Immigration Is Key As Arizona Republicans Battle For U.S. Senate Seat

By Bret Jaspers
Published: Wednesday, August 22, 2018 - 8:35am
Updated: Wednesday, August 22, 2018 - 7:46pm

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Kelli Ward
Bret Jaspers/KJZZ
Kelli Ward is chairwoman of the Arizona Republican Party.

At a campaign event in a restaurant northeast of Phoenix, Republican Kelli Ward presented the crowd with a choice.

“Are we going to elect a senator that is cut from the same cloth as Jeff Flake and John McCain?” she asked.

The crowd of Ward faithful replied with a resounding “no.”

Ward, a former state lawmaker, tried challenging Sen. John McCain two years ago. She lost, but she really never stopped campaigning. Sen. Jeff Flake was already facing a challenge from Ward when he decided last year he couldn’t win a Republican primary since he’s a prominent critic of President Donald Trump. Flake is now retiring from the Senate, leaving an open seat.

Republicans want to block Democrats from taking over the chamber, and to do that, they will likely need to win in Arizona. But with less than three months before Election Day, the party first has to settle a bitter primary battle being fought largely over which candidate is President Trump’s best ally on immigration.

Ward promises to be his strongest supporter when it comes to that issue.

“Leadership in Washington will pass a budget without funding for the wall if we let them,” she said. “And so, they have to know that there is a group of people, a powerful group of people who will not allow them to get away with it.”

Joe Arpaio
Maricopa County Sheriff's Office
Former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

There’s another far-right candidate in the race, Joe Arpaio, the former county sheriff convicted of criminal contempt and later pardoned by Trump. Many Ward supporters think Arpaio is too old at 86. And they reject the front-runner in the race, Martha McSally, a former fighter pilot and a more moderate member of the House of Representatives.

Republican Teresa Mendoza of Mesa said McSally is not a reliable conservative.

“Are we really gonna elect another McCain in a dress? Oh my god, just the thought!” said Mendoza.

McSally criticized Trump in 2016, and although he hasn’t endorsed her, he’s talked about her in glowing terms a couple of times since taking office. McSally does have the endorsement of the U.S. Border Patrol union and is tacking right on immigration.

“Around Arizona, everywhere I go, whether people are registered as Democrats, Independents or Republicans, they want our border secure,” she said to reporters after the Border Patrol announcement. “They want to stop the cartels coming through our communities. They want to stop the opioids coming in and killing people. They want to stop the gang activity. This is a unifying issue, and I am proud to be working with our president in order to get the mission done.”

McSally has, for better or worse, a congressional record to answer for that her primary opponents do not. She was an original co-sponsor of a conservative immigration bill in the House earlier this year. It would’ve provided limited legal status for some DACA recipients. It wasn’t a path to citizenship, but Ward derides it as “amnesty.”

McSally also stepped back from a DACA bill she had co-sponsored that would have provided a path to citizenship. She said that wasn’t to pander to conservatives, but to discourage a forced vote on it.

Martha McSally
Bret Jaspers/KJZZ
Martha McSally is the front-runner for the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate in Arizona.

“A bill by itself coming up like that is not the appropriate thing for us to be doing, and I just wanted to make that clear,” she said in an interview.

If McSally wins, though, after taking a harder line, it’s a tight pivot to the general election. Arizona’s primary is next week, on Aug. 28. Roughly six weeks later, mail-in ballots go out for November’s election.

“Regardless of having to reframe her maybe in 30 days, I think they’re willing to say, 'Look, let’s take that chance,' but she’s gotta come out of the primary first and foremost,” said Jaime Molera, a Republican political consultant in Phoenix. “And that’s why you’re seeing a massive amount of resources that I didn’t think was needed, but I think they’d rather be safe than sorry.”

The resources include over $3 million in Republican Super PAC money. That’s more than outside groups spent to boost McCain in his 2016 primary against Ward, who they fear is too extreme to win in November. Ward recently announced a bus tour whose riders include a conspiracy theorist who promoted the false Pizzagate story.

Meanwhile, Democratic groups have already spent millions opposing McSally.

"I guarantee you they’re making sure that they have a lot of commercials ready to go the day after [the] primary that will be able to launch against whomever the Republican is,” said Molera.  

The Republican winner will likely face Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, a House member heavily favored to win her Senate primary.

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