When former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio threw his (literal) cowboy hat in the ring to compete for Arizona’s Republican Senate nomination, conservative observers warned that he and fellow immigration hawk Dr. Kelli Ward would cannibalize each others’ support, paving the way for the race’s ostensible moderate, Rep. Martha McSally, to claim the nomination.
But as President Donald Trump’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy shoves the immigration issue to the forefront of midterm campaigns across the country, the congresswoman’s previous skepticism of Trump’s hardline border policy has shifted into a full-on embrace.
McSally, whose increasingly blue Tucson-area congressional district sided with Hillary Clinton by a five-point margin, had until recently been skeptical the president’s approach to his signature issue, and as a DACA-supporting proponent of a pathway to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants, was marked as a moderate in the Republican Party.
The former combat fighter pilot and two-term representative managed to outperform Trump in her district by 19 points in part due to her comparatively friendly stance on a potential pathway to citizenship for so-called “dreamers,” tens of thousands of whom call Arizona home. During a raucous town hall held shortly after Trump’s inauguration, McSally told attendees that she did not support the sea-to-sea wall along the U.S.-Mexico border that the president had campaigned on.
“Not a continuous, 2,000-mile border wall, no,” McSally said at the time. Arizona’s second congressional district, which McSally has represented since 2015, stretches across roughly 80 miles of that border.
McSally’s opposition to Trump’s immigration agenda wasn’t just limited to calming angry constituents. As chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security subcommittee on border and maritime security—which oversees U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services—McSally co-wrote a letter pushing the White House to release more specific details to justify Trump’s billion-dollar request to fund the first installment of his proposed border wall between the United States and Mexico.
In the letter, McSally stated that physical barriers were just “one of many tools required to gain operational control of the border,” and asked how the Department of Homeland Security might determine which areas along the border even needed physical barriers, including whether the department would consider existing manmade and natural barriers when constructing new barriers, or whether the department would “consider existing manmade and natural barriers?”
Opponents Ward and Arpaio—MAGA true believers both—saw an opening in the between McSally’s moderate immigration record and the president’s 30-foot barrier wall. Ward, a former state senator and self-described “build-the-wall, stop-illegal-immigration Americanist” who challenged Sen. John McCain in the 2016 Republican primary, nicknamed her opponent “McAmnesty” for her past support for a legal pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
“Hey Martha McSally, we could discuss your record a lot easier if you agreed to publicly debate the issues. But since you refuse to, will you at least agree to be honest with the voters?” Ward wrote in a Facebook post in March, adding the hashtags #FlipFlopBorderHawk, #TimeToDebate and #NoMoreFlakes.
Ward, who entered the Republican primary before outgoing Sen. Jeff Flake even announced his retirement, was backed up by Arpaio’s longshot bid for political relevancy in the Grand Canyon State. Fresh off a presidential pardon following his conviction for criminal contempt of court, Arpaio announced his candidacy for Flake’s seat, telling The Daily Beast that he wanted to serve as Trump’s best friend in the U.S. Senate.
“I believe that the president should get support, and I’m going to help him do that,” Arpaio said at the time. “One way I can fight back is to get to Washington so I can help and alleviate some of the controversy and the problems we have, for the good of the country and the good of Arizona.”
Arpaio’s decision to enter the race was, at the time, seen as a win for the McSally campaign. The Venn diagram of Arpaio and Ward’s share of the voting public is practically a circle: Both Arpaio and Ward hold uncompromising stances on immigration prolific fundraisers, have the support of wealthy out-of-state donors, and almost immediately began taking swipes at each other in the hopes of winning President Trump’s support.
Trump lauded Ward’s entry into the race in a tweet last August, although like so many of his semi-endorsements, focused more on bashing her opponent than extolling any of Ward’s virtues:
In late May, Ward told supporters that during a personal meeting, Trump had told her that he wanted Arpaio to stay out of the race.
“He looks over, and he recognizes—you can see—he was like, ‘Okay, Kelli, come, come, come here,” Ward said, of a late-2017 meeting at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s seaside mansion in Palm Beach, Florida. “He basically knew everything that was going on in Arizona and in the race… You know, he had his opinions. He was like, ‘You’re up 15 points on Martha, and, you know, Joe shouldn’t get in.’ He had a few other things to say about that. I’ll keep that to myself.”
(A White House spokesperson told The Daily Beast that they “can not comment on a private conversation which may or may not have happened.”)
Ward and Arpaio’s broadsides—as well as Trump’s decision to position immigration as the central issue ahead of the midterm elections—appear to have nudged McSally into more fully embracing the president’s immigration agenda.
In May, McSally asked to be removed as a co-sponsor of legislation that would create a pathway to citizenship for immigrants eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which allows some people who were brought into the country illegally as children to receive a two-year deferral from deportation proceedings and to receive a work permit. McSally had become a co-sponsor of that bill—which Ward dubbed “the most sweeping amnesty bill in U.S. history”—more than a year earlier.
McSally’s office even removed from public view a YouTube video in which she defended DACA. In that video, McSally was shown grilling then-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly about the importance of protecting DACA recipients.
“These children were brought here at no fault of their own,” McSally told Kelly. “In Arizona, there are 57,000 of them. Uncertainty brings fear to my constituents in this position. Can you assure me that they will be protected?”
The press release detailing the exchange is still available on McSally’s congressional website, and the moment is readily available on C-SPAN, which might indicate that the video’s disappearance wasn’t part of a plot to erase McSally’s record on DACA. If the video’s removal were part of a coverup, that is, it would be a shoddily executed one.
Shortly after removing her co-sponsorship, McSally tweeted that she has “always supported a wall,” even joking that a similar wall might have to be construction on the Arizona-California border to “protect Arizonans” from California’s sanctuary cities.
McSally’s campaign pushed back against her opponents’ insinuations that she is only a recent convert to President Trump’s immigration platform, calling her a “consistent leader” in Congress on the issue.
“She co-authored Securing America's Future Act and began working on the legislation with her colleagues last September—long before a Senate run was even a consideration,” Torunn Sinclair, the McSally campaign’s communications director, told The Daily Beast. “The bill addressed policy issues important to Arizonans including, fully funding a border wall, closing immigration loopholes, providing a fix for family separation and DACA.”
McSally’s primary opponents, meanwhile, have leveled withering criticism of her pivot towards the president, dismissing the newfound orthodoxy as insincere.
“What will Martha McSally delete next?” Ward asked recently on Facebook, comparing McSally’s attempts to cover up her past support for DACA with Clinton’s use of a private email server. “Martha McSally can't delete her liberal record. Didn't work for Hillary & email server, won't work for McSally & DACA.”
“Having voted 10 times to grant amnesty to illegal immigrants, 28 times to increase government spending, and established a track record of criticizing President Trump’s character and style, Martha McSally is now working overtime to reinvent herself as a conservative,” Zachery Henry, press secretary for the Ward campaign, told The Daily Beast. “The good news is that after years of failed policies from establishment Republicans like Jeff Flake and John McCain, the voters in Arizona know a chameleon when they see one.”
Arpaio, speaking with The Daily Beast shortly after receiving the endorsement of the so-called “Angel Moms”—parents who have lost children to violence committed by undocumented immigrants—called McSally “a nice lady” but worried that her loyalties may belong to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell rather than Trump.
“I’m happy to see she’s onboard with the president and his policies, after a spell,” Arpaio said. “The only thing I’m concerned about is that, I would hope if she ever won, she would actually support the president and not flip-flop again.”
The former sheriff also noted that after President Trump pardoned him, every Republican in Arizona’s congressional delegation supported the president’s decision—except McSally.
“Never called me,” Arpaio said airily. “They all went public supporting the president’s decision—I don’t know where she was at at the time.”
Despite her rivals’ skepticism, McSally’s pivot appears to be working in her favor. According to an OH Predictive Insights poll released on June 20, she holds a double-digit lead over Ward, leading the field with the support of 39 percent of likely Arizona Republican voters. Ward follows with 24.5 percent, while Arpaio trails with 13.8 percent—almost exactly the differential between Ward and McSally.