When Donald Trump ran for president, he didn’t exactly wow Arizona. He carried the state with less than 50% support, though you’d never know it from Republicans vying in Tuesday’s U.S. Senate primary.
Kelli Ward calls Trump one of the greatest presidents of all time. Martha McSally flew cross-country for a bill signing and brief presidential shout-out, which she immediately posted on Twitter.
Joe Arpaio boasts of a relationship going back years, to the time the former Maricopa County sheriff and Trump were a tag team peddling the fiction that Barack Obama was born outside the U.S.
The pledges of unflagging loyalty may be exactly what it takes to win the primary. But all that Trumpian devotion is complicating Republican efforts to hang on to the Senate in November.
Arizona is central to the fight for control and if the political dynamic here is familiar, a GOP base that loves the president far more than everyone else, the difference is the state’s relatively late primary — just 40-some days before ballots start arriving in the mail and 10 weeks before the general election.
That’s not much time to pivot from a narrow, single-minded audience to an electorate split evenly among Republicans, Democrats and voters professing no party preference.
Worse for the GOP, as the Senate candidates and their allies savage one another, the Democratic front-runner, Kyrsten Sinema, has spent months floating above the competition, running lofty advertisements that paint her as a nonpartisan problem solver.
A recent morning found the local congresswoman at a Phoenix food bank, accompanied by a swarm of reporters, stuffing paper sacks with carrots and avocados. The message she delivered to news cameras — please donate fruits and vegetables so the needy can eat right — made no mention of politics or her GOP rivals.
For Democrats, who need three seats to gain Senate control, Arizona is vital. Sen. Jeff Flake, one of Trump’s harshest GOP critics, chose to step aside rather than risk losing a primary, creating a rare open-seat election at a time Arizona, once solidly Republican, has grown increasingly competitive.
(With Sen. John McCain’s death, GOP Gov. Doug Ducey will appoint a replacement to fill his seat. McCain’s successor will face voters in 2020 for the right to finish the last two years of his term.)
Rep. McSally, 52, is the front-runner in Tuesday’s primary and favorite of the GOP establishment, owing in good part to her background as an Air Force fighter pilot and ability to win election to Congress twice from a Tucson district evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.
A highly caffeinated campaigner, she sprinkles her rat-a-tat delivery with a few salty epithets: “crappy,” “pissed off,” “BS.” That, McSally tells listeners, is the way fighter pilots talk. She offers an offhanded non-apology apology.
Her enlistment in the ranks of Trump faithful has been a striking conversion. McSally skipped his nominating convention, condemned his proposed Muslim ban and vulgar comments about women, and pointedly refuses to say whether she voted for the president, which is seen as proof she did not.
Since Trump took office, however, McSally has a near-perfect voting record in support of the president who — despite making no formal endorsement — can be heard excerpted in ads calling McSally “the real deal.”
Her backers shrug off the makeover, ascribing it to necessity and fully expecting the McSally of old to return as soon as the polls close Tuesday night.
“Sometimes in politics you make decisions to win the primary to get to the general” election, said Yasser Sanchez, an immigration attorney and longtime GOP activist who is no fan of Trump. “You have to hug the president and say everything he does is good and anyone who opposes him is wrong.”
Ward, of course, sees it differently.
Sometime in politics you make decisions to win the primary to get to the general.
The 49-year-old physician and former state senator from Lake Havasu City, who unsuccessfully challenged McCain in the GOP primary two summers ago, has all but surgically attached herself to Trump.
She echoes his talk of a “deep state” conspiracy to undermine his presidency, endorses Trump’s proposal to wall off the border with Mexico and calls for complete repeal of the Affordable Care Act even as other Republicans have capitulated and abandoned the fight against Obamacare.
She distributed a photo of herself and Trump at his Mar-a-Lago resort, implying his endorsement, and touts support from the presidential rooting squad of Fox News’ Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin.
Ward dismisses McSally’s congressional record supporting Trump as “completely fabricated nothingness.”
“She let Hillary Clinton win her district by 5 points as the Republican leader in that part of the state,” Ward scoffed. “It’s despicable, the lies she’s willing to tell to advance her own ambition.”
Arpaio — criminally convicted for racial profiling, pardoned by Trump — seems mostly to be pulling votes from Ward. The 86-year-old former lawman hired two of her unhappy ex-employees, who have used social media to vent their grievances and level salacious allegations against the candidate and her husband.
Sinema, a three-term congresswoman, faces her own primary challenger, civil rights attorney Deedra Abboud, whose left-leaning campaigning has gained little traction.
Sinema’s incarnation as a centrist — voting against Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, defending the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, equivocating over Trump’s Supreme Court picks — marks her own conversion from days in the Legislature as a Green Party leftist.
Many see opportunism. Sinema, 42, calls it a willingness to “learn and grow.”
“What I learned early on, in my very first term in the statehouse, was that when I was willing to listen to other people, listen to their ideas and work together, we can actually get a lot of stuff done,” she said. “I don’t know when it became uncool to compromise, but I am working to make it cool again.”
She takes an evenhanded approach to Trump. “When the president does something really good for Arizona, I support it — as do, I think, most of the voters,” Sinema said amid the forklifts and floor-to-ceiling boxes marked “emergency food.”
“And when he does something that’s not good for our state,” she went on, “we oppose it.”
In the final days of the primary, McSally has turned her focus to the general election with a TV spot recalling her combat role after Sept. 11, 2001, and contrasting it with Sinema — seen in a flamboyant pink get-up — protesting the Iraq war. There is no mention of Trump.
The honor-and-country message is a potentially resonant one in this strongly pro-military state but it’s unclear whether Sinema, who has run thousands of ads painting an image of sobriety and moderation, can be easily recast as a wild-eyed liberal.
Jerry Proctor, 70, is one Trump voter somewhat taken with the Democratic congresswoman.
“I don’t think she’s been hijacked like the rest of those Democrats,” said the retired New York City corrections officer, citing Pelosi, Senate Democratic leader Charles E. Schumer of New York and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. “I can’t stand listening to them. Kyrsten is a little different.”
He’s not sure whom he’ll support, Proctor said after hearing Ward at a neighborhood forum in Scottsdale. His wife, Barbara, showed up with a pink “Adorable Deplorables” Trump T-shirt. But he didn’t rule out a vote for Sinema — even if the couple end up cancelling each other out.