The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Kelli Ward is the perfect spokesperson for the Trump wing of the GOP

(David Kadlubowski/The Arizona Republic via Associated Press)

As President Trump heads to Phoenix for a poorly timed campaign rally tonight, a super PAC closely tied to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is out with a scathing new campaign ad against the Republican primary challenger to Arizona’s junior senator, Jeff Flake.

The Senate Leadership Fund ad against Kelli Ward, a former Arizona state senator challenging Flake in the 2018 primary, ruthlessly mocks Ward’s penchant for conspiracy theories and labels her views “dangerous” and her behavior “embarrassing.”

The ad’s title, “Chemtrail Kelli,” lambastes Ward’s perpetuation of a conspiracy theory that condensation trails left in the sky by airliners are a secret government plot to emit harmful chemicals into the atmosphere. After reminding viewers of her loss in her 2016 primary challenge to John McCain, the ad closes with these words: “Chemtrail Kelli. Not conservative. Just crazy ideas.”

The ad is stark new evidence that the Republican Party leadership is finally facing up to the reality that fringe figures such as Ward no longer represent just the party’s pesky but ultimately inconsequential right flank, but that they could become a real factor in the next midterm elections. With Trump as the GOP’s standard-bearer, its Kelli Wards are seeking to become powerhouses while making the Jeff Flakes the pariahs.

The ad suggests a new way in which the Republican Party leadership is grappling with its most prominent liability: the president of the United States.

To fully understand the dynamics at work in the Flake-Ward primary, a little recent history is in order. Last month, Ward, while running against Flake, called on McCain to step aside after his brain cancer diagnosis so she could be appointed to take his seat.

“As a Christian, I know there can always be miracles. But the likelihood that John McCain is going to come back to the Senate and be at full force for the people of our state and the people of the United States is low,” said Ward, who is also an osteopathic physician. Rather than stepping down, of course, McCain went on to cast the deciding vote in the Senate’s defeat of the Trump-backed Obamacare repeal, infuriating the “winning”-obsessed Trump.

Meanwhile, Trump, who has little regard for the customs of political parties, like backing the candidacies of his own party’s incumbent senators, is reported to have discussed spending $10 million of his own money to defeat Flake.

Trump is apparently looking to punish Flake for daring to buck Trump. Last month, Flake published his anti-Trump book, “Conscience of a Conservative,” in which he described his party’s alliance with the president as a “Faustian bargain” and blamed the GOP for capitulating to “the belief that riling up the base can make up for failed attempts to broaden the electorate.”

Then, last week, when Trump was blaming “both sides” for the violence in Charlottesville, both McCain and Flake tweeted their condemnation of white supremacy. To absolutely no one’s surprise, Trump struck back, tweeting five days later in support of Ward’s challenge to Flake: “Great to see that Dr. Kelli Ward is running against Flake Jeff Flake, who is WEAK on borders, crime and a non-factor in Senate. He’s toxic!”

Trump’s candidate Ward is a vivid manifestation of Trump’s GOP: the party of birther and other conspiracy theories, and dismissal of science and facts. As Mother Jones reported last year, Ward has “has flirted with the conspiracy-theory fringe by making appearances on 9/11 truther radio programs, advising citizens to stay vigilant against UN helicopters, warning against government ‘indoctrination,’ and proposing an unusual theory that the Affordable Care Act was part of a plot to force rural residents to move to cities.”

Now she’s the candidate being endorsed by the president of the United States.

By standing by or only managing to emit tepid criticisms of Trump, the GOP has created its own monster. Too fearful to take on Trump directly, it is now taking on his acolytes, such as Ward, who have been enabled and emboldened by Trump’s ascendance to the White House — and, in this case, his overt support.

According to the Arizona Republic, polling shows Flake is vulnerable both in his primary and in a general election run. Even if he beats Ward in the primary, the battle could divide Republican voters, with the Ward backers unwilling to back Flake in the general.

Beyond this one race, the question that bears watching is whether Trumpism’s broader takeover of the party might have an impact on other races — and whether GOP leaders can beat back those challenges, too.