For the second time in two years, Arizona Republicans held a Senate primary. And for the second time in two years, a uniquely bad and desperate candidate named Kelli Ward went down in flames.
Ward lost to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) by double-digits in 2016 despite some high-profile conservative support, and now she has lost to Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) by double-digits despite some even higher-profile conservative support. The final returns showed her getting just more than half (28 percent) of McSally’s support (52 percent) — a result that could spare national Republicans a massive headache in their quest to hold the Senate.
Recent history has included no shortage of extreme GOP nominees who tested the bounds of political discourse even within conservative primary electorates. Some of them imploded thanks to scandals (think Roy Moore) and gaffes (think Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock). Others won (think President Trump).
But even next to them, Ward stands out for having consciously made poor tactical decisions, over and over again. While some candidates succumb to one incident, Ward seemed determined to pepper them throughout her campaign. While others make being extreme work, Ward just made it painful.
Ward burst on to the scene late in her 2016 primary by making a closing argument against McCain that basically amounted to this: He’s going to deteriorate and die soon. “I do know what happens to the body and the mind at the end of life,” she said. When asked whether she, as an actual medical doctor, felt comfortable diagnosing McCain, she said: “Diagnosing him as an 80-year-old man? Yes, I do.” Earlier in that same campaign, she appeared on conspiracy-theorist Alex Jones’s show, where the two discussed the idea McCain might have her assassinated.
Despite an effort to appear more serious this time around, Ward again palled around with the likes of Jones and another conspiracy theorist and alt-right figure, Mike Cernovich. Her justifications were … interesting. “I think there’s an audience of people out there that do listen to Infowars, and should they be left in the dark about options that are out there?” she told the Weekly Standard. When Cernovich’s appearance and his Pizzagate advocacy became an issue a few weeks back, Ward at first claimed she wasn’t familiar with Cernovich’s views but then, shortly thereafter, suggested she knew plenty about his audience.
Witness this amazing exchange with MSNBC’s Kasie Hunt:
HUNT: “Mike Cernovich has been associated with the PizzaGate conspiracy theory that led to shots being fired at Comet Pizza here in Washington. Do you believe what has been said about Hillary Clinton and pizza and all of this nonsense that has been on the Internet?”
WARD: “All I know about Hillary Clinton is that she would have been a terrible president. She — and I’m so thankful every single day that she isn’t in the White House.”
HUNT: “So do you not want Mike Cernovich on your bus tour?”
WARD: “Mike Cernovich has an audience that we want to reach. And that includes Republicans, conservatives, liberals, Democrats, people of all ilks. And so, if he’s coming on the bus tour, I think that he’ll have a voice and he’ll have something that he wants to say.”
Ward’s 2018 campaign would ultimately end a lot like the 2016 version did: with a pretty obvious last-minute Hail Mary. When McCain announced he was going to stop treatment for brain cancer last week, Ward took to social media to suggest it might be timed to distract from her bus tour.
And then, when McCain actually did die shortly thereafter, Ward two days later again took to social media to suggest the real cancer was political correctness.
Candidates often toy with things like the idea that their opponents are too old and/or play footsie with conspiracy theories and extreme elements of their party. Where Ward differed was how absolutely ham-handed she went about all of that. Her campaigns often looked more like caricatures of what we’d expect from a tea party/alt-right primary challenger.
And ultimately, the result is the indictment. She had a real chance in the Trump era to run against an establishment-oriented GOP congresswoman with a moderate track record on immigration, and she didn’t even come close. A third, Trump-tied candidate — Joe Arpaio — undoubtedly ate away at what might have been her base, but even that didn’t account for her loss.