GOP faces brutal Arizona primary fight

Republicans hoping to hold on to the Arizona Senate seat currently held by Sen. Jeff Flake (R) face an increasingly tumultuous primary environment, with firebrand former sheriff Joe Arpaio entering the race from the right and Rep. Martha McSally trying to win over President Trump’s supporters without alienating more moderate general election voters. 

The Tuesday announcement from Arpaio, whose criminal contempt conviction Trump pardoned last year, came just days before McSally joined the primary. While Arpaio made his name as an immigration hard-liner and promoter of the discredited conspiracy theory that former President Obama wasn’t born in the United States, McSally is the party establishment pick meant to appeal in the general election.

But McSally doesn’t have a clear path in the late August primary for the seat that opened up when Flake announced his retirement in the face of poor poll numbers.

Former state Sen. Kelli Ward (R) was originally the only candidate running from the right, but new polling shows Arpaio close to McSally while siphoning off Ward’s conservative supporters. 

Arpaio’s entry changes the calculus of a race that could become one of the more brutal primaries in the country. 

“With the entrance of Joe Arpaio and now the formal announcement of McSally, this race just got very interesting — and not in a good way — for Kelli Ward,” former state GOP chairman Robert Graham told The Hill.

The two announcements made clear statements about the kind of campaigns the two candidates expect to run.

Arpaio announced his bid in an interview with the conservative Washington Examiner newspaper, styling himself as a loyal supporter of Trump. Arpaio’s bid instantly caught national attention, which he built up with more media appearances in which he declared Obama’s birth certificate a “phony document.” 

{mosads}Arpaio is known as a hard-liner on immigration and border security. He’s long faced criticism for his practices as sheriff, including keeping inmates in tents where they were exposed to the Arizona elements. But the controversies have also given Arpaio near-universal name identification. 

Arpaio’s hard-right stance on immigration could be a strong advantage for him in a primary. Mike Noble, an Arizona pollster who conducted a survey released Wednesday about the GOP primary, told The Hill that illegal immigration was “far and away” the top issue among likely primary voters. 

But Graham added that McSally, 51, is far from weak on the issue. 

“No one can be as conservative as Sheriff Joe on immigration, but I don’t know if you have to be in order to win,” he said.

The ABC15/OHPI poll found McSally leading with 31 percent, with Arpaio within the margin of error at 29 percent of the vote. Ward, 48, now sits in third place with 25 percent, after leading McSally in one-on-one public polls released last year.

McSally’s entry had long been anticipated by establishment Republicans looking for a more moderate alternative to Ward.

McSally announced her campaign on Friday as part of a statewide tour that’s seen her emphasize her experience in the Air Force by flying a World War II-era plane to rallies.

The campaign also released an announcement video meant to portray her as a take-no-prisoners candidate. In the video, McSally calls on Republicans to “grow a pair of ovaries,” blasts the “PC politicians and their BS excuses,” plays audio of Trump commending her as “tough,” and frames her entire campaign around the idea of “security.”

That’s a play clearly meant to shore up her right flank in response to Arpaio and Ward’s candidacies.

Ward had hoped her endorsement from former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon would boost her chances. But Bannon’s feud with Trump has seen him sidelined from the party, leaving Ward without benefits from his backing. 

Most Republicans see McSally as a stronger general election candidate — a fundraising machine from a competitive district who isn’t a lightning rod for controversy. But she has a few potential vulnerabilities on her right that Ward is trying to exploit.

McSally did not endorse Trump during his presidential bid. She warned that Trump’s controversies would “hand the gavel” of the House majority over to Democrats during a private meeting in June, according to a recording obtained by Tucson Weekly

And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), whose popularity has slipped among more conservative voters, called McSally one of his top Senate recruitments in an interview with the Examiner last year. 

But McSally chose not to criticize Trump on Friday, one day after a report of the president describing some nations as “shithole countries” surfaced.

“I speak a little salty behind closed doors at times as well, so I’m not going to throw the first stone on using any language,” McSally said, according to The Associated Press.

McSally’s attempts to tie herself to Trump have sparked criticism from her rivals. 

“She changed from Never Trumper to Trumper extraordinaire and I think people see through it,” Ward said of McSally on Friday during a radio appearance.

Noble said he was surprised to see the number of undecided likely primary voters drop to just 15 percent in his poll, even with the primary still seven months away. Since so few voters are undecided, Noble expects the attacks to ramp up as candidates look to siphon support from their opponents.

“I think you’re going to see a very vicious primary here in Arizona based on the fact that there’s so few undecided, so you gotta go take from the other guy,” Noble said.

The race could also become extremely expensive, especially if outside groups begin to play in the long primary. Conservative groups, including the Club for Growth, Senate Conservatives Fund and FreedomWorks, have opposed McSally’s candidacy.

Meanwhile, the McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund could come to McSally’s defense — it’s already sworn to oppose Ward, while McConnell’s public comments on McSally could be seen as a green light.

Both McSally and Arpaio are strong fundraisers. Arpaio raised almost $10 million for his failed 2016 sheriff’s bid, according to the AP, while McSally raised almost $8 million during her 2016 reelection.

Ward raised more than $1 million through September, but spent $845,000 over that same period. She will be boosted by a $300,000 donation to an allied super PAC by GOP mega-donor Robert Mercer, who is a top Trump donor. It’s unclear, though, whether Arpaio’s bid will affect Mercer’s support for Ward.

Meanwhile, Trump remains a wildcard in the primary. Noble’s poll found that 73 percent of voters say a Trump endorsement would be a significant factor in their decision. 

Trump developed a close relationship with Arpaio, who stumped for him during the 2016 election. And the president weathered a storm of controversy to save Arpaio, who would be 86 years old by the time he took office, from a potential jail term.

But while McSally never endorsed Trump, the president has been complimentary of the congresswoman, who sat just two seats away from him at this week’s immigration meeting at the White House. 

While the three Republican candidates are jockeying for conservative votes, the eventual nominee will have a small window to quickly turn their attention to the competitive general election in November. Likely Democratic nominee Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, who has about $5 million in her campaign account, looks set to avoid the kind of bruising primary facing her Republican rivals.

Tags 2022 midterm elections Arizona Donald Trump Donald Trump Jeff Flake Joe Arpaio Kelli Ward Martha McSally Martha McSally Mitch McConnell United States Senate election in Arizona

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