On Monday morning, Arizona Senate candidate Kelli Ward, who had suggested this weekend that John McCain might have timed his death to hurt her candidacy, tweeted, unprompted, “Political correctness is like a cancer!” The invocation of the disease that had just killed McCain earned Ward precisely what she wanted: yet more media outrage that she could fan in the waning hours of her primary campaign.
I can’t say for sure that this won’t work, but it probably won’t work enough. Polling has consistently shown the “establishment” Republican candidate in the race, Rep. Martha McSally, with the lead as Ward and the third candidate, former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, split the Trumpy vote. It will, however, be interesting to see on Tuesday night what percentage of the vote Arpaio and Ward pull in combined as a measure of what could have been for Ward, who cobbled together a respectable showing (almost 40 percent) against McCain in his 2016 primary.
I covered Ward during that 2016 primary, eager to see if the nativist wing of the Arizona GOP would finally collect its ultimate scalp with the breeze of Donald Trump at its back. Ward, lesser-known and considerably out-spent, couldn’t quite pull it off then, but she decided almost instantly after that campaign to challenge Sen. Jeff Flake—another business-friendly, pro-immigration senator who didn’t have quite the foothold in the state that McCain had—in the 2018 cycle. Odds were, especially after Flake published a book of criticism against Trump in 2017, that she could have pulled it off. Flake announced his retirement instead.
To capture how fully Trump’s brigade has seized control of the state party, one need only look to the primary campaigns Ward, Arpaio, and even McSally have run while McCain, a Trump foil, was dying of cancer. Ward has consistently assaulted McCain in the most personal of ways for the better part of three years now. Whatever shaky détente Arpaio and McCain had over the decades as two of Arizona’s most famous public officials was broken when McCain issued strong criticism of Trump’s pardon of Arpaio last year. (Arpaio released a cordial tweet about McCain in his final days, only to whine shortly thereafter about how McCain’s wife, Cindy, had blocked him.)
McSally, the “sane” candidate, dared not mention McCain’s name for most of the campaign and only released a couple of bland statements over the weekend. Were she still representing a swing district instead of running in a statewide primary, she probably could have scratched out a few more lines. Then again, in fairness to McSally, veering indiscreetly to the right in order to win an Arizona primary is itself an adequate tribute to McCain.
McSally might get through in the race for this seat (or the primary for it, at least) on the luck of drawing opponents who cancel each other out, but the question of who fills the other seat—McCain’s—now falls squarely into Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey’s lap. And this, too, is a decision that can best be viewed through the Trump prism.
As the New York Times writes, the choice pits “the pragmatic wing of the party that Mr. McCain represented against the ascendant, hard-line forces loyal to President Trump.” They report that Ducey is leaning toward someone who would run for re-election in 2020 rather than a placeholder, and ideally someone who can serve as a bridge between the two elements within the party.
In other words, Ducey will likely settle on—to use the term that Grant Woods, McCain’s former chief of staff, supplied to the Times—a mediocrity: a lab-created innocuity intent on quietly passing the time in Washington without upsetting the president. The species of the idiosyncratic senator has mostly died off nationally, and now it won’t even live on in the seat occupied by Barry Goldwater and then McCain. Doug Ducey, get your cookie cutter out. Kelli Ward needs someone to beat in 2020 after all.