State Sen. Kelli Ward sets sights on John McCain in GOP Primary

State Sen. Kelli Ward. (Capitol Media Services file photo by Howard Fischer)

State Sen. Kelli Ward. (Capitol Media Services file photo by Howard Fischer)

PHOENIX -- Hoping to attack John McCain from the right, state Sen. Kelli Ward said Monday she will attempt to oust the five-term incumbent in next year's Republican primary fight for the U.S. Senate.

"When I look at what's happening in our federal government, I know Arizonans need new representation in the U.S. Senate, and that's why I'm running,' Ward said in a statement on her campaign web site.

A formal announcement is set for Tuesday in Lake Havasu City where she lives.

But Ward may not have to resign her legislative seat despite a 1980 voter-approved law which prohibits elected officials from seeking another office before the last year of their current term. That's because lawmakers altered the law in 2013 to allow actual declarations of candidacy any time as long as the person holds off filing actual nominating papers.

Ward did not respond to repeated messages seeking comment.

Ward is serving her second two-year term in the state Senate. But in that time she had staked out strong positions on immigration, the right to bear arms and states' rights -- positions that sometimes put her in the minority of the Republicans who control the Legislature.

For example, when Homeland Security last year was bringing children into Arizona who crossed the border into Texas she proposed that Arizona use the National Guard and local sheriffs to stop buses entering the state. That measure went nowhere.

Ward had no better luck with a 2013 proposal to require state and local government to refuse to help the National Security Agency unless it first produced a search warrant signed by a judge.

The measure was designed to prevent Arizona police agencies and courts from using any information gathered by the NSA without a warrant. And it also would have barred the use of any state resources or personnel to help the agency unless it is pursuant to a court order, even denying utility services to the agency.

And her effort to remove a state ban on silencers and sawed-off shotguns also failed.

But Ward also has found herself enmeshed in even more controversial issues outside of the Legislature, like when she asked the state Department of Environmental Quality to have a public meeting in her northwest Arizona district to discuss the possible hazards of contrails that jet aircraft leave in the sky.

She later insisted she never believed various rumors that the government was spraying the populace with chemicals. But she said she asked for the forum because "many in my district do.'

That hearing did not escape the attention of the McCain campaign which already is using it in an effort to portray her as too extreme.

"She used taxpayer funds to explore the widely debunked conspiracy theory that U.S. aircraft are spraying 'chemtrails' onto American citizens for sinister purposes,' said campaign aide Brian Rogers.

He also cited Ward's defense of former L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling who was forced to sell his interest in the team after comments to his girlfriend that he didn't like it when she brought African Americans as guests to games. Ward, however, said she was defending his free-speech rights and not what he said.

"Sen. Ward's record of bizarre statements and questionable judgment will be a key concern,' Rogers said.

The 46-year-old emergency room physician, by contrast, said timing is on her side to oust the 78-year-old incumbent.

"Arizonans are looking for a change after thirty years, and they are looking for someone who will represent them and their interests,' she said in her web statement. "They are looking for someone to be their voice, and I believe I can be that person.'

And, like McCain, she also is clearly hoping to paint a picture of McCain, who was the GOP presidential candidate in 2008 against Barack Obama, as out of step with the Arizona electorate.

For example, her web site has an undated photo of McCain sitting next to Hillary Clinton, a Democratic contender for president in 2016. That is liked to an ABC news story where Clinton, asked about her favorite Republican, named McCain.

"He and I have traveled a lot,' she told Good Morning America. "And, you know, we argue a lot, and he goes off on something that I disagree with, but I admire him and I've spent a lot of time with him.'

Pollster Earl de Berge of the Behavior Research Center said Ward has an uphill fight -- and not just because McCain will file reports showing that he has $4.5 million in his campaign account at the end of June; Ward, who has been raising money since April, has filed no reports yet.

"I think it's just very hard for a sitting Republican senator to be defeated in a primary by an extremist,' he said. "It's not really in the cards.'

But de Berge said McCain does have some vulnerability that a challenger can exploit -- if not in a Republican primary then in a general election challenge.

The most recent survey of what Arizonans think of the job McCain is doing had 30 percent rating him as excellent or good, 29 percent at fair and 26 percent poor or very poor. Among Republicans, though, his favorables were twice that of those who are unhappy with his performance.

Not surprisingly, polling among Democrats was nearly the reverse. But what could be significant is that same pattern exists among independents, who are the largest voting bloc in the state.

In 2010 McCain picked up 56 percent of the GOP primary vote despite strong opposition from former Congressman J.D. Hayworth. He then went on to handily defeat Democrat Rodney Glassman.

Ward also has made a name for herself at the Capitol as a foe of the Common Core academic standards, even using her position as chair of the Senate Education Committee, to block the nomination by Gov. Doug Ducey of a Common Core supporter. But Tim Carter, the Yavapai County school superintendent, is still serving as Arizona law gives him a year before he needs Senate confirmation.

She also has attempted, unsuccessfully, to outlaw photo radar. And she was the sole vote in 2014 against more funding for the newly created Department of Child Safety, saying any new cash should require greater justification.

Ward also has been a foe of not just the Affordable Care Act but any sort of government-subsidized care, at one point calling the state's Medicaid program "substandard.'

On Twitter: @azcapmedia

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