Exclusive — GOP Primary Campaign Against Weakened John McCain By AZ Republicans Increasingly Likely

The Associated Press
The Associated Press

Arizona State Sen. Kelli Ward is seriously considering a run for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Republican John McCain—something that clearly has McCain rattled—she told Breitbart News in an exclusive interview while at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) hosted by the American Conservative Union (ACU) in National Harbor, M.D., late last month.

“I’m still early in the process, this has just come to light publicly just about two and a half weeks ago,” Ward, a family physician who ran for state senate in 2012 and is now serving her second term, told Breitbart News.

I’m still in the early listening, thinking, learning and praying phase to kind of think about whether there’s a political pathway and a financial pathway to make this challenge because really it is a David and Goliath story. Obviously, it’s not something to just jump into lightly.

I’m still early in the process but the reason I’m considering it is because there’s an outcry from the people of Arizona for conservative leadership. They want something new. They want somebody new. They want somebody positive and passionate and persuasive and principled. They want all of those things and many of the people don’t feel like they’re getting it right now. They’re searching for someone.

She’s not the only one considering a run against McCain, but she’s the most public at this time—and has been public for at least a month now. Breitbart News can officially confirm here for the first time publicly that, according to a source close to him, Rep. Matt Salmon (R-AZ) is also seriously looking at a run for McCain’s seat.

“Is he looking at it? Yes he is. Yes he is,” a source close to Salmon told Breitbart News in an interview this week. ”But unlike his colleagues in the Arizona delegation, he’s not going to talk to the press about it. He’s not going to engage in speculation. It’s not some kind of a reflection of a lack of seriousness or anything, he’s had a lot of people encourage him to take a hard look at this seat and that’s what he’s doing.”

Many thought Rep. David Schweikert (R-AZ) or Paul Gosar (R-AZ) would make a run against McCain, but it’s looking increasingly likely neither will.

Ward told Breitbart News she thinks Congress needs more doctors like herself, “people in the trenches who actually want to fight Obamacare not ‘yes men’ who want to keep socializing our medical system and leading to single-payer, that’s no good for patients, no good for doctors, no good for anybody.”

“Obamacare was actually the reason why I decided to run for office,” she said.

We were considering a state exchange and Medicaid expansion at the time and I thought it was a terrible idea, a horrible idea and I wanted to be down there in the trenches as a conservative physician voice to fight that. We didn’t win. We didn’t get exchanges, but we lost on the Medicaid expansion because we had too many wishy-washy middle-of-the-road Republicans who voted with the Democrats to expand a huge entitlement program in our state. People are already feeling sorry about it.

She noted that she’s “very conservative, with a very conservative voting record” that she said focuses on “smaller government, less taxes, less regulation, following the Constitution, more personal responsibility.”

“All of those things have been what I campaigned on and what I lived up to since I’ve been serving,” she said. “I never really thought I’d be in office, I’m a family doctor by trade and never thought I’d be in politics.”

There’s a Super PAC called Kelli PAC set up to back her already, and that group’s leader Doug McKee told Breitbart News that Kelli PAC’s “goal is to raise enough money and to also create a huge ground force to provide ground game support.”

“The whole idea with that is that it started out encouraging her and showing the support that we could get and kind of encourage her to kick some holes in the ice if you will to run,” McKee said.

I’m telling you, she’s going to run—the way she’s been acting as a candidate all over the state. But with Kelli PAC the whole idea was literally to raise money and raise awareness and clear a path because we saw what the McCain foundation did to J.D. Hayworth.

We saw that. He spent $24 million of the $27 million that he had in the war chest from his presidential campaign to cut him to pieces and we just want to make sure that he has enough money and backing outside that we can fight something like that if that’s how he decides to fight again.

McCain’s decades in Washington “certainly have” had an effect on him, McKee said.

“I think he started out great, but I think it’s time—I’ll tell you the whole idea here is we don’t want to beat on Sen. McCain,” McKee said. “We want to do this in an honorable and dignified manner. We think the people of Arizona deserve a change, somebody who is new, fresh and has good ideas and is strong with all the values Arizona has and will stand up and fight for those values. Kelli’s the one, no doubt.”

What makes Ward “the one,” he said first off is an “an immunity to lobbyists.”

“I know they try to get at her, and she’ll smile and listen to what they have to say but then she votes the way that her constituents want her to vote,” he said, adding that her opposition to Common Core and her work against Obamacare as a doctor and state senator are crucial assets.

“We need another strong conservative physician on the floor who’s going to stand against that,” McKee said.

She’s physically felt the strains of the Affordable Care Act as a family physician and small business owner. She knows how it operates and how it harms the income of a doctor and brings down the standards of medicine in the United States. She’s seen it all firsthand. Again, she’d be a strong advocate on the floor of the Senate standing against that—fighting to see it repealed.

Salmon, the other potential challenger to McCain, was elected to Arizona’s state senate in 1990 then ran for a House seat in 1994—pledging to term-limit himself voluntarily to three terms. He followed through on that despite having won re-election by wide margins the two times he did run for re-election, going on to later become the 2002 Republican nominee for governor in Arizona.

He fell 11,819 votes shy of beating Democrat Janet Napolitano, who later went on to become President Obama’s Department of Homeland Security Secretary, garnering 45 percent of the vote to Napolitano’s 46 percent. He later served as a lobbyist and as the chairman of the Arizona Republican Party before deciding to run for his old congressional seat in the 2012 election, as since Jeff Flake was leaving the seat to run for the U.S. Senate seat now former Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) was retiring from.

Salmon said his view on term limits has evolved, and he believes they are a flawed concept. Since winning re-election to the House, Salmon has quickly become one of the conservative leaders in frequent battles with not just the Obama administration and congressional Democrats but also with establishment elements of his own Republican Party.

“There’s one thing that separates him right off the bat from Sen. McCain and that would be that Matt Salmon is a strong conservative and John McCain has proven time and again that he’s not,” the source close to Salmon told Breitbart News. “What you have in Congressman Salmon is a strong conservative who believes in the Constitution, believes in limited government freedom and strong secure borders who doesn’t just talk about it—he’s actually taken the lead on many of these issues throughout his career.”

McCain’s team, for its part, laughs off any primary challenge in what’s an apparent effort to project strength early in the process to try to scare off any potential challengers.

“As he’s said, Senator McCain is strongly leaning toward running for re-election. In the meantime, he’s taking all the necessary steps to be ready,” McCain spokesman Brian Rogers told Breitbart News. “Anyone contemplating a primary challenge would be well-advised to consider what happened in 2010, when Senator McCain beat former Congressman J.D. Hayworth by 24 points.”

Sean Noble, a McCain ally who once served as chief of staff to now former Rep. John Shadegg (R-AZ) and handled outside expenditures for newly elected Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, said that he thinks McCain is likely to succeed due to the political climate.

“This is a situation where timing is very good for McCain. We are headed towards what I think is largely going to be a national security election and Obama’s foreign policy is going to be so bad in that I don’t have any doubt we’re going to see more beheadings, more ISIS ebb and flow, we might even see an attack on America—whether it’s overseas or on American soil,” Noble said in an interview this week.

I think this is going to be kind of the reverse of 2008. I thought 2014 was the reverse of 2006—Bush won in 2004 then we lost everything in 2006 in the House and Senate, I think that was replicated big in reverse with the big wins in the Senate and some gains in the House in 2014 after an Obama win. And just as McCain could not overcome the negatives of Bush of in 08, I don’t think Clinton will able to overcome the negatives of Obama in 16—although we can talk about presidential because I think there’s one candidate she can beat and it happens to be the brother of somebody who was the president.

The fact is that when it comes to the Republican base, we are first and foremost a national security party because that is the one thing that the Constitution calls for. With McCain being in this position of Armed Services Chairman being able to criticize Obama on a daily basis between now and the election of 2016, the appeal to the base is going to overwhelm what anyone can bring to the table.”

But the source close to Salmon who confirmed to Breitbart News he’s considering a run said that the comments from Noble and from Rogers are just blustering to try to scare potentially strong primary challengers away. Essentially, what McCain is doing right now, he said, is working to attempt to manipulate the political field on which he’ll be playing in much the same way Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) potential challengers who would have beaten him had they run.

“I get what they’re trying to do,” he said.

We’ve known this for a while. For most campaigns, the last six to eight months are the most important of an election. For John McCain, the first six months are the most important because the first six months are going to be when it’s determined who runs against him.

He’s trying to set the field in a way that’s advantageous to him. We get it. So what they’re out there doing is they’re out there beating their chests, they’re out there saying how they’re going to kill everyone, about how much money they have. That’s exactly the play, so then you ask yourself why?

It’s because they’ve seen the same polling everyone else has and they know that if they have a strong opponent running against them the likelihood they win re-election goes significantly down. So what are they trying to do? They’re trying to make sure that doesn’t happen by talking tough.

But here’s the reality about Sen. McCain in Arizona today, and it’s best exemplified by the last couple of fundraisers he’s had. Look at the host committees on these invites, one thing is very notable for an incumbent senator who’s run for president and been in office for as long as he has, and what’s notable is the lack of real Republican office holders of any significance, congressmen, et cetera.”

He also said that McCain’s allies “spin” that this will be an election that McCain can breeze through due to his chairmanship of the Senate Armed Services Committee isn’t entirely accurate.

“Everyone has got their spin but I would venture a guess that even McCain people don’t believe that,” he said.

They know Arizona voters as well as we all do, and to buy that argument is to buy that they’re single issue voters—which is simply not the case. If they’re going to hang on to that whole argument [then they’re in trouble]. Just like the race won’t entirely be about immigration, it won’t entirely be about national security. It’ll be about the candidates’ records and the one thing Sen. McCain and his allies cannot escape is his voting record is far more liberal than the average Arizona Republican wants to see from their senator.

Noble is pretty certain immigration won’t be a big deal in the election, even though illegal aliens are expected to be pouring across the border in droves thanks to President Obama’s executive amnesty.

“The fact is that that’s not going to rise to the level of what national security will do among the base,” Noble said. “The immigration issue is not as hot as it was in 2010. I think where we were in 2010, we had SB 1070, Russell Pearce was at the height of his influence, Jan Brewer signed the bill and rode to a huge reelection because of it. This is not 2010.”

Nonetheless, Noble is insistent that even if immigration—McCain’s weakest issue—gains more traction than he thinks it will that McCain will still win and he’ll do so by blaming everything on Obama.

“I think particularly in Arizona everyone understands that the problem is not McCain, it’s Obama,” Noble said. “I think that if there’s anything that helps McCain it was the election of 2014, and all the failures of immigration and of border security were placed at Obama’s feet and that’s the narrative.”

Back in 2010, McCain—having lost his White House bid to Barack Obama two years before—faced a primary challenge from then former Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-AZ). Hayworth, who had served in the U.S. House from early 1995 through early 2007, worked as a radio host in Phoenix after losing his re-election in 2006 to Democrat Harry Mitchell.

In 2010, McCain beat Hayworth in the GOP primary by 24 points. McCain, who received 284,374 votes, won just 56 percent of the vote—not a high percentage—compared to Hayworth’s 162,502 votes for 32 percent of the vote. The other nearly 12 percent of the vote wen to the more libertarian leaning Jim Deakin, who won 59,447 votes.

The primary was one of the most brutal in history, and in a year where insurgent candidates won shocking victories nationwide—now Sens. Mike Lee (R-UT), Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Rand Paul (R-KY) each beat out GOP establishment picks, and Ken Buck won the nomination in Colorado, as did Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, Joe Miller in Alaska and Sharron Angle in Nevada—McCain survived the primary by crushing Hayworth.

According to the Arizona Republic, McCain spent more than $20 million in the primary that year pounding the airwaves with ads. That was more than five times as much as McCain spent in his entire 2004 re-election campaign, primary and general election included, where he according to the Center for Responsive Politics he only spent $3.8 million total.

The source close to Salmon told Breitbart News he’s not sure McCain can bring in that much cash this time around to defend himself.

“What is lost, and what the McCain people want everyone to believe, is that they have the ability to raise that kind of money,” he said.

That’s not to say they ultimately won’t do it, but if you look at his most recent FEC reports, I don’t see indication of that. The bulk of that money, as I’m sure you know, came as what was leftover funds I believe from his presidential legal fund. They transferred the money to finance the race. They want you to believe that what’s past is prologue, we can do it again. I can’t say definitively whether or not they will but they don’t have $20 million stashed away in a presidential account like they did last time.

Ward said she’s ready for what McCain is likely to throw her way—a very similar aggressive attack.

“Do you really know if you’re ready? I think I’ve developed a pretty thick skin,” she said, adding that McCain’s vulnerability is much higher than it was in 2010.

“With the grassroots, it [McCain’s support] is definitely crumbling or has already crumbled,” Ward said.

There is a huge outcry from the people from someone new. The money people, I think, if there is a quid pro quo going on—then a lot of them are willing to support him if that flow is going to be able to continue. So, that’s something that makes him a formidable opponent because of that money. Arizona money might be one thing but there’s 49 other states where people also don’t like what’s happening with Washington and don’t like what’s happening with our senior senator.

McCain has definitely seem stunning defeats in even the halls of the state GOP and local executive committees in recent years. In early 2014, Republicans in the state party passed a resolution calling his liberal positions in Washington “disastrous and harmful” to Arizona and the U.S. as a whole, something the Arizona Republic wrote was a “strong rebuke” of McCain. A couple weeks beforehand, the Maricopa County GOP voted 1,150-to-351 to pass a resolution censuring McCain. Maricopa County Republicans, conducted during the Jan. 10 statutory meeting this year—a year after the censure of McCain—voted more for Salmon for U.S. Senate than they did for McCain. Salmon got 106 votes in the straw poll, Rep. David Schweikert (R-AZ) got 66, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin got 49, and McCain only got 39 votes. Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) got 38 votes. Ward, who wasn’t on the ballot, got 1 write-in vote.

Noble, McCain’s ally, says that while he’s unsure McCain can raise another $20 million to crush primary opponents, he doesn’t think he’ll need it if Ward is the candidate. Noble was, however, under the impression that Salmon is not considering a run when he spoke with Breitbart News—something that Breitbart News subsequently confirmed with sources close to the congressman. Noble says that Ward is not a “viable candidate” because she won’t be able to raise big time Washington politician-level dollars for her campaign.

“I don’t know whether he has that kind of money, but can he raise that kind of money? Probably,” Noble said.

Back then there was lots of the outside effort. I think you’ll probably see a lot more robust inside-outside effort than there was in 2010. The fact of the matter is I don’t think he’ll need to raise nearly as much as he did before because I don’t think the national groups are going to spend money because Kelli Ward is not a viable candidate.

She won’t be able to raise the money, and you just can’t go from being a rural state senator and go up against a very popular United States Senator who chairs the Armed Services Committee and leading the charge against the administration on national security issues on a daily basis. This is going from little league to the big leagues without any stop at triple A on the way or even single A or high school ball on the way.

The most notable campaign ad from the 2010 primary—one that’s cited frequently by Republicans who don’t trust Arizona’s senior senator—featured McCain walking along the border with Pinal County, AZ, sheriff Paul Babeu.

“Drug and human smuggling, home invasions, murder,” McCain says as they walk along an unsecured stretch of the U.S. border with Mexico.

“We’re outmanned,” Babeu interjects. “Of all the illegals in America, more than half come through Arizona.”

“Have we got the right plan?” McCain asked him.

“The plan’s perfect: You bring troops, state, county and local law enforcement together,” Babeu said.

“And complete the danged fence,” McCain said, as his campaign launched a website CompleteTheDangedFence.com.

“It’ll work this time,” Babeu responds. “Senator, you’re one of us.”

The fence that McCain discussed then has never been built. Instead of fighting for it after getting re-elected, McCain went on to push the Senate’s “Gang of Eight” amnesty bill that would have put every illegal alien in America on a pathway to citizenship with special benefits and the ability to work taking jobs away from struggling Americans.

Ward thinks that McCain’s hollow promise for a border fence is one of many reasons he’s incapable of representing Arizona in the U.S. Senate anymore.

“Actions speak louder than words,” Ward told Breitbart News when asked about how McCain never made sure the “danged fence” was actually built.

The words he said led you to think that was what was going to happen, but the actions definitely went against that. I think people want someone who’s going to secure the border and who’s going to fight for Americans and American citizens, who’s going to fight for the rule of law and who’s not going to have a comprehensive immigration reform but who’s going to have common sense, principled immigration policies so that we’re going to get people in that want to be here, and need to be here, and keep the people out who want to seek entitlements and the nanny state benefits.

McKee, the head of Kelli PAC, echoed those comments in his interview with Breitbart News.

“You look at all these things he’s done and the first question I’d ask him is: Where is our fence?” McKee said.

He claims to be a conservative about six months out of every six years. He starts talking about tough borders and tough security. We haven’t seen anything in Arizona, but Arizona is worse than it’s ever been.

He constantly talks about how he is a huge veteran supporter but then you look at all the things that he’s voted for and all the things he’s promised to vote for are going to gut veterans’ benefits and veterans are going to have pay more for their insurance at the VA.

He is not a supporter of veterans either. He has not done well for America and he has not done well for Arizona. He does not hold the values that Arizona holds. He’s not a limited government, low tax guy.

When asked what McCain could be doing better than he is on issues in Washington, Ward replied: “Anything.”

“He needs to do anything,” Ward said.

Anything. Instead of just basically being a mouthpiece for all of the policies that the president is putting out that I think are egregious, that are not something to strengthen our country, to make excuses for the president. He’s supposed to be the leader, an elder statesman who’s supposed to fight for the people of the country and the people of Arizona in particular and that is not happening.

We need somebody in there who has a backbone and is not afraid of the president and is not afraid of special interest groups and is not afraid of the press and the things they might say about them if they are fighting for the country and fighting for the state. We need someone else. We need a change.

It seems for now that McCain and his allies are at least a little bit worried about these matters. McKee said Rogers’ comments on McCain’s behalf warning potential challengers about what happened to Hayworth was a threat and “it doesn’t surprise us that they’re using that tactic.”

Sources in Arizona have also confirmed that anti-Ward pollsters are out in the field at this time gathering polling data on Ward for a forthcoming hit poll. It’s unclear who commissioned the poll, but calls were going out to voters across the state from a firm called Venture Data based in Utah asking extraordinarily nasty questions about Ward and questioned designed to make it appear as though amnesty for illegal aliens has support in Arizona.

The polling firm went into the field to conduct the likely-to-be-negative hit poll on Ward in the days after Breitbart News had been in contact with McCain’s team and his allies about this story—which took two weeks to put together.


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