Kelli Ward Looks to Shed "Cartoon" Image

The Arizona Republican hopes her ideological alignment with President Trump will help her overcome Rep. Martha McSally's advantages in their Senate primary contest.

Former Arizona state Sen. Kelli Ward
AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin
Feb. 21, 2018, 8 p.m.

Dr. Kelli Ward wants you to know: She’s not “Chemtrail Kelli.”

In a 30-minute interview with National Journal on Wednesday, the former Arizona state senator running in a ferocious Republican primary said she would welcome meeting those who have attacked her in the past, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is supporting her primary opponent, Rep. Martha McSally.

“If they want to meet me, I’d love to meet them,” she said. “They can see that I’m not the cartoon that John McCain tried to create.”

In 2016, Ward, a family physician, lost to Sen. McCain in the Republican primary by over 12 points. The old war hero’s campaign portrayed Ward as a dangerous loony, airing an ad noting that she organized a 2014 town hall that addressed a community’s concerns of “chemtrails”—the conspiracy theory that the government adds chemicals to the atmosphere through aircraft for malicious purposes. Ward doesn’t believe it, and fact-checkers slammed the ad.

But it resonated with some Arizonans. And McConnell’s allies at the Senate Leadership Fund, a pro-Republican super PAC, have revived the "crazy" card.

Now Ward realizes that she has to lose that label to win her primary in six months. And her main charge against McSally, the first woman to fly and command an Air Force squadron in combat, is that the two-term congresswoman with a much deeper war chest is insufficiently aligned with the president, who won the state by 3 and a half points in 2016.

“I think it’s going to be clear who is the person that will support him, who is the person who can get the job done, who is the person that’s reliable,” Ward said. “And it certainly isn’t Martha McSally.”

In the interview, Ward mimicked President Trump’s “America First” agenda, advocating the border wall and Obamacare repeal, and expressing skepticism about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal negotiated under President Obama meant to tie the U.S. closer to 11 other countries around the Pacific Rim.

On immigration, she agreed with the new line put forward by the White House and some of the most conservative members of Congress that the U.S. should drastically reduce legal immigration.

She said that illegal and legal immigrants were a drain on the U.S. economy, even though economists widely believe that immigration increases economic growth. And she said she’d support reducing “chain migration,” also known as family reunification, so that Americans can sponsor only spouses and minor children, excluding parents, adult children, and siblings from the current law.

“There is simply no reason to have uncles, aunts, grandmas, grandpas, second cousins once-removed brought in on the back of one person,” she said.

This ideological alignment with the president is Ward’s opening against McSally, who occasionally criticized Trump in his presidential campaign and now won’t say whether she voted for him in 2016. "Not your business," she told the Los Angeles Times in January.

McSally may also prove to be more independent from Trump than Ward on the issue of the special prosecutor’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign. In May, McSally said the timing of Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey, who had helmed the probe, was “deeply concerning.” Ward says that “wasn’t an issue” for her.

“It seems like the Democrats and the establishment Republicans love to talk about the timing,” Ward said. “The timing was right in Donald Trump’s mind.”

McSally has attempted to blunt critiques from Trump voters by voting with the president and, in her announcement video, featuring a photo of her arm around a smiling, thumbs-up Trump, who is heard praising the congresswoman as “tough” and “the real deal.”

In the video, McSally said that she “absolutely refused to bow down to sharia law” while a fighter pilot in Saudi Arabia, referring to her fight against a requirement that women wear a traditional head-to-toe robe.

When asked if sharia law is actually a threat to Arizona, Ward said that the U.S. had to be “vigilant.” And while she hadn’t seen sharia law encroach into her state, she said she thought “there are other places in the country where they are facing that a little bit more.”

Ward also said there was “potential corruption” at the United Nations. “You see money going in and you don’t know where it goes out,” she said.

“I don’t like their ideas about children in the family,” she added, saying the United Nations tries to “force their will” on issues like homeschooling and immunization.

Moving too far to the right could hurt Ward with some Arizonans, particularly in a general election that will likely pit the Republican nominee against the formidable Rep. Kyrsten Sinema.

But in the primary, Ward is going after the same voters as former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, another conservative hard-liner, whom Trump pardoned last year from a criminal-contempt conviction in an immigration case.

Squeezed from the left and the right, Ward has chosen to be open to McConnell, saying in the interview that she can’t say whether she would or wouldn’t vote for him as GOP leader because she doesn’t know who, if anyone, would run against him.

“I do think that Senator McConnell has the skills and the networking and the connections that could make him a great majority leader," she said, "if—if—he gets on the America First bandwagon."

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