Why you should care
Because Arizona is a battleground for controlling the Senate.
As the nation wrung its hands about immigrant children being separated from their parents at the border, Kelli Ward was thinking about four flimsy strands of barbed wire. During her campaign for U.S. Senate, the Arizona Republican visited Jim Chilton, a 79-year-old cattle rancher who, gun strapped to his waist, wriggled his way beneath the invisible boundary that has set fire to much of our national dialogue in recent weeks. “Look, I’m in Mexico,” Chilton told Ward, then wriggled his way back, waved his hands and announced, “And I’m back. If I can do it, anybody can.”
To conservatives, the problem isn’t simply a matter of marking their territory. If the rule of law is as flimsy as those four wires, then what order can survive? A decade ago, the rancher claimed the border crossers were hardworking migrants seeking a better life. But now, Ward warns, they are “druggers,” as Chilton put it, “trafficking in drugs, and in guns, and in people.” And as far as the children? The doctor and mother of three sees them as get-into-America-free cards, exploited by nefarious foreigners. “If carrying a blue bag across the border would give you preferential treatment,” you would see every newcomer carrying one, Ward said at a recent candidate forum in the Phoenix suburb of Apache Junction. “Unfortunately our lax immigrant laws have made children into that blue bag.”
Nevermind that America’s increase in undocumented immigrants in recent decades has coincided with overall drops in violent crime. At a forum of framed flags and cowboy hats at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 7968, the affection for Ward is palpable. Once a relatively anonymous state senator, and now a serious contender in the Senate race that could decide control of the chamber, Ward faces Rep. Martha McSally and former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio in an August primary. Currently second in most Republican primary polls, her appeal to voters is decidedly populist: “I consider this part of a job interview,” the 49-year-old says. “I want you to hire me to be you: your voice, your backbone.”
It’s “a very narrow part of the Republican Party she speaks to,” says Chuck Coughlin, president of Arizona-based HighGround Consulting who worked for former Republican Gov. Jan Brewer. “We’ve tested these messages. Republicans get that … you need legal migration and legal trade and commerce,” he says. Still, a solid contingent of primary voters, Coughlin says, is likely to find common ground with a hard right motivated in part by concerns over demographic change. “Kelli is a straightforward, down-to-earth hard worker,” says Jerry Walker, a Baptist preacher. “I believe I can take her word to the bank.”
Ward’s road to becoming a conservative voice on immigration in the desert has been unconventional. Like most raised in West Virginia in the 1970s, Ward grew up a Democrat. Her labor-leading grandmother testified before Congress for the Mine Health and Safety Act, representing the widows of 78 miners killed during the 1968 Farmington Mine disaster (the body count included Ward’s grandfather as well as the uncle of now West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat). The “backbone” for her conservatism came from listening to Rush Limbaugh while working at a Florida research lab after college. After attending Duke University, the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine and A.T. Still University, Ward opened a private practice near Phoenix in 1999. Her chosen field, osteopathy, is philosophy as much as science — a skepticism of physician interference and a belief the body has everything it needs to heal itself with minimal adjustment.
That sentiment reflects her politics too. Distrust of federal overreach motivated her winning race for state Senate in 2012. “Medicaid expansion and state-based exchanges were two of the legs Obamacare stands on,” she says, “and I wanted to see them kicked out.” She challenged John McCain in 2016, getting two-fifths of the primary vote and boosting her name recognition while rankling mainstream Republicans. The Mitch McConnell–backed Senate Leadership Fund ran an attack ad claiming Ward believed in conspiracy theories, after she held a town hall where constituents complained about “chemtrails.” She has repeatedly denied believing in the debunked theory that condensation trails left by airplanes are actually harmful chemicals sprayed by the government on the unsuspecting public.
@JimSmall I've never believed it - many in my district do— Dr. Kelli Ward (@kelliwardaz) April 15, 2015
She was also forced to distance herself from alt-right allies like Paul Nehlen (the anti-Semitic challenger to Speaker Paul Ryan) and Steve Bannon (who was dismissed from the White House). Opponents paint her as not being serious about policy issues. But Ward’s bigger problem might be that she isn’t the only Senate candidate tacking hard right on immigration. “With Arpaio in the race, it’s hard for her to get much oxygen on that issue,” Coughlin says of the former Maricopa County sheriff who rounded up immigrants and placed them in hellish conditions, and was pardoned by Trump last year. Even though Arpaio, 86, is not running much of a campaign, he is incredibly well known across the state. Meanwhile, Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema leads all Republicans, according to a recent NBC poll, in the race to replace retiring Republican Sen. Jeff Flake — who is leaving because his anti-Trump rhetoric likely wouldn’t have allowed him to survive a primary against Ward.
She says opponents overstate her relationships with unsavory politicos, insisting Bannon was never an adviser despite her campaign touting his endorsement. Ward calls herself “one of the most effective leaders” in the Statehouse in her last year in office in 2015 — when she passed 19 bills, helping deregulate microbreweries, legalize ride-hailing apps like Uber and curb opioid prescription abuse. “A lot of freshman legislators, there is a steep learning curve and it’s like drinking out of a fire hose. But she was a quick learner, effective at passing legislation, and I think you’ll see that at the federal level,” says state senator Warren Petersen, who as a representative served with Ward in Phoenix.
Back at VFW Post 7968, Ward is surrounded by friendly faces. Nearly a third of the hundred-person room is wearing Ward buttons and T-shirts, bright yellow like the transparency she wants to bring to Washington. “It’s getting hot out there,” Ward says. “What I want to do is maximize that heat and bring that heat to … drain. The. Swamp.” If Ward and immigration hard-liners like her succeed in their own political migration, it will be worth remembering the image she painted for voters: of four barbed wires hours from here, unattended in the Arizona desert night.