Arizona US Senate hopeful Kelli Ward is here to show conservatives that she’s not crazy – and to convince them that it’s still worth spending money in GOP primaries.
Ward is in the middle of a week-long blitz in Washington that includes meetings with major donors and conservative outside groups, interviews and a trip to the annual Conservative Political Action Conference.
She’s trying to galvanize the right against Rep. Martha McSally, one of her primary foes in the race to replace retiring Republican Sen. Jeff Flake – even with Steve Bannon excommunicated and President Donald Trump seemingly less interested in a brawl with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that plays out through proxies in 2018 primaries.
Ward’s argument: Democrats in Arizona are energized behind Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, but the GOP base might stay home rather than vote for McSally.
“What we as a party need to do is give Republicans a reason to go to the polls in November, because the Democrats certainly have some momentum and drive to get their people to the polls,” Ward said in an interview with CNN. “What’s not going to get Republicans to the polls is offering them the same kind of politician as John McCain and Jeff Flake in Arizona.”
Ward has long fought for relevance in Trump’s world. At a late 2017 Trump rally in Phoenix, he huddled with several allies backstage about finding a Flake primary challenger – but Ward wasn’t part of the conversation, got no mention from the stage and attended as part of the general crowd.
Fresh off an unsuccessful primary against McCain, Ward, the conservative former state senator launched her 2018 Senate campaign in October 2016 – before Trump had even won the presidency. She appeared to help chase incumbent Flake into retirement. And shortly after Bannon departed the White House, she looked like a star member of his class of insurgents determined to unseat Republican senators in this year’s primaries.
Now, though, Bannon is out of Trump’s inner circle, and the White House is aligning itself much more closely with McConnell’s political priorities.
And McConnell world has been clear: It’s backing McSally.
Seeking to keep Republicans from coalescing around McSally’s candidacy, Ward’s campaign and outside conservative groups have cast McSally as a never-Trumper, highlighting her refusal to endorse Trump during the 2016 campaign.
In recent weeks, McSally has refused to say whether she voted for Trump. “Not your business,” she told a Los Angeles Times reporter.
The three-way late-August primary also features former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, an anti-immigration hard-liner who threatens to siphon votes away from Ward.
Meetings in DC
Now Ward is in Washington for a week of meetings designed to demonstrate she’s worth a heavy financial investment in a race where she’s being pinched from both sides.
Her schedule included meetings with several conservative groups – including Freedom Partners, a group related to the Koch brothers’ donor network and the Heritage Foundation.
Support from those groups could help Ward add to the GOP megadonors who have backed her effort, including Chicago-area businessman Dick Uihlein and Bill Doddridge, the CEO of the Jewelry Exchange, who launched a pro-Trump super PAC. Robert Mercer was an early donor to a super PAC backing Ward.
Ward is highlighting support from Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican who campaigned for her in Arizona last week and labeled McSally “Martha McSpender.” Ward is also taking a hard line on immigration, accusing McSally of voting for “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants “at least nine times.”
Support for Ward’s campaign from outside the state could be crucial: She has already faced ads launched by the McConnell-aligned super PAC Senate Leadership Fund portraying her as “Chemtrail Kelli.”
It’s a reference to a 2014 town hall Ward hosted where constituents raised concerns about “chemtrails” – emissions left by airplanes flying overhead. Two state officials Ward had invited shot down the conspiracy theory at the meeting. But the ad said she “has got her head in the clouds with crazy ideas.”
“I definitely don’t believe that. That’s ridiculous,” Ward told CNN of the characterization of her as a believer in a “chemtrail” conspiracy.
“During the (2014) meeting, some of the people there talked about chemtrails – and that’s it. I mean really, that’s the end of the story,” she said. “However, the political story is, when you don’t have anything to attack someone with, you bring up ridiculous things like chemtrails.”
“It’s a shame that people on our side of the aisle are trying to create a persona that doesn’t exist,” she said. “They’re so focused on maintaining the status quo that they alienate a huge part of the Republican electorate, as well as many in the liberty movement, as well as independents, and even some conservative Democrats are turned off by that.”