In Mohave, Arizona’s Most Conservative County, Republicans Clash Over Local Party's Future

By Bret Jaspers
Published: Wednesday, November 22, 2017 - 6:47am
Updated: Wednesday, November 22, 2017 - 1:20pm

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(l-r) George Schnittgrund, Sue Donahue, and Buster Johnson at Johnson
(Photo by Bret Jaspers - KJZZ)
(l-r) George Schnittgrund, Sue Donahue, and Buster Johnson at Johnson's home in Lake Havasu City. Schnittgrund and Donahue left their official positions in the Mohave GOP last month, though they intend to continue organizing for Republican candidates.

Buster Johnson is on the Board of Supervisors for Mohave County. He’s also what’s known as a “precinct committeeman” — a foot soldier in the party apparatus. These are folks who understand how to run campaigns and get people elected. They often run for local and state offices.

Johnson’s been involved in Mohave County politics for years, but said the environment at party meetings and events has changed. “It’s just basically the right wing of the party that has taken it over,” he said at his Lake Havasu City home. “Anybody who doesn’t subscribe to their beliefs is not wanted at the parties.”

There were always disagreements, Johnson said, but he thinks the rancor has increased in recent years.

In 2014, before the state party followed suit, the Mohave County GOP censured U.S. Sen. John McCain. That action troubled Sue Donahue, a former state senator, who used to work for Johnson.

“You’re not there to censure your fellow candidates or anything like that,” she said. “You’re there to get the vote out. And that’s the job.”

To Donahue, being a precinct committeeperson is like being a campaigner: getting signatures on petitions and turning out votes. She said the party’s focus has drifted from that. Donahue got so fed up, she left her post as a precinct committeeperson last month — along with 11 others. She said she will continue to campaign for Republicans, just not as a Party committeeperson.

Other Mohave Republicans dismiss the whole thing as complaints from people who aren’t in control.

“Up here we consider this a Shakespearean play: much ado about nothing,” said Laurence Schiff, chairman of the Mohave County Republican Party. Schiff’s held the post since January and calls himself very conservative.

To him, politics is ugly sausage-making. It’s about getting people who agree with you into office.

“There is no such thing as a successful third party. There really isn’t,” Schiff said. “And so, what I think we need to do is — and I’ve always said this — take over the Republican Party for conservatives. Does that mean that I have to include in this people who may be less conservative than I am? Absolutely.”

To be clear, Schiff called the GOP a "big tent" and said he’ll work to elect any Republican nominee to office, even if they disagree on some issues. But part of organizing is also bringing people closer to his views.“I’ll go any place to talk to people, to teach them about conservatism.”

Mohave County GOP Chairman Laurence Schiff at his office in Kingman.
(Photo by Bret Jaspers - KJZZ)
Mohave County GOP Chairman Laurence Schiff at his office in Kingman.

The Mohave GOP has also clashed over how money is spent, whether bylaws are followed and how people talk to and about each other, in newspapers and on social media. (A look at people’s Facebook posts shows rather colorful exchanges between members, to say the least.) At the local level, party activists are essentially neighbors, and it can get personal.

It’s hard to look at this schism in Mohave County without thinking of divisions in the national GOP, especially since Kelli Ward comes out of the hard-right faction of Mohave. She was mounting a challenge to U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, who announced last month he won’t run for re-election.

“I decided that I would be better able to represent the people of Arizona and to better serve my country and my conscience by freeing myself of the political consideration that consumed far too much bandwidth and would cause me to compromise far too many principles,” Flake said in a speech on the Senate floor.

Ward supporters say Flake’s desire for comprehensive immigration reform killed his chances in the primary. A week before Flake left the race, President Trump’s former adviser Steve Bannon endorsed Ward.

Ron Gould, a former Republican state senator from Mohave County and current precinct committeeman, said when you have passionate people, this is bound to happen.

“You mainly have Republicans and Democrats. They’re trying to build big enough coalitions to win national elections,” he said. “So you’re always gonna have factionalization inside of a party.”

The race for a U.S. Senate seat in Arizona — one with no incumbent — may show how important these factions ultimately are.

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