Conservative groups are trying to scare Rep. Martha McSally away from Arizona’s Republican primary to replace retiring Sen. Jeff Flake.
Since Flake – faced with an all-but-certain primary loss against former state Sen. Kelli Ward – announced his retirement this week, Republicans have searched for an alternative to Ward, a conservative firebrand who is seen as prone to missteps and a poor fit for a race against Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema.
McSally and Rep. Paul Gosar expressed interest in running for Flake’s Senate seat when the state’s congressional delegation met Thursday in Washington, an Arizona Republican operative familiar with the meeting said. McSally met with Sen. John McCain on Thursday.
McSally, a decorated military veteran and second-term House member who has won in a competitive district and is a strong fundraiser, is seen as the preference of national Republicans and Gov. Doug Ducey.
But her history of criticizing President Donald Trump made her the target of a show-of-force statement from conservative groups that spend heavily in GOP primaries, including the Club for Growth, the Senate Conservatives Fund and FreedomWorks.
In a statement Friday afternoon, the groups pointed to McSally’s votes to increase the debt ceiling; her support for the Export-Import Bank, which some on the right see as corporate welfare; and her slowness in announcing her support for the House’s Obamacare repeal effort this spring.
“Martha McSally is part of the problem,” said FreedomWorks President Adam Brandon. She “has a very liberal voting record,” Senate Conservatives Fund President Ken Cuccinelli said.
“Rep. McSally was one of the few Republicans who Barack Obama could routinely depend upon over the past few years,” said conservative activist Erick Erickson.
The Tea Party Patriots, ConservativeHQ.com, the Eagle Forum and Citizens United signed a joint statement saying they “stand firmly together to oppose her candidacy.”
McSally, for her part, is being advised to take her time. Her aides know Ward would seize on her refusal to endorse Trump – and comments like denouncing Trump’s remarks on the “Access Hollywood” tape as “disgusting” and “unacceptable” – to paint her as every bit as anti-Trump as Flake, who wrote a book denouncing the President.
But McSally’s camp believes her voting record and her strength as a military veteran, as well as the across-the-board support she’d have from the congressional delegation and Ducey’s office, would keep that criticism from sticking.
Still, that view isn’t unanimous.
“The political class is beginning to question whether McSally can beat Ward, especially because it now has become assumed that if McSally gets in, considering she never endorsed the President and has such a low conservative voting record, the President would probably get behind Ward,” an Arizona Republican operative said.
Jeff DeWit, the state treasurer and former Trump campaign chief operating officer, is still a major figure. Unlike McSally, he’d likely earn the backing of Trump and Trump-aligned outside groups. He’s moved from a “no” on running against Flake to a “maybe,” and White House pressure is expected to play a heavy role in his decision.
Robert Graham, the former Arizona Republican Party chairman and a Trump supporter, told CNN he is considering running. Graham plans to travel to Washington for meetings to discuss the race next week.
For McSally, in particular, there’s also the question of whether McCain, who is battling brain cancer, could leave his seat – and she’s seen as potentially in line for that, especially since the Arizona Republican donor world isn’t thrilled with the idea of Ducey chief of staff Kirk Adams as the appointee to replace McCain, the operative said.
A McSally spokeswoman didn’t respond to CNN’s request for comment.
McSally, who represents southeast Arizona’s second congressional district, has a history of running tough races – narrowly losing to Democratic Rep. Ron Barber in 2012 before winning in 2014.
Former Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, who lost her Senate race to McCain last year, has already launched her bid for McSally’s House seat. That means for McSally, a Senate race might not be much more of a risk than re-election to the House.
Republicans are eying Lea Márquez-Peterson, the president of the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, as a potential candidate to run for the House seat if McSally enters the Senate race.
Correction: This story was updated to reflect that FreedomWorks is no longer aligned with the Koch brothers.