The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kelli Ward implied a dying McCain aimed to hurt her campaign. She apologized, blaming the media.

The Arizona Republican spent decades in the Senate. He endured more than five years of imprisonment and torture by the North Vietnamese. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post, Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Kelli Ward, a U.S. Senate hopeful and onetime rival of Sen. John McCain, sought to set the record straight Monday about a flurry of accusations: her social media posts implied McCain’s announcement to halt medical treatment for brain cancer was timed to hurt her campaign.

On the eve of Arizona’s primary elections, she held a news conference to address the torrent of criticism over those remarks.

“My comments were in no way directed at Senator McCain or at his family or his team,” Ward said Monday. “Our differences were always strictly political.”

One of Ward’s staffers on Saturday wrote a Facebook post wondering whether the timing of the statement from McCain’s family, made on the same day that Ward’s statewide bus tour kicked off, was simply a coincidence or a tactic “to take media attention off her campaign.”

Ward did not dispute the notion and said in reply: “I think they wanted to have a particular narrative that they hope is negative to me."

McCain, 81, died Saturday, just hours after Ward’s Facebook comments.

Ward, who is seeking the GOP nomination to replace U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), has made controversial comments about McCain in the past. A far-right candidate, she shares President Trump’s hard-line policies on immigration and border security and has promised, as the president did, to “drain the swamp.”

Mike Cernovich steps into the U.S. Senate race in Arizona. A ‘gonzo thing,’ he says.

Her staff didn’t respond to calls seeking comment Sunday. Her comment, which appears to have been written from her personal Facebook page, and the staffer’s post have either been deleted or are no longer publicly visible. But Aaron Borders, an Arizona lobbyist and former second vice chair of the Maricopa County GOP, shared images of the exchange on his Facebook page Saturday.

Borders said that he was initially rooting for Ward, whom he knows personally, but that the campaign’s undisciplined messaging has appalled him.

“You shouldn’t be saying any of this. Leave it alone. [McCain’s] not even an opponent,” Borders told The Washington Post. “That’s about as narcissistic as it gets.”

Borders, who unsuccessfully sought the GOP nomination for a seat in the Arizona House of Representatives in 2014, said he has never seen a campaign more “undisciplined” and “unfocused” than Ward’s. He said the Facebook posts should not have been written at a time when McCain’s death was imminent and just days before the Tuesday primary election.

In a follow-up comment, Ward said it’s the media that is creating a negative narrative about her, not the McCains.

“The media loves a narrative. I’ve said again and again to pray for Senator McCain & his family. These decisions are terrible to have to make. I feel compassion for him and his family as they go through this. … The media, the left, and the Establishment have the agenda. They’ve been attacking me over fake stories for a year on this issue. I ran against McCain. I don’t agree with his voting record and rhetoric. I pray for him as a man who is suffering,” Ward wrote, according to the Arizona Republic.

That comment also appears to have been deleted.

In a statement posted on her campaign Facebook page after McCain died, Ward expressed her condolences but did not address her previous comments.

“We are saddened to hear of the passing of John McCain. His decades of service will not be forgotten by the men & women of Arizona. May God grant the McCain family comfort and peace during this difficult time,” Ward said.

She also continued to double down Sunday, again blaming the left and “#FakeNews” and sharing images of vile messages she said she has received in response to the comments about McCain.

“The Left is hateful, foul-mouthed, and easily misled … please take note of the trolling comments by people who buy into #FakeNews & political smears — or maybe they don’t — it could be that they just like any excuse to bully and attack,” Ward wrote.

McCain’s primary rival urges him to step aside after diagnosis — and suggests she could replace him

This isn’t the first time that Ward has found herself the subject of controversy over comments made about McCain.

Shortly after he was diagnosed with brain cancer last year, Ward urged him to step down — and expressed interest in the possibility of taking over his Senate seat. Ward, who had already announced her candidacy to replace Flake, told an Indiana radio station that she hopes McCain’s family and advisers will “advise him to step away as quickly as possible, so that the business of the country and the business of Arizona being represented at the federal level can move forward.”

Arizona law required the governor to appoint someone from the same party to fill McCain’s seat if he left office. Asked whether her name was being considered as a possible replacement, Ward said: “Well, you know, I certainly hope so.” The comments were immediately seen as insensitive and self-serving. Ward, again, blamed fake news and liberals.

She is running against U.S. Rep. Martha McSally and former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio in the GOP primary to replace Flake.

McSally has remained silent about Ward, but Arpaio spoke up.

“I’m not trying to pile on Kelli Ward but her comments about Senator McCain on the day of his death have gone viral for all the wrong reasons,” Arpaio said in a statement.

McSally leads in several polls. Ward surged in the race a few weeks ago, but McSally and her strategists say they’re confident the congresswoman will stay ahead.

Ward entered politics in 2012 as an Arizona state senator. She ran for U.S. Senate in 2016, when McCain defeated her in the Republican primary. She caused a stir that year, too, when she suggested in a Politico interview that McCain, who was then 79, was too old and likely to die while in office.

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