Former combat pilot Martha McSally was put off by Donald Trump when he ran for president.
The Republican congresswoman from Tucson called his boasts of sexually assaulting women disgusting. She opposed his plan to stop Muslims from entering the United States. She condemned his threat to ditch European allies.
How quickly things change. In the months since an Arizona seat in the U.S. Senate opened up, McSally has been talking up her chummy visits with Trump. In the Rose Garden. In the Cabinet Room. In the Oval Office.
She is running against two die-hard Trump loyalists in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate, and she’s out to prove that she backs him as much as they do.
“Like our president, I’m tired of PC politicians and their BS excuses,” she says in a campaign video.
In Republican primaries across the nation, candidates like McSally are trying to outdo one another in embracing Trump, an unpopular president who nonetheless remains well liked by most GOP voters.
Democrats are watching with glee. All this Trump-loving in the primaries could bedevil Republican nominees once they start seeking broader support for the general election in November.
The stakes in Arizona are especially high. Its contest for the open seat of outgoing Republican Sen. Jeff Flake could determine whether Democrats seize control of the Senate.
Arizona leans Republican, but its shifting demographics — mainly the growth of its Latino population — have put it within reach of Democrats. Trump beat Hillary Clinton in Arizona by just 3.5 percentage points, a narrower margin than in all but eight other states. His unpopularity has made the race to succeed Flake one of the nation’s most competitive Senate contests.
Still, most of the older white Republicans who dominate GOP primaries in Arizona admire Trump. Flake, 55, who has denounced Trump’s presidency as reckless and undignified, was all but sure to be ousted in the primary if he sought reelection. He dodged the humiliation by announcing his retirement in October.
The primary pits McSally, the favorite of Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, against conservative insurgent Kelli Ward and former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the anti-immigration crusader.
McSally, one of the party’s more charismatic House members, is widely seen as Republicans’ strongest prospect in the general election.
“Republicans need Martha McSally,” said Stuart Rothenberg, a nonpartisan election handicapper. “If they don’t get her, it’s a disaster.”
McSally, a fast-talking, 51-year-old former Ironman triathlete, is the first woman in U.S. history to fly a military fighter in combat, the A-10 Warthog.
In 2001, she sued the U.S. military to overturn a policy requiring women on duty in Saudi Arabia to wear a long black Islamic robe over their uniform when off base. The conflict, which she won, led to a flattering “60 Minutes” profile.
McSally, also the first woman to command a fighter squadron in combat, plays up her military pedigree. She launched her candidacy on Jan. 12 by piloting a World War II plane to three airplane hangar rallies across Arizona.
While casting herself as an outsider — “I told Washington Republicans to grow a pair of ovaries and get the job done,” she said — McSally will benefit from a torrent of cash that comes with the support of McConnell and the party establishment’s big donors.
McSally still won’t say whether she voted for Trump. “Not your business,” she snapped in an interview after belting out “The Star-Spangled Banner” onstage at a Republican banquet Friday in Phoenix.
She bristles at reminders of her past comments against Trump.
“I made a couple of, a very small number of statements about particular statements that were made, and on the spectrum of things, it was very measured compared with a lot of other Republicans,” she said.
At a party gathering the next morning in a Phoenix church, McSally shared details of her various conversations with Trump, saying she was advancing his agenda on healthcare, immigration and the military.
“I’ve been to so many meetings in the White House,” she said.
It’s all an act, counters Ward, an ideological firebrand whose candidacy has been championed by Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, Fox News stars with huge followings.
“She suddenly became a Trumper,” said Ward, 49, a physician and former state lawmaker. “That’s pretty disingenuous.”
Ward, sipping coffee outside the church as supporters at a card table offered doughnuts to party activists, castigated McSally for refusing to divulge her vote for president in 2016.
She “left the door open that she might have voted for Hillary,” said Ward, who challenged Republican Sen. John McCain’s 2016 reelection in the party’s primary.
Ward was well positioned to defeat Flake in the primary but became more of a long shot once McSally and Arpaio joined the race.
Ward also lost a key benefactor this month when she renounced the support of Stephen K. Bannon, the former White House strategist who was banished by Trump after he criticized the president’s family in a new book.
“I’m sure he understands that we’re not going to have someone who’s so controversial associated with the campaign,” Ward said. “I haven’t talked to him, but I’m sure he knows the way this all works.”
All three contenders are seeking Trump’s support, but Arpaio is, by far, the closest to the president.
For years, he and Trump were the highest-profile proponents of the debunked allegation that Barack Obama was born in Africa and thus ineligible to serve as president. Arpaio still argues that Obama’s Hawaii birth certificate was forged.
“No doubt about it,” Arpaio, 85, said in an interview at his office in Fountain Hills, Ariz., on the outskirts of Phoenix.
Trump pardoned Arpaio in August for his contempt-of-court conviction after he defied an order to stop racial profiling of Latinos when he was sheriff.
Arpaio, who keeps a pair of billy clubs behind his desk, displays Trump’s pardon order on his office wall, just below a photo of him and the president. Written on the photo: “Sheriff Joe & The Trumpinator: Don’t Mess With Us.”
“The only hero in my life is him,” Arpaio said. “I’m not ashamed to say that.”
Like Ward, Arpaio has positioned himself to Trump’s right on illegal immigration. Both oppose Trump’s offer of a pathway to citizenship for hundreds of thousands of immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally when they were children.
Arpaio, whose harsh tactics against illegal immigration sparked a national backlash, is known for forcing inmates to wear pink underwear and black-and-white prison jumpsuits.
He lost his bid for reelection in 2016 after 24 years as sheriff, but remains popular among Republicans. In the Senate primary, Arpaio has two big advantages: He is well known and can raise large sums of money.
Democrats see Arpaio and Ward as easier targets than McSally. They regard their party’s likely Senate nominee, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, a moderate, as a strong contender, especially if the election climate continues to favor Democrats.
“This seat is extremely competitive, and Democrats have a great shot, no matter what,” said Jason Ralston, a Democratic ad maker who has worked in Arizona. “But if Republicans nominate a far-right nominee, or if McSally goes hard to the right and she’s the nominee, that makes it an even greater opportunity for Democrats.”