PHOENIX (AP) — Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey beamed as an excavator’s heavy claw smashed through the windows of an old state office building and began tearing off the façade.
In one of his last public appearances in mid-December, the outgoing Republican governor watched the physical manifestation of a project that has defined his eight-year tenure: tearing down state government.
Ducey also cut taxes, vastly expanded school choice, restricted abortion and built a makeshift wall on the U.S.-Mexico border in defiance of a Democratic president, checking just about every conservative box.
At a time when the conservative movement is almost singularly oriented around “owning the libs,” Ducey spent his two terms outmaneuvering Democrats to advance Republican priorities, reshaping his state in a decisively conservative direction.
Yet he leaves office Monday with a limited national profile and the enmity of GOP foot soldiers less interested in the pile of things he accomplished than the one thing he would not do: overturn then-President Donald Trump's defeat in the state's 2020 election.
“Ducey really gave the road map of how to govern, how to stay relatively popular and get things done," said Mike Noble, a Phoenix-based pollster who used to work for Republicans and now focuses on nonpartisan surveys.
Democrat Katie Hobbs is becoming governor, but a Republican-controlled Legislature will limit her ability to undo much of what Ducey enacted. Ducey's preferred successor, businesswoman Karrin Taylor Robson, lost the GOP primary to Trump-backed former television anchor Kari Lake, who rose to prominence on the right as a fierce proponent of Trump's election lies.
Ducey offered a tepid endorsement of the entire Republican slate but did not campaign with Lake, who lost narrowly to Hobbs and continues to claim the election was marred by intentional misconduct. She frequently attacked Ducey on her way to winning the GOP nomination.
The governor also feuded openly with Kelli Ward, the state GOP chair. But despite the dominance of Lake and Ward in the current state GOP, he plays down their significance.
“They are inconsequential and have zero power,” Ducey told The Associated Press in an interview Thursday.
Ducey has said little about his plans after leaving the governor's office. He is sometimes mentioned as a top-ticket recruit for Arizona’s 2024 Senate race or as a dark-horse candidate for president or vice president — if the GOP is interested in his brand of limited-government conservatism.
He rejected a recruitment effort by establishment Republicans to run against Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly, who was reelected in November. Ducey also has largely eschewed the social media taunts that helped Republicans such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis build a national profile.
Ducey offered his most candid assessment of the modern GOP in a September speech at the Ronald Reagan President Library and Museum. The governor warned that “a dangerous strain of big government activism has taken hold” within the party and he lamented that a segment of the conservative movement is driven by anger instead of substance.
“I look at the party and worry that candidates are more defined by their attitudes than the policies they propose,” Ducey said. “And yes, a good many small-government conservatives have morphed into bullies — people who are very comfortable using government power to tell companies and people how to live their lives.”
Ducey walked a tightrope during Trump's presidency, initially forging a strong alliance with him and never issuing public criticism, even when his tweets or border policies threatened to be problematic for Arizona.
But their relationship crumbled live on television, when Ducey silenced a call from Trump — signified by a “Hail to the Chief” ring tone — as the governor signed the paperwork certifying Democrat Joe Biden’s narrow presidential victory in Arizona. Trump more recently called Ducey “one of the worst governors in America.”
Democrats, including state Sen. Martín Quezada, say Ducey could have done more to help prevent Trump's lies about the 2020 election from taking root in the state Republican Party.
Ducey avoided, for example, weighing in on an unprecedented partisan review of the 2020 election conducted by Trump supporters on behalf of Senate Republicans, an episode that became a widely mocked spectacle. He also raised millions of dollars for some of the most extreme voices in the Legislature to keep a GOP majority.
“He could have been a leader and stood on a platform and said, ‘Our elections are safe, our elections are secure and people can trust our election system,'” Quezada said. “That’s an opportunity he really missed.”
Democrats also fault Ducey for being slow to restore money for schools as the state rebounded from the Great Recession. Meager funding and stagnant wages led to a teacher walkout in 2018, culminating in a 20% raise for teachers that was brokered by Ducey. He took heat from the left for rapidly lifting his COVID-19 restrictions, which was followed by an immediate surge of deaths in the summer of 2020.
Ducey said his approach to election denialism is to “address it with facts" and recognize that there are “very good people who have been misled.”
“Sometimes you need a ‘clean up on aisle nine’ to focus the mind,” he said. “And I do think the candidates that you saw focusing on the future, rather than looking in the rearview mirror and talking about the past, were the ones that had great success.”
During his tenure, Ducey notched victories for just about every piece of the conservative coalition that defined the GOP before Trump's 2016 victory reshaped the party's tone and focus.
He signed a first-in-the-nation universal school voucher law, which lawmakers approved just two years after voters decisively rejected a less ambitious measure.
He backed new restrictions on abortion year after year, including a ban on terminating pregnancies after 15 weeks gestational age. A state appeals court ruled Friday the law takes precedence over a near total abortion ban that dates to the Civil War.
He expanded the state Supreme Court and packed it with conservatives, creating a legacy that will endure long after he leaves office and could further constrain Hobbs' ambitions. He rejects comparisons to a push by liberals to expand the U.S. Supreme Court because, he says, Arizona's high court was always expected to grow with the state.
He presided over a diversification of the state’s economy, liberally offering tax breaks and a hands-off government to technology companies and manufacturers. He inherited a massive budget deficit in 2015 and leaves with a record surplus that allowed him to cut taxes.
A native of Toledo, Ohio, Ducey graduated from Arizona State University and went on to run Cold Stone Creamery, which he built from a neighborhood ice cream shop near his alma mater into a franchised national brand.
He sold the business and turned to politics, getting elected state treasurer in 2010 and governor four years later.
As head of the Republican Governors Association, Ducey built his profile among conservative donors and GOP political operatives, relationships that could be useful if he decides to run for another office.
Ducey said he's still considering his next move and did not rule out another run for elected office, adding, “I do think I’ve got another act or two in me.”
“I’ve loved being part of the conservative cause, and I care about it greatly,” Ducey said. “So I’m open-minded to what’s next.”
Jonathan J. Cooper, The Associated Press