Donald Trump Is Backing Away From Jeff Flake Challenger Kelli Ward
The president has hinted in conversations that he’s open to other candidates who may jump in the race.
A week ago, President Donald Trump appeared to make a tacit endorsement in Arizona’s upcoming Senate race when he tweeted his excitement to see former state Sen. Kelli Ward mount a challenge against sitting Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ).
A pro-Trump super PAC quickly followed his lead by putting $20,000 behind Ward’s challenge soon thereafter.
But by Tuesday night, when the president traveled to Phoenix for a campaign rally, he was already signaling second thoughts over being too closely tied to Ward’s campaign.
The president huddled with Arizona Treasurer Jeff DeWit, former state GOP Chairman Robert Graham, and Rep. Trent Franks before the rally took place. Part of the conversation was geared toward feeling out whether Graham or DeWit, both early supporters of Trump during his campaign, would mount a challenge in the Republican Senate primary. Ward, notably, was not granted an audience with the president nor was she made a VIP at the event even as DeWit emceed the night’s proceedings. And now, Graham is insisting that the president’s keeping his options open.
“There was no inclination that he was leaning towards Dr. Ward in any stretch of the imagination,” Graham told The Daily Beast in a phone interview. He said he and DeWit “talk a lot with people in the White House and the Trump campaign” and that they’re “leaning on Jeff and I to make a decision.”
DeWit’s office told The Daily Beast that he was not commenting on the race at this time.
The indecision from Trump over how to best approach the suddenly contentious GOP primary in Arizona is a reflection of a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants style he’s brought to politics in general. The president’s tweet about Ward—“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!”—gave Ward’s campaign a major boost among pro-Trump media figures and allies like Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity.
It also led conservatives in Arizona to frantically try and pull the president in another direction before it became too late to, or too uncomfortable, to back away from Ward.
Graham said that if DeWit ultimately got into the race, he would support him and vice versa. He also said that Trump seemed primarily concerned about the prospect of losing the seat in next year’s race.
“Look we have two senators in the state of Arizona who have kind of rocked the boat on the president’s agenda. One is in vocal constant opposition,” Graham said describing Flake. “Our primary is in late August. Whoever decides to get into the race, they have time because the numbers of Jeff Flake are so low.”
The White House did not immediately respond to a question from The Daily Beast about the nature of the Ward tweet.
Graham theorizes that should Flake be the GOP nominee, the state’s Trump-loving Republican base may not show up to vote. One recent survey from the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling showed Flake with just a 22 percent job approval among voters who backed Trump in 2016. And while Ward may stand a better chance of animating those particular voters, as she has closely aligned herself with the administration, the concern expressed at the Phoenix rally meeting was that she was not strong enough to win the general election.
According to Graham, Trump was “very clear” that he was not endorsing Ward at this time.
A spokesman for Ward did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Daily Beast about Graham’s assertions.
What’s clear, at this juncture, is that Trump is keen on unseating Flake in the primary. He lashed out at the Senator during Tuesday’s rally and Flake responded on Thursday by saying that the president’s behavior was inviting a 2020 primary challenger. Less clear is the president’s preferred solution. Ward’s early entrance into the race drew financial support from some major pro-Trump donors. Robert Mercer, a hedge fund billionaire who has been closely aligned with former White House strategist Steve Bannon, donated $300,000 to a super PAC supportive of Ward. And on Friday morning, Ward put out a new ad that highlights Trump’s Arizona remarks about Flake.
But it’s unclear if the White House itself views her as the best candidate, perhaps because other challengers are not earnestly making their cases. Graham said Ward’s inability to defeat McCain in last year’s primary showed signs of weakness for her general election prospects next year. “There’s no specific message outside of her saying she supports president Trump’s agenda,” he said. “Everybody feels this.” And it didn’t help that Ward recently made headlines for saying McCain should step aside after his brain cancer diagnosis.
Ward already is the primary target of Flake’s supporters. The Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC with ties to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), released an ad this week saying Ward has “crazy ideas” and calling her “Chemtrail Kelli Ward,” in reference to a 2014 town hall Ward held to discuss chemtrails.
“We’re not willing to throw this Senate seat away to Democrats by nominating a fringe candidate like Kelli Ward,” Steven Law, Senate Leadership Fund’s president and a former McConnell chief of staff told Politico this week.
But there may be a simpler additional reason as to why Trump remains hesitant on Ward, according to Graham. And that’s loyalty. Graham and DeWit have been on Trump’s side throughout his turbulent campaign and presidency with the former releasing a statement of support in the immediate aftermath of the release of the infamous Access Hollywood tape.
“The president is incredibly loyal,” Graham told The Daily Beast. “If you work hard for him and he trusts you, he becomes a fan.”