Meluskey drops Senate bid, clearing path for Ward to challenge McCain

Arizona GOP Senate challenger Kelli Ward said that the withdrawal of Alex Meluskey from the primary race Monday makes her even more confident of her chances of unseating incumbent Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, in this month’s primary. (Photo by Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons)

Five-term Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, skipped the Republican National Convention last month to spend time instead campaigning in Arizona. What was expected to be a challenging race got tougher Monday when one of two leading challengers for the GOP nomination dropped out. (Photo by Madison Alder/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – GOP Senate candidate Alex Meluskey suspended his campaign Monday, leaving former state Sen. Kelli Ward a clear field for a direct challenge to five-term Sen. John McCain in the primary.

Ward, who represented Lake Havasu City in the state Senate, said Meluskey’s withdrawal improves her odds of beating McCain in a race she already thought she had a “great chance” of winning.

“It will be very helpful to me to have a one-on-one race with Sen. McCain,” Ward said Monday. “I think we have a heck of a chance.”

McCain’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment Monday. But at least one political analyst said that while a one-on-one race improves Ward’s “somewhat long-shot chances,” the odds of her winning the Aug. 30 primary are still slim.

“I think in terms of a political earthquake, it’s hardly the San Andreas Fault,” said Scottsdale political consultant Jason Rose.

“I still think McCain is the favorite, but there’s no question that there’s unrest with him,” Rose said.

That unrest was on display at the Republican National Convention earlier this month, when only about half of the Arizona delegates at a morning meeting raised their hands when asked if they would be voting for McCain in the primary.

Ward said Monday that Arizonans are sick of the “establishment GOP” and are looking for fresh blood in Washington.

“I think it makes it very clear that people want a change,” she said.

But Rose said he does not think Ward has built the momentum needed to oust the sitting senator.

McCain is also sitting on a large campaign finance advantage. He had raised $8.7 million in this campaign cycle and had $5.8 million on hand as of June 30, the most recent reporting date with the Federal Election Commission. Ward reported raising $1.2 million and having $205,293 in cash on hand in the same reporting period.

While there are four other Republicans running in the Senate primary, none had reported raising or spending any campaign funds as of June 30, according to the FEC.

Ward said that while she and Meluskey did not consult before his withdrawal, she hopes they can work together to defeat McCain.

“I hope that he and his team will join behind me so we can do what all of us want to do, which is to retire McCain,” Ward said.

Meluskey said as much in the statement announcing his withdrawal, saying his mission from the start had been to remove McCain, the “34-year entrenched incumbent.”

“I made it very clear from the outset that if I was not in a position to win this race, I would do what is best for our state, and for our country, and step aside before voting began,” Meluskey said in his statement. “I am keeping my promise to the people of Arizona in order to clear the way for the defeat of John McCain.”

While Rose thinks that’s unlikely, he said a stronger Ward campaign could affect the general election, when the winner of the GOP primary is likely to face off against Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Flagstaff. If Ward can close to within single digits of McCain in the primary, he said, it could be a harbinger of a tougher race against Kirkpatrick.

A source with Kirkpatrick’s campaign said it is not concerned with who’s in or out of the GOP primary, but is focused instead on bringing new leadership to Arizona this fall.

But Ward is convinced that she will be that new leadership, saying that not only does she have a “heck of a chance” to win the primary but that she can beat Kirkpatrick as well.

“I think that we have a great chance of defeating John McCain in the primary, whether there’s four candidates or 26,” Ward said. “I think we’re going to shock D.C. and shock the rest of the U.S.”