Senate Republicans have twin fears in Arizona this year: that ultraconservative Kelli Ward will win next week’s GOP primary over establishment-approved U.S. Rep. Martha McSally and that Ward will then quickly prove toxic in one of 2018’s most important general elections. If that nightmare scenario isn’t already keeping Mitch McConnell up at night, it should soon.
On Friday, Ward will set out on a two-day, statewide bus tour along with a small collection of right-wing agitators chosen to generate headlines. Chief among them: Mike Cernovich, the anti-feminist troll best known for spreading the dangerous IRL conspiracy theory attempting to link Hillary Clinton to a nonexistent child-sex cult in the basement of a D.C. pizza joint. Cernovich describes himself as an “American nationalist,” and while he denies being part of the alt-right movement, the xenophobia and misogyny of his “men’s rights” activism aligns closely with it. Given that his brand-building mantras include “conflict is attention” and “attention is influence,” there’s little reason to doubt he’ll play it safe onstage. (You will not be surprised to learn Donald Trump Jr. counts himself a fan.)
During a Sunday appearance on MSNBC, Ward defended her decision to invite Cernovich by claiming, bizarrely, that she knew almost nothing about him. “I don’t really know what Mike Cernovich’s views are,” she said. “I know he’s got an audience and we want to serve everyone.” She similarly feigned ignorance when asked about the debunked #PizzaGate conspiracy theory, which motivated a man to show up at the D.C. restaurant and fire a military-style assault rifle in December 2016: “All I know about Hillary Clinton is that she would have been a terrible president.” And Ward awkwardly answered a question about whether the GOP should embrace the alt-right by repeating Donald Trump’s campaign slogan. “I think the Republican Party and the people of the United States should embrace making America great again,” she responded.
Ward will also be joined on her bus this weekend by U.S. Reps. Paul Gosar of Arizona and Steve King of Iowa. The former is a proudly politically incorrect member of the House Freedom Caucus who once called on Capitol Police to arrest undocumented immigrants who were invited to attend the State of the Union. The latter has a habit of saying things like, “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies,” and that, for every Dreamer who becomes a valedictorian, “there’s another 100 out there who weigh 130 pounds—and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’ve been hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.” Also making the trip: conservative TV personalities Tomi Lahren and Eric Bolling.
Ward’s play here is, sadly, obvious. McSally remains the favorite for the GOP nomination—but in large part because Ward appears to be splitting the far-right vote with disgraced former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. In the current RealClearPolitics rolling average, McSally leads with 33 percent to Ward’s 25 percent and Arpaio’s 20 percent. If Ward tried to move toward the middle after months of attacking McSally for being insufficiently conservative, she’d likely lose some slice of her support to Arpaio, while not necessarily poaching any from McSally. So instead, Ward is making one final push to consolidate the right wing by trotting out a few of its favorite mascots. The ensuing controversy and press coverage is a feature, not a bug. This, after all, is a woman who happily went on Alex Jones’ national radio show to receive his endorsement in her 2016 primary challenge to Sen. John McCain.
Republican leaders are clearly concerned Ward can prevail next week, spoiling their chances of holding on to retiring-Sen. Jeff Flake’s seat. The head of the Senate GOP’s campaign arm reportedly asked Donald Trump recently to change his mind about staying on the sidelines, believing—not unreasonably—that the president’s stamp of approval would seal the nomination for McSally. And a McSally-aligned outside group spent nearly $1 million last week alone attacking Ward, money they’d have much rather spent attacking the likely Democratic nominee, U.S. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema.
Of course, terms like establishment and outsider can only tell us so much in today’s GOP. McSally was elected to the House in 2014 as a relatively moderate Republican. She had shown willingness to compromise on things like immigration and originally kept her distance from Trump, criticizing him for his Access Hollywood boasts about sexual assault and refusing, to this day, to say whether she voted for him. But since entering the Senate race, McSally has tacked right and now happily embraces the president and his America First agenda. On matters of policy, then, Ward and McSally agree on much more than they don’t, and both are selling themselves as key players for Team Trump. The difference, then, is simply how far out on the ledge each is willing to stand to make their case to Republican voters.