Trump visit to Arizona comes as party fight for Flake’s seat heats up

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, already looking at a tough re-election bid in 2018, is facing opposition from President Donald Trump. Flake recently got backing from Senate GOP leaders worried that intraparty fighting could cost them his seat. (Photo by Alexis Egeland/Cronkite News)

Shortly after losing a 2016 primary challenge to Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, former state Sen. Kelli Ward said she would challenge Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, in 2018. Her campaign has drawn support from President Donald Trump. (Photo by Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON – The primary race for Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake’s seat is heating up as one of Flake’s main antagonists, President Donald Trump, is visiting the state.

Less than a week after a Trump tweet called Flake “toxic” and praised his Republican challenger, Kelli Ward, a political action committee backed by Senate GOP leaders unveiled a campaign ad attacking Ward for her “crazy ideas.”

Trump kept up the pressure Tuesday night, slamming both Flake and fellow Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain to a cheering audience, while making a point of not naming either.

Trump noted that the Senate was “just one vote away” from repealing Obamacare, then pumped up the crowd by repeatedly using the term “one vote away.” McCain was considered a critical GOP vote against the bid to repeal Obamacare.

“Nobody wants to talk about your other senator, who’s weak on borders, weak on crime,” Trump said, without naming Flake. “So I won’t talk about him.”

The president went on to praise Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and Reps. Trent Franks, Paul Gosar and Andy Biggs, all Republicans. But some Republicans said they worry about a divisive primary and intraparty attacks by the president in a state where the GOP could lose a Senate seat.

But Ward’s campaign, recently buoyed by a $300,000 donation from a prime Trump supporter, vowed Tuesday to press on and win the president’s full backing on the way to taking the primary.

“I welcome President Trump to Arizona and look forward to hearing how we can secure our border. There is no bigger discrepancy between Jeff Flake and me than that issue,” Ward said in a statement released by her campaign Tuesday.

But a $10,000 web ad by the Senate Leadership Fund painted a different picture of Ward, with a tagline that said she is “not conservative – just crazy ideas.” It was nearly identical to an attack ad that ran last year when Ward unsuccessfully challenged McCain in the GOP primary.

Chris Pack, a spokesman for the leadership political action committee, said the committee is “not willing to throw away this Senate seat to the Democrats by allowing a fringe candidate like Kelli Ward to become the Republican nominee.”

Flake has also drawn support recently from GOP leaders in the Senate, including Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas and Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, who said in a statement that that committee “unequivocally supports Senator Flake in his re-election bid.”

Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of Inside Elections, said the leadership ad was meant to “send a message to any Flake detractors about who Kelli Ward is,” noting her failure to unseat McCain last year.

But where McCain has a long history, this is Flake’s first Senate re-election bid, which makes predicting the outcome more difficult, Gonzales said. Still, he downgraded the Arizona Senate race Tuesday from “leans Republican” to “tilts Republican.”

Flake has been a harsh critic of the president and Gonzales said the primary will reveal how many voters are “loyal to the president first.”

Ward is counting on that loyalty and downplaying the importance of establishment support for Flake’s campaign.

“After a very difficult year failing to pass any reforms, we want to congratulate Senate leadership on finally reaching a consensus,” she said in a statement from her campaign Tuesday. “They’re now unified in pretending I’m running against John McCain because they know they can’t defend Jeff Flake’s record.”

Ward campaign staffer Jennifer Lawrence said Ward was “encouraged by Trump’s tweet” last week and that the campaign will continue working to get the president’s “full endorsement.” She said Ward planned to be at Trump’s Make America Great Again Rally in Phoenix with her followers on Tuesday.

Lawrence noted that the general strategist for Ward’s campaign is Eric Beach, founder of the Great America PAC that raised $30 million for Trump’s presidential campaign. And Trump contributors Robert and Diana Mercer in July donated $300,000 to Ward’s KelliPAC in July, the only donation to the PAC so far this year, according to the Federal Election Commission.

Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, called it “striking that Trump endorsed Ward on Twitter.” He described Flake as a “principled conservative with a long conservative record,” but said that Flake’s differences with the president and close relationship with McCain should tell people to “take her (Ward) seriously as a primary candidate.”

But Ward’s base is not large enough to take out Flake, said Arizona political consultant Mike Noble of MBQF Consulting. He said her followers make up about one-third of the state’s Republican voters, and are mostly the “hard-right, tea-party type who want nothing to do with the establishment.”

The “blistering ad” by the leadership PAC is part of a habit of party infighting “we shouldn’t continue,” and takes focus away from repealing and replacing Obamacare, reforming the tax code and forging new trade deals, Noble said. Incumbents rarely lose primaries, but Noble acknowledged that, “Flake has a very challenging race ahead.”

Flake’s campaign did not return a request for comment Tuesday.