President Trump rallied thousands of supporters Tuesday that packed a convention center in Phoenix, flexing political muscle in a state where he has taken the unprecedented step of targeting a fellow Republican, Sen. Jeff Flake, for defeat in the midterm election next year.
The feud between Mr. Trump and Mr. Flake, one of the president’s most outspoken GOP critics, has helped make the U.S. Senate race in Arizona ground zero in the battle for control of the party. The GOP establishment and pro-Trump conservative forces are already facing off in the state’s Republican primary.
The president’s relationship with fellow Republicans on Capitol Hill, especially in the Senate, has strained to the breaking point as lawmakers repeatedly fumble Mr. Trump’s legislative agenda. The other senator from Arizona, frequent Trump critic John McCain, cast the decisive no vote that sunk the repeal of Obamacare last month and delivered the biggest legislative defeat yet for the president.
Last week Mr. Trump gave a hat tip to former Arizona state Sen. Kelli Ward for taking on Mr. Flake in the primary.
“Great to see that Dr. Kelli Ward is running against Flake Jeff Flake, who is WEAK on borders, crime and a nonfactor in Senate. He’s toxic!” he tweeted.
Earlier this summer Mr. Trump floated the possibility of spending $10 million to help unseat Mr. Flake, who has been one of the president’s top opponents within the Republican Party. The senator opposed Mr. Trump’s candidacy and has emerged as a leading GOP critic on Capitol Hill.
Mr. Flake recently penned a book, “Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle,” that warned Mr. Trump’s brand of populism threatened to destroy the conservative movement and the Republican Party.
The establishment struck back Tuesday at Ms. Ward, hitting her with an online attack ad to coincide with Mr. Trump’s visit to the state.
The Senate Leadership Fund, a campaign closely associated with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, launched a $10,000 ad run that blasted Ms. Ward for “crazy ideas” and “embarrassing behavior.”
Mr. Trump’s allies applauded his planting a flag in Arizona.
“I do agree with Trump going to Arizona because, in a lot of ways, this is ground zero for the infighting within the Republican Party,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. “The only question is whether the pro-Trump forces can coalesce around a suitable candidate who can essentially end Flake’s career.”
He added, “We are walking a very fine line here.”
Mr. Trump could take his campaign to remake the Republican Party to other states, perhaps wading into Maine’s governor’s race if Sen. Susan M. Collins, another no vote on Obamacare repeal, gets in the contest.
Meanwhile, a crowd of Arizona Republicans are considering a run and calculating Ms. Ward’s strength with conservative voters who dislike Mr. Flake.
Nicholas Tutora, a pharmacist and personal development coach who allies himself with Mr. Trump, filed his candidacy for the Republican Senate primary Monday.
Also eyeing the race are Rep. Martha McSally, who faces a tough re-election contest next year in her Tucson-area district, and Arizona State Treasurer Jeff DeWit.
The ad attacking Ms. Ward labeled her “Chemtrail Kelli.” It mocked her for holding a town hall event on chemtrails, a conspiracy theory that some airplane contrails are chemicals or biological agents that the government sprays on citizens.
The conspiracy theory has been widely debunked, but it remained a concern in Ms. Ward’s rural state Senate district that includes Lake Havasu City. She held a community meeting about it in 2014.
“Chemtrail Kelli wasted your tax dollars for a town hall on chemtrail conspiracy theories,” the narrator says in the ad. “Chemtrail Kelli has got her head in the clouds, with crazy ideas.”
The ad also slams Ms. Ward for claiming Mr. McCain helped spur the rise of Islamic State.
“She bizarrely blamed John McCain for ISIS,” the narrator says, “yet dangerously calls for restraint in fighting them.”
Ms. Ward made the remark last year when she ran unsuccessfully against Mr. McCain. As with Mr. Flake, she ran to the right against Mr. McCain and accused him of not being conservative enough for Arizona.
The ad attempted to poke holes in that argument.
It ends with script across the screen reading: “Chemtrail Kelli Ward. Not Conservative. Just Crazy Ideas.”
Ms. Ward said the ad showed that “Mitch McConnell and the D.C. elitists must be getting nervous.”
“In politics, they say that you only take fire when you’re over the target. My campaign has Sanctuary Senator Flake on the ropes and we’re seeing people from across Arizona and across the country rally behind our America First message,” she said in an email to supporters. “They wouldn’t be attacking me if they weren’t worried — and they should be because I’m going to defeat Jeff Flake and whoever the Democrats run against me, and then do my part to make America great again.”
Chris Pack, a spokesman for Senate Leadership Fund, said they were trying to keep the seat Republican.
“We are not willing to throw away this Senate seat by allowing a fringe candidate like Kelli Ward to become the Republican nominee,” he said.
• S.A. Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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