Ward formally kicks off Senate campaign with conservative big guns

Kelli Ward last fall, announcing her bid to unseat Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, just weeks after she lost as 2016 GOP primary bid to oust Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona. But analysts say Ward’s chances have improved since then. (Photo by Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON – Republican Senate hopeful Kelli Ward flexed newfound political muscle Tuesday with a planned campaign kickoff in Scottsdale that promised appearances by conservative heavy-hitters, radio host Laura Ingraham and former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon.

One analyst called it the “first big event in three years of running for Senate” by Ward, who lost a Senate bid in 2016, and others agreed it does not bode well for incumbent Republican Sen. Jeff Flake.

But while Ward was touting more than $1 million in fundraising this year, she has spent much of it while Flake had $3.4 million in the bank as of the third quarter of this year, according to his campaign.

And while Bannon and Ingraham may help in the primary, the winner will still “have a hell of a chore on their hands” in the likely general election against Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Phoenix.

Sinema reported raising $2.4 milllion this year and having $4.1 million in cash on hand, according to her Sept. 30 filing with the Federal Election Commission. She faces first-time challenger Deedra Abboud in the Democratic primary. Abboud reported raising $20,373 so far this year and having $7,849 in the bank as of Sept. 30.

Sinema’s entrance into the race last month caused some analysts to change their ratings for the Arizona Senate seat next year from “leans Republican” to “toss up.” Flake, a first-term senator who has fought openly with President Donald Trump, is considered one of the most vulnerable Republican senators up for re-election next year.

That challenge begins with Ward, who scored “a big win” when she landed Ingraham for her kickoff, said MBQF Consulting analyst Mike Noble. Ingraham, who formally endorsed Ward for the 2018 Republican primary, said on Twitter that Bannon would join her at the fundraising event.

Noble called the event a positive for someone who has had “more gaffes than wins,” citing her remarks, shortly after it was revealed that Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain was diagnosed with brain cancer, that he should step down and make way for her. Those sort of statements hurt her credibility among voters, Noble said.

But Ward’s legitimacy and visibility have been helped by vocal support from Trump, who is no friend of Flake’s, and backing of conservative personalities like Ingraham and Sean Hannity, and now Bannon.

Ward has been able to raise the bulk of her $1 million total, about $700,000, in the last quarter, which is “impressive for a non-incumbent,” said political consultant Jason Rose. But much of that has been spent, said Rose, who said, “Cash on hand is all that matters.”

Ward is “not raising money from big-money donors,” Rose said, and has the rare “insurgent imprimatur” from GOP leaders and far-right figures against a Republican incumbent.

Flake spokesman Will Allison downplayed Bannon’s support of Ward, noting that Trump backers have so far been unable to get another Republican to run. “After a couple of months of being told, ‘No thanks,’ perhaps Bannon is finally resigned to backing the only other person in the race,” Allison said.

But Noble said standing behind Trump appears to have benefited Ward, with “legitimate polling” putting her ahead of Flake.

Noble said an August poll by JMC Analytics and Polling put Ward’s favorability rating at 47 percent to Flake’s 21 percent, while a separate poll the same month by Highground Public Affairs put them at 42.5 percent to 28.2 percent.

“Both polls are similar, which suggests reality,” Rose said, and Flake has “notably” not released his own polls to challenge those numbers.

Highground’s polls also show Ward doing better than Flake in a general election against Sinema, who Rose described as “the most talented and interesting candidate since 1982, which was McCain.”

Ward will likely “win the battle, but lose the war,” Rose said.