watch/@az_rww | Twitter

When Ward bragged on Twitter in December that she “turned off the feeding trough” for “slimy, unprincipled consultants” because she was dedicated to spending money on candidates and not political operatives, Twist sounded off.

“This is a blatantly moronic LIE. We sent our money to Yuma because we couldn’t trust you to spend it wisely had we sent it to you. That’s the reason,” he responded

Chad Heywood, a Republican political consultant and former executive director at the AZGOP, said that although events aimed at firing up the base are important, there was a better way to do that late in the campaign than an expensive, multi-day bus tour.

“These bus tours drive out the faithful and get them excited, which is a piece of the puzzle — but that was a very overpriced piece,” he said. “In this case, I’d bet some of these candidates who lost by a few hundred or a few thousand votes wish that money were better spent with direct voter contact.”

Heywood would know: He was the general consultant for Hamadeh, who lost by a razor-thin margin. There were a multitude of ways to better spend that $200,000 sunk into the bus tour to increase turnout, particularly among low-propensity GOP and conservative-leaning independent voters.

“Paid canvassing, paid phones, paid text messages, digital, TV would have all been better means to get the attention needed to persuade independent voters than a ($200,000) bus tour with the most-likely-to-vote GOP voters,” he said.

‘Fleecing the donors’ for the celebrity treatment

The largest expense for the bus tour wasn’t the tour bus, but the D.C.-based event production company that spearheaded the three-day-long affair. Event Strategies, which bills itself as “a full-service event management and production company,” was paid $137,285 to run the bus tour. 

The AZGOP spent $29,350 to rent a bus from Goss RV, which calls itself “the leading provider of luxury RV rentals in the U.S.” and another $11,000 to wrap the rented bus with the faces of Lake, Hamadeh, Mark Finchem and Blake Masters. Venues where the tour stopped for small campaign rallies, like Schnepf Farms and First Assembly of God Church in Phoenix, also were paid.

And the party spent $2,000 on a Scottsdale-based hair stylist and makeup artist, listing the payment as “bus tour production GOTV,” using an acronym for “get out the vote.”

I wish I could tell you what the point was. It made no sense at all.

– Sheila Muehling, Arizona Republican Party treasurer

But the bus tour was cheap compared to the election night bash. The AZGOP paid The Scottsdale Resort at McCormick Ranch nearly $180,000 to host the “cowboys and conservatives” themed soiree, as well as for a bloc of rooms for the party’s workers.

Another $76,000 went to the event’s audio and visual production, which was done by a Phoenix company that works extensively with conservative nonprofit Turning Point USA. And more than $23,000 was spent on off-site parking at Salt River Fields, nearly three miles away, and shuttle buses that ran every half hour to ferry attendees between the resort and the parking.

Graham, the former AZGOP leader, said the only job of the party chairman is to win elections. Spending so much money on things like a bus tour and a fancy party instead of proven get-out-the-vote strategies is political malpractice, he said. 

“It’s a fleecing of not just the state party, but the donors,” he said.

Heywood said spending so much money on an ostentatious election night party is particularly galling, since everyone following the election knew the premier races would be closely contested — and that final results wouldn’t be known for several days after the election.

“Unless you are Kelli Ward. When she was on the ballot two times, the results were definitive by 8 p.m.,” he said, referring to Ward’s two blowout losses for the U.S. Senate in 2016 and 2018.

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Jim Small
Jim Small

Jim Small is a native Arizonan and has covered state government, policy and politics since 2004, with a focus on investigative and in-depth policy reporting, first as a reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times, then as editor of the paper and its prestigious sister publications, the Yellow Sheet Report and Arizona Legislative Report. He has also served as the editor and executive director of the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting. News organizations and journalists under his leadership have won numerous state, regional and national awards for accountability journalism and probing investigations into state government operations.

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