PRESCOTT, Ariz. — Martha McSally was the first female fighter pilot in the United States to fly in combat — a seemingly irreproachable feat that helped vault her from rising-star House member to GOP front-runner in a crucial Senate race this fall.
Apparently Kelli Ward, one of McSally’s ultraconservative challengers in a three-way GOP primary, didn’t get the memo.
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“She claims to be this strong fighter pilot military woman,” Ward said during an interview in a cramped back office of her campaign headquarters, her voice rising slightly in exasperation. “I thank her for her service. But if you’re that strong, why are you afraid to stand up on a stage with your opponent and discuss the issues?”
“I fought against real enemies,” McSally shot back in an interview, one of the few times during the campaign she has responded to Ward’s barrage of attacks. “Fear is not in my lexicon.”
Arizona is one of just three races where Republicans are on defense as they seek to protect or grow their 51-49 Senate majority, and a victory here would go a long way in cutting off Democrats’ path to winning the chamber. But the state comes with challenges: President Donald Trump carried it by just 4 percentage points in 2016, and Democrats who have long hoped shifting demographics would move the Sun Belt in their direction say the opportunity to win a statewide race here is very real.
Arizona is problematic in another way for Republicans: The late, Aug. 28 primary turns the general election into a 10-week sprint, and that time frame is further shortened by extensive early voting by mail. Allies of Republican leaders in Washington think Ward can’t win the general election but have also worried that a protracted fight could cripple McSally’s fall campaign, making it difficult to shift to a general election focus.
Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) is expected to coast to the Democratic nomination and start the general election with a sizable head start, having already spent millions of dollars on the airwaves with positive ads aimed at swing voters, campaign operatives in both parties say.
McSally, 52, a two-term House member, is employing a classic above-the-fray incumbent strategy. She’s ignoring the attacks from Ward, the insurgent, 49-year-old former state senator who started talking about running for this seat in October 2016, and from former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the immigration hard-liner who was pardoned by Trump last year after being convicted of criminal contempt.
And she’s aiming to avoid the very mistakes Ward is trying to goad her into by talking about the primary as little as possible. McSally sat with POLITICO for a nine-minute interview at Murphy’s Restaurant here before walking in the annual Frontier Days parade in front of a crowd of thousands surrounding the courthouse where Barry Goldwater announced his 1964 presidential bid, with Ward walking the same route a couple of hours behind her.
At the start of the interview, McSally pulled out her cellphone to show off an app counting down exactly 129 days, 10 hours and four minutes until polls close in November. Touting what she called her “commanding lead” over Ward and Arpaio, McSally said she’s not taking GOP primary voters for granted but that her focus is squarely on Sinema, whom she called “the real threat” to the Republican majority.
“People are getting excited about it and realizing how high the stakes are in this election, realizing that Arizona is the firewall to ensuring that we keep the Senate majority,” she said.
McSally is doing her best to not get drawn into a drawn-out brawl with Ward. But a drawn-out brawl is exactly what Ward — who was trounced by John McCain in a 2016 Republican primary but is running, by all accounts, a better campaign this time — wants.
In a speech delivered in her campaign headquarters in Tempe to a small group of campaign staff and volunteers wearing bright yellow “Kelli Ward” T-shirts, Ward said McSally was attempting to “reinvent herself” as a conservative on immigration and accused McSally of “rank hypocrisy.” She later accused McSally in an interview of running a “shadow campaign” and said she was “afraid” to debate Ward on the issues, particularly immigration.
“It’s a shadow. It’s a shadow campaign. Do you want a shadow or do you want a senator?” Ward said, dubbing herself the “true conservative” in the race.
A recent NBC/Marist poll showed Sinema with a double-digit lead over Ward, McSally and Arpaio in general election matchups. It also showed McSally with just a 2-point lead over Ward in the primary, the closest any poll has shown the race in months. But two other June polls showed McSally with a double-digit lead in the primary. And an internal survey for McSally’s campaign in late June found her with 44 percent of the vote, compared with 22 percent each for Ward and Arpaio, and only 12 percent undecided.
Mike Noble, a Republican pollster who has tracked the race but isn’t working for a candidate, said McSally’s name ID across the state has increased, and, along with overwhelming support from moderates, she’s making inroads with Trump supporters that will make her difficult to beat.
Chuck Coughlin, a veteran GOP strategist in Arizona, said Ward has improved as a candidate and is running a more professional campaign than during her McCain challenge. But with Arpaio in the race, he said Ward’s best hope is a blunder by McSally.
“I think she’s waiting for an opportunity to see a McSally turnover,” Coughlin said.
Ward is using immigration as the cudgel to wage her conservative onslaught. McSally voted for both the immigration bills in the House last month — the so-called compromise bill that failed by a large margin, and the conservative bill she helped write that failed more narrowly. Ward labels both as “amnesty” for giving legal status to early childhood arrivals.
Ward defended separating families at the border as “a deterrent,” but she declined to criticize Trump for signing an executive order ending the practice, saying he did so simply to “take the wind out of the sails of the faux outrage.” She repeatedly calls for building the wall on the southern border, and she blames Republicans for not fighting for it hard enough.
While Ward attacks McSally from the right, the congresswoman has also come under fire from Democrats who argue she’s morphing into an immigration hard-liner out of political expediency. She removed herself as a cosponsor of a moderate immigration proposal earlier this year, and her office recently yanked a video of her praising the Obama-era executive order providing protections for early childhood arrivals.
McSally called the notion that she shifted on immigration “total BS and fake news.” She said she originally backed the moderate proposal to show she was willing to negotiate “in good faith” on finding a DACA solution. She said she removed her name from the bill after moderates began pushing a discharge petition to force votes on the House floor, and she wanted to “make it clear” she didn’t support that action or a standalone DACA fix that didn’t include border security measures.
“I have consistently said we’ve got to secure the border, we’ve got to keep our community safe,” McSally said. “I’m willing to do something on DACA, but it can’t be standalone, because we don’t want to be incentivizing more illegal activity and find ourselves in the same place in the future.”
Even as Ward aims to outflank McSally on immigration, Arpaio’s candidacy is a major problem because he maintains a loyal, if limited, base of support. Eric Beach, a consultant for Ward’s campaign, conceded Arpaio entering the race “diluted” Ward’s support. But he said Ward is the second choice of most Arpaio voters, and her campaign hopes Arpaio will fizzle in the final weeks and that his support will shift to her.
“People every day say ‘I was on the fence but now I’m with you,’” Ward said. “Frankly, the more Joe talks, the more votes I get. So come on, Joe, keep talking.”
One voter here at the parade exemplified that hope. Homer Johns, 62, a truck driver from Dewey, said he’s a big fan of Trump, and that while he hasn’t heard much about McSally, he likes both Ward and Arpaio. He thinks the former sheriff is the victim of a “shakedown,” but Arpaio’s age — he’s 86 — is a big factor.
“Kelli is a lot younger. Joe has one term in him,” Johns said. He added that he’d support Ward “as long as she goes in there and takes it to them.”
As in other Senate primaries, support for Trump remains a major factor. Ward points to a Trump tweet praising her campaign in August, when she was challenging Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, a leading Trump critic. Flake announced his retirement shortly after, and Trump hasn’t spoken about her candidacy since.
McSally boasted about her 97 percent voting record with Trump, the highest in the Arizona delegation, and said she has a “great relationship” with the president. McSally was critical of Trump following the publication of the “Access Hollywood” tape in 2016, and still declines to say whether she voted for him — she said she fought to protect the right to a secret ballot.
Trump hasn’t endorsed in the race, and McSally says she’s “not asking him to win the primary for me.”
But if she does win, she expects him to get behind her general election campaign.
“I guarantee you he’s going to be coming out in the fall to rally the base,” she said, “and make sure we stop Kyrsten Sinema from being the next senator from Arizona.”