In person, Kelli Ward is polished.
On a recent Wednesday evening, I watched as Ward, an osteopathic physician and insurgent Republican challenger for Jeff Flake’s Senate seat in Arizona, schmoozed with local Republicans at a meeting in Paradise Valley, Arizona, a small town with a few golf courses northeast of Phoenix. She wore a crisp-lined blue dress, her hair pulled neatly back in a chignon ponytail, and when we sat down on a cafeteria bench to talk, it struck me how well she smiled out her answers to my questions about whether she was too fringe to win a GOP primary.
Polished might not be what you’d expect from Ward if you first heard about her, as many outside Arizona did, in an ad from the Mitch McConnell–allied Senate Leadership Fund PAC that labeled her “Chemtrail Kelli,” a nickname spun out of an incident at a Ward town hall where she didn’t shoot down constituent concerns about the chemtrails conspiracy theory. That the ad even showed up a full year before the primary is a sign that establishment Republicans are worried Ward could muck things up for them. The spot featured a lot of zoomed-in shots of Ward’s eyes widening, and ended, in case you missed the not-so-subtle visual tells, with the tagline, “Not conservative. Just crazy ideas.” Ward might’ve been onto something when she called out attacks against her as flavored with a particular kind of sexism reserved for conservative women: “I don’t see that happening with liberal women, progressive women; I don’t see those caricatures being created by people in their own party or people on the other side of the aisle,” she told me.
But Ward has done a fair amount on her own to enable the out-there reputation she’s acquired. While the Washington Post Fact Checker column did give the “Chemtrail Kelli” ad three Pinocchios (something Ward is quick to point out), she didn’t denounce the chemtrails conspiracy theory until a 2015 interview with Politico. She’s also said that John McCain, recently diagnosed with brain cancer, should resign from office and that she should be considered as a replacement. These sorts of ghoulish comments don’t sit well with many, particularly in the Arizona Republican establishment, where McCain, a Vietnam War hero, is revered.
“I’ve heard her say very mainstream kind of things, talk about what families need, what families are worried about,” Mike Broomhead, a conservative Phoenix area radio host, told me. “But then it always kinda rolls into those catchphrases of ‘globalists’ and ‘the new world order,’ and it’s that phraseology where most people’s eyes kinda glaze over.”
Immigration is where Ward’s campaign aims to distinguish itself from Flake, and Ward has received the endorsements of Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, as well as an encouraging tweet from one Donald J. Trump. “He’s an open-borders, amnesty globalist,” Ward said to me about Flake. “Whereas I am a build-the-wall, stop-illegal-immigration Americanist.”
The Senate primary in Arizona is still a year away, but the race has captured more than its share of attention; the Washington Post called it a “proxy war” between the president and the GOP establishment. The theory goes that a Ward win would be an assertion of Trump’s power against the establishment, another notch in the belt for the Trumpification of the party — more economic nationalism and an anti-immigrant bent. That this win could come in the home state of conservative legend Barry Goldwater is something like poetic irony.
Those in the Arizona Republican establishment scoff at this notion, noting that primaries in the state have often entertained an antiestablishment element — the state has a long tradition of populism and libertarianism. Arizona is being Arizona, the establishment argues, and the rest of the country needs to stop projecting its anxieties onto the state.
But Ward is betting that something in Arizona has shifted, that the rise of Trump has emboldened an antiestablishment message and will allow her to wrest Flake’s seat from him. She thinks she’s being discounted by the same forces who didn’t see Trump coming, and that the GOP establishment is in for another rude awakening. “I think I have the heart and soul of the Republican Party,” she told me.
In this particular political moment, could Kelli Ward be right?
The home of the Grand Canyon and the former “tuberculosis capital of the United States,” Arizona has long attracted people from other places looking for wide-open spaces, dry air, and good views. “Who you become isn’t as dependent upon where you came from as it is elsewhere,” Robert Robb, conservative political columnist for the Arizona Republic, told me. This Western sensibility of self-invention accounts in part for the more libertarian flavor of the state. The people attracted to Arizona, Robb said, often have “an instinctive distrust of bigness — big government, big business, big unions.”
That’s echoed in some voters’ distrust of big political party operations in the state, something Arizonans have seen in past election cycles. “I’d say 40 percent of Republican primary voters will not support anyone named John McCain or Jeff Flake,” Ryan O’Daniel, McCain’s 2016 campaign manager, told me. “You could put anybody else, anything else on that ballot and they’re automatically locked into their vote.” Ward ran against McCain in the 2016 primary and lost after garnering nearly 40 percent of the vote to McCain’s 51 percent. It wasn’t the first time the senior senator faced a tough primary challenge, either. In 2010, McCain ran against former congressman and radio host J.D. Hayworth in the primaries. McCain prevailed 56 percent to 32 percent.
But 2017 is not 2010. Trump is popular among Arizona Republicans and Flake has been struggling with his approval rating. (Which is why the book Flake recently wrote that takes Trump to task may not have been the best political move.) Morning Consult found in July that Flake has an approval rating of only 37 percent. While there isn’t a lot of good primary voter polling out for a race that’s still a year away, a recent survey released by the Republican firm HighGround Public Affairs found that 42.5 percent of likely Republican primary voters would vote for Ward, 28.2 percent for Flake, and 24.2 percent are undecided or didn’t want to give an answer. Democratic polling firm GBA Strategies found Ward outpacing Flake 58 percent to 31 percent.
The numbers aren’t good for Flake, but there’s some reason to remain skeptical that Ward’s strength in early polls will continue and translate to an eventual win. “I can’t tell if it’s an actual shift in the party or if it’s a honeymoon phase,” one former Arizona GOP official told me of Ward’s numbers. What will take place over the next year is likely to be something of a battle between Flake’s traditional Republican campaign and Ward’s attempt to capture the country’s recent yearning for outsiders. Expect the Donald Trump playbook without Donald Trump.
That there’s a high percentage of undecided voters in the primary pool makes sense, since most people don’t tune in to a race until a few weeks before voting. And some Arizona politicos I spoke to think that’s a good thing for Flake, that there’s still time to shape the race — the “Chemtrail Kelli” ad from the Senate Leadership Fund made it clear that Mitch McConnell is out to protect his own from Trumpian challengers in 2018. Ward has the votes of involved right-wing voters locked in, Broomhead told me. What she should do for the next year, he said, is reach out to a different kind of voter.
“She’s got to get into the houses of Republican voters and not just the staunch Republicans that are there year-round,” he said. “Instead of going to tea party meetings, she should be going to the rotary club.”
But Ward’s new strategist Eric Beach thinks otherwise. “She doesn’t start this election as an insurgent. Frankly, she starts it as a front-runner,” he said. Beach and Brent Lowder, both experienced political operatives, recently took over Ward’s campaign from a former Breitbart staffer. “They’ve really just stepped up the professionalism and stepped up the reach that we have,” Ward told me. Beach said the Ward campaign would be reliant on the kind of donors that his and Lowder’s pro-Trump super PAC, Great America PAC, courted during the 2016 cycle.
“The biggest disappointment for our donors is that we haven’t captured these low-propensity, first-time voters,” Beach said. “There were millions of new people [brought] into the Republican process and now we’re saying, ‘Well, you’re not good enough to be in this party.’” The Arizona Senate primary, Beach said, “is a national race when it comes to money.” Trump donors are watching Ward closely. “I think they see this as an opportunity, as a battle for the soul of the Republican Party.”
Ward has certainly gotten national attention, particularly from the president, but when Trump came to Phoenix last month, reports indicated that Ward wasn’t welcomed into the VIP section at the rally. That has led to speculation that the president might still be holding out hope that another Flake challenger will get into the race.
While the Republican base might be moving toward an embrace of Trump’s nationalist policies, there’s a worry among Arizona Republicans, even ones who think it’s time for Flake to go, that Ward could defeat the sitting senator in a primary and go on to lose to a Democrat in the general. No Democrat has won statewide office since 2008, but Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, the likely Democratic challenger, is a moderate who many Republicans worry could do well in the red state. A Republican candidate who’s perceived as being beyond the pale could potentially send Arizona down a dangerous purple-tinged path, they reason.
Which is where someone like Robert Graham comes in. Arizona’s former GOP chairman is an oft-buzzed-about potential challenger to Flake along with state treasurer Jeff DeWit. Over teriyaki bowls at Yoshi’s, in one of Phoenix’s many strip malls, Graham told me that some donors in the state have been vocal to him about their distaste for Ward.
“[Businessman Don] Tapia called me one day and said, ‘If you or DeWit don’t get in the race, it’s your fault if we lose the Senate seat,’ and he hung up,” Graham told me. (Tapia did not respond to a request for comment.) In Graham’s view, Flake has lost touch with the party’s base, but Graham also isn’t sure if he himself is ready to run for statewide office (he’s never done so) and then need to spend half his time in D.C. (He and his wife have six children, the youngest of whom is 6.) Being governor, Graham said, seems more up his alley. At 45, he’s young, a Mormon, and has the square jaw and haircut of a Midwestern football coach, though he actually does jiu-jitsu and was dressed casually in jeans and an “Enjoy Choke” t-shirt, a reference to the sport.
While he seems unlikely to run, Graham might actually be closer to a personification of what the Republican Party has become than Ward or even Trump. “He did what I didn’t think was possible,” Broomhead told me of Graham’s tenure as the state’s GOP chair. “He got that very vocal right wing to work with and support establishment Republicans.”
Graham’s family has a long history in Republican politics — he had an uncle who was a national committeeman for Goldwater and Nixon — but he’s become a close Trump ally, writing white papers on trade policy for the campaign and welcoming the president to Phoenix with a speech at his rally. Graham himself pushes a warmer, fuzzier version of Trumpism. He said he wished the president would do more to display in public what Graham describes as Trump’s more humble, private demeanor, and talked about healing rifts with local Muslim GOP members after Trump’s Muslim-ban comments during the campaign.
More than anything, it seems like Graham is biding his time, watching how the Ward/Flake dynamics play out and taking note of the mood of the state, a proverbial man without a country for the moment. But politics is like jiu-jitsu, Graham told me. It’s a grappling sport, not a striking one — you try to move someone into just the right position, just the right spot. And then:
“You just leave it open enough so they stick their head in it, and then you choke them.”
Arizona has of late been seen as a state where Democrats could one day be competitive. That’s largely because of its demographics — the state is 31 percent Latino, and Hillary Clinton made a serious bid for the state in 2016, hoping to turn out an anti-Trump Latino vote. There’s a real fear for some in the state GOP that if candidates like Ward win primaries, it could hurt the party’s general election chances.
But primaries come first, and a growing hard-right contingent in the Republican Party is a more immediate challenge for establishment Republicans. The more divisive issues motivating some Republican voters — like immigration and guns — aren’t always what GOP leaders want to tackle, something I heard at the same Paradise Valley GOP meeting where I met Ward.
“I don’t want our meetings to be consumed by gun control talk,” Dave Ryan, the GOP chair of Legislative District 15 told me. “We’ve already got a very conservative set of policies here in Arizona — we have to be judicious in where we spend our time.” Ryan hoped to push education policy as an issue to the assembled gathering the evening I was there, to focus on something local rather than the sorts of federal-level issues discussed on cable news.
Jeff Young, LD 15’s treasurer, was blunt about the long-term problems Republicans face in Arizona. “Look around,” he said, gesturing to the room filling up with older white people, waiting for the meeting to get started. “We need to get young people here.” The party and the country are changing, Young said, and Republicans need to adapt on issues of race and culture.
“I was born and raised in Texas — it was racist when I was growing up,” Young told me, leaning in a little. “And you know something, my grandparents — I loved them dearly — but my grandparents were institutional racists. And the only way that this was going to change is they were going to have to die off. A lot of people who are very stringent about their views on immigration and gay rights, they’re not going to change. They’re just going to have to die off.”
Ward had walked into the meeting as Young and I spoke, working the room, smiling, shaking hands. Polished. Young pointed her out and said he’d make an introduction, but wanted to make sure I understood one last thing:
“I do not represent the views of the district.”