By Eli Yokley
August 12, 2016 at 1:19 pm ET
Sen. John McCain has said dozens of times he will support the Republican Party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump, but he — like many other congressional Republicans up for re-election — is careful not to actually say his name.
“I have supported the nominee of the party. If I change my mind, I’ll let you know,” the Arizona Republican told reporters last week, once again defending his support of Trump, this time after the nominee criticized the parents of an American solider who was killed during the Iraq War.
McCain’s discomfort in talking about Trump, who criticized his military record and called him a “dummy,” has been palpable as he prepares to face former state Sen. Kelli Ward, a tea party favorite, on the Republican primary ballot on Aug. 30.
“I still haven’t heard John McCain come out and say he’ll support Donald Trump,” Ward said during an interview with Morning Consult on Thursday, ahead of an event in Phoenix with veterans and local press. “We need vigorous supporters of Donald Trump.”
That’s what Ward considers herself.
Like other conservative challengers this cycle, many of whom have not been successful, Ward is running as an outsider challenging an entrenched incumbent – someone who has held the Senate seat since she was a senior in high school – and is hoping to ride the anti-establishment wave created by Trump to her advantage.
And like the Republican presidential nominee, it is her alignment with those who have emerged to support such candidacies, the so-called “alt-right,” that has raised some of the biggest questions about her. She raised free speech concerns about Donald Sterling, the former owner of the National Basketball Association’s Los Angeles Clippers, during a controversy about his racist remarks, and in support of Milo Yiannopoulos, a loud voice within the alt-right movement who was banned from Twitter last month.
Just last week, Ward telephoned William Johnson, the chairman of the American Freedom Party, asking for a contribution, the Daily Beast reported Monday. When he told her he would, but wanted her to know he was a white supremacist, she said she would get back to him.
Ward’s campaign on Thursday told Morning Consult that Johnson was on the campaign’s call list, but after he explained his views she “explicitly disagreed with them and declined his support.”
When asked if she thought there was a racially tinged aspect to Trump’s support, which Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has suggested, Ward demurred.
“When you look at America, we are an amazingly diverse population,” she said. “When he says put ‘America first,’ he says, ‘Put all of us first. There’s not a racist component to anything he says.”
Part of McCain’s wariness about Trump has been due to the negative impact he believes Trump will have on Latino voters. His state has the fifth largest Latino statewide eligible voter population in the country, according to a Pew Research Center study, but only 48 percent of them are eligible to vote.
Ward scoffed at the notion that Trump would hurt Republicans with Latino voters.
“I have spoken with many Latinos who are appalled with the open border policy of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John McCain and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce,” she said. “Maybe the people who come here illegally, the people who Democrats pander to, are upset with Donald Trump.”
Ward said McCain is merely a “political panderer” who has lost touch with his home state. He “comes here, takes a picture with a cactus and promises to secure the border” every six years hoping to be re-elected, she said.
Though the race has tightened with his Democratic rival, McCain has consistently boasted large leads over Ward in polls. A poll released this week put his lead at 21 points. According to Morning Consult Political Intelligence, 49 percent of registered Arizona voters and 60 percent of the state’s Republicans approve of McCain’s job performance.
Ward – a 47-year-old physician – has embraced Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan and his “America First” world view, including his calls to secure America’s southern border with Mexico and to reduce the country’s military footprint overseas, which she said McCain has tried to increase.
“People do not feel safer because John McCain has been in Washington,“ Ward said. “Since he has gone to D.C., we have become a country at war and a world at war.”
When it comes to combating the rise of the Islamic State terror group in the Middle East, Ward, whose husband serves in the Air National Guard, said she supports building up the military to be a deterrent rather than engaging in increasing ground forces, as McCain has suggested repeatedly.
“We do have to destroy ISIS where they are by maintaining our military strength,” she said, joining McCain – who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee – in supporting the military’s A-10, many of which are based in Arizona, rather than switching to the new F-35.
McCain has made his own campaign about security. His latest campaign commercial attacked Democratic candidate Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick for her support of the controversial Iran nuclear agreement and underlined his own military service, including his detention during the Vietnam War.
The ad was supplemented with another by the Arlington, Va.-based group “Arizona Grassroots Action,” a super PAC supporting his bid that has focused on helping him beat Ward. The spot questioned her national security credentials, and like its other paid advertising, attempted to paint her as an extreme partisan who is untrustworthy.
In the state legislature, Ward led hearings to investigate whether “chemtrails” were being left in the sky by the government for nefarious purposes, and backed legislation that McCain’s supporters contend would make it harder for Arizona law enforcement to coordinate with federal authorities on issues involving national security.
But Ward said that is not the story of her time in the chamber. In her last term, she said she put 19 bills on the governor’s desk, which she contrasted with the gridlock that has stalled policy efforts in Washington while McCain has been here.
“That’s not done by being a hyper-partisan, or being an extremist or a right-wing person,” she said. “That’s done by doing common sense policy and building relationships with people on both sides of the aisle.”
Between now and the primary election, Ward said she is going to be on her “Small Towns, Big Voices” tour, meeting with “anybody who will listen” and “not just Republicans.”
Ward, who has made McCain’s age a campaign issue, pointed out that by the time Aug. 30 arrives, McCain’s 80th birthday (Aug. 29) will have passed.
“He looks 80,” she said. “I look forward to giving him the best birthday present: retirement.”
Eli Yokley is a senior data reporter at Morning Consult covering politics and campaigns. @eyokley