One of the most closely watched primaries in the country will draw to a close in Arizona Tuesday night after a bus tour with a Pizzagate truther, accusations of human rights violations, and countless efforts to court President Donald Trump’s favor.
Republican voters will finally choose whether Rep. Martha McSally, former Maricopa Sheriff Joe Arpaio, or former state Sen. Kelli Ward will compete in November’s general election for retiring Sen. Jeff Flake’s seat. As two far-right conservatives, Arpaio and Ward are wrestling for the same voters who narrowly elected Trump in Arizona in 2016. And their battle has allowed McSally to thread a relatively moderate path and take a commanding lead in a battleground state.
When Flake, one of Trump’s most prominent Republican critics, announced his retirement, Democrats saw an opportunity to flip a vulnerable Senate seat. The GOP establishment, fearing that a win for Arpaio or Ward would drive away moderate voters, rushed to back McSally, the first female fighter pilot to fly in combat. The latest polling indicates that the race is hers to lose: She’s leading Ward by 20 points, and Arpaio by 34.
The winner of Arizona’s Republican primary will almost certainly face Arizona Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, who’s widely expected to win the Democratic nomination. She’s even out-fundraised McSally by about $3 million. And if the general ends up being Sinema against McSally, it’s a “toss-up,” according to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, which evaluates elections.
Arpaio’s chaotic campaign struggled to find traction throughout the race. He’s originally infamous for his “Tent City” jail, which he erected in 1993 and was frequently accused of abusing and racially profiling inmates, the New Yorker reported. Today, Arpaio is a favorite of Trump, who pardoned him last August after he was convicted on criminal contempt charges related to a Justice Department racial profiling investigation.
While on the campaign trail, Arpaio probably drew the most attention for saying yes when undercover comedian Sacha Baron Cohen asked if he’d accept an “amazing blow job” from Trump. But Arpaio’s hard-liner stances on immigration and total devotion to the president still forced Ward — who ran and lost against Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain in 2016 — to go more and more outlandish in her attempts to take back control of the race.
“Arpaio wrecked Kelli Ward's race," Mike Noble, a Phoenix-based pollster, told CNBC. "He has no campaign strategy, and he's firing in all directions. We have a better chance of finding a photo of Sheriff Joe wearing pink underwear than to see him as a senator in Arizona."
Last week, for example, Ward announced she was embarking on a bus campaign with Mike Cernovich, a far-right commentator who’s pushed the debunked conspiracy theory Pizzagate, declared that “diversity is code for white genocide,” and said that date rape does not exist, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
When an MSNBC reporter asked Ward if she agreed with Cernovich’s views, Ward replied, “I don’t really know what Mike Cernovich’s views are. I know he’s got an audience, and we want to serve everyone.” She also told reporters, “We need to have a hook to get you guys interested in seeing the bus tour.”
Ward took a page out of Trump’s playbook when she started attacking McCain last Tuesday, just days before his death from brain cancer. She suggested on Twitter that McCain bears some responsibility for his immigration stance in the death of Mollie Tibbetts, an Iowa college student whose body was found last week.
In the days since McCain’s announcement that he would discontinue treatment Friday, and his death on Saturday, Ward has gone even further than Trump in her criticism of the respected lawmaker. She wrote on Facebook that McCain’s announcement was designed “to have a particular narrative that they hope is negative to me,” according to the Arizona Republic. (The comment was later deleted or is no longer visible, the Washington Post reported.)
Ward later apologized. "The intention of my comments were in no way directed at Sen. McCain or his family," she told reporters.
On Monday morning, Ward tweeted, “Political correctness is like a cancer!” — just two days after McCain died of literal cancer.
Trump hasn’t officially endorsed any candidate, and even McSally has faced questions about her conservative credentials. While she praises Trump now and has leaned hard-right on immigration during her primary, McSally refuses to say who she voted for in 2016 and has previously supported bills that were relatively friendly to beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Cover image: U.S. Senate candidate and former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio talks with a voter at a campaign stop Thursday, Aug. 23, 2018, in Scottsdale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)