Arizona Republican politics is rough stuff, so we always knew that the race to replace retiring Sen. Jeff Flake was bound to get pretty ugly, and hoo-boy were we right.
Parties can have bad primaries in a couple of different general ways. Sometimes, base voters just make a mistake and choose a candidate who can’t compete in a general election. Sometimes these choices to damage in other races, sometimes even beyond state lines. Virginia Republicans’ choice of Corey Stewart to oppose Sen. Tim Kaine, for example, is a straightforward example of this tendency.
More common, though, is the kind of bad primary in which the election itself damages the party’s chances. Either candidates are pushed to take extreme positions or the general foulness of the fight does damage to the survivor that lingers on in the fall.
Democrats are living through this right now in their Nevada gubernatorial race where a particularly bitter and personal primary fight puts nominee Steve Sisolak at an unnecessary disadvantage in his matchup with state Attorney General Adam Laxalt.
But in their Senate race, Arizona Republicans may end up with the worst of both worlds: A fringy nominee who is further damaged by an ugly and acrimonious nominating process.
Democrats are seemingly quite content with their presumptive nominee, Kyrsten Sinema. She’s taking full advantage of being essentially unopposed in the Grand Canyon State’s Aug. 28 primary, dishing out sharp elbows to the Democratic leadership and staking out her brand as an independent-minded centrist.
Meanwhile, Republicans are melting down. The frontrunner, Rep. Martha McSally still looks like the GOP’s best bet for holding on to the seat. Her track record as a moderate and her military service made McSally a good pick for the GOP in her district, which covers the eastern suburbs of Tucson all the way to the New Mexico border. Republican horse pickers in Washington believe that those same characteristics would serve her well in a Senate run, but as the race has progressed, McSally has struggled to find a tone that works.
Her chief rival for the nomination is a former state senator who got lots of attention for her ill-fated primary challenge to Sen. John McCain in 2016. Kelli Ward was already running against Flake before the senator announced his retirement and just shifted her line of attack against the Washington elite from Flake to McSally. Ward, an absolute hardliner on immigration and a favorite of the Bannonite populist right, is Team MAGA all the way.
Further complicating the race is that former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio is also running, kind of… At 86 and in possession of a preemptive pardon from President Trump for Arpaio’s refusal to comply with court orders relating to his tenure as sheriff, hasn’t been much of a retail politician. But his famous name and attachment to causes dear to populist Republicans’ hearts – particularly his insistence that the 44th president is a secret Kenyan – give Arpaio electoral clout.
There’s not a ton of polling on the primary, but what there is shows Arpaio consistently trailing both McSally and Ward with McSally in the lead. This has created a problem for Ward who has been stuck fighting her fellow MAGAite for right-wing votes instead of focusing on roughing up McSally.
But it has been McSally who has been struggling the most to reinvent herself as a born-again Trump Republican, particularly on the issue of immigration, which is sure to be the dominant issue in the fall. McSally still has the lead, but with six weeks until the election, there’s going to be a lot of rough road ahead.