Republican Kelli Ward stole one of John McCain's favorite lines when she was telling a crowd last week why it's time for Arizona's senior senator to go.
"You've heard of the Straight Talk Express, right?" Ward asked. "I'm going to borrow that phrase and give you a little straight talk about Sen. McCain's record."
The former state lawmaker—she resigned her Senate seat in December to focus on unseating McCain—launched into an accounting of McCain's sins: He has supported "amnesty" in the form of the DREAM Act and comprehensive immigration reform. He refused to shut down the government over funding for Planned Parenthood. (McCain first said he would support a government shutdown, then said he wouldn't, and then ultimately voted against the bipartisan budget package that was signed into law by Obama last year.) He mocked conservative senators like Kentucky's Rand Paul, and Utah's Mike Lee as "wackobirds." He hasn't done enough to repeal Obamacare. Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders say they like working with McCain.
"I will make you a promise right here today," Ward said. "If you sent me to Washington, D.C., I promise you that Hillary will never name me her favorite Republican!"
Ward hit on many of the concerns of Republican conservatives: Obamacare must be fully repealed. The border must be secured. Gun rights must be protected. The budget must be balanced. The EPA and the Department of Education need to go. Veterans must get better health care and more respect. If elected, she promised, she'd be Arizona's "best friend forever."
"You need a voice working for you in D.C. and I can be that be person," Ward said. "I don't think anybody here thinks Washington, D.C., is working. I am running to change Washington, D.C., and we can't change Washington if we don't change the people we send there. And, unfortunately, his 30 years in Washington have changed John McCain. He's not a conservative that he claims to be during campaign season. And respectfully, I think it's time for us to retire Sen. McCain."
That line triggered big applause from the crowd of conservatives who had gathered at Oro Valley's Dickey's Barbecue Pit last Wednesday, Feb. 3, for a lunch with Ward, 47, an energetic physician who came to Lake Havasu from Michigan with her husband in 1999 to take a job practicing medicine, she got elected to the Arizona Senate in 2012.
She was a hit with the roughly three-dozen people in the room.
"Everything she said is exactly what people are worried about," said Nancy Newman, a conservative who liked what she saw. "She wasn't off on one point today. Everything she said is what should be and what we want. She's a breath of fresh air."
Newman said she was tired of McCain, but feared he'd be able to razzle-dazzle Republicans who don't pay enough attention.
"I'm so sick of him and I'm scared that he's going to bring his nine cronies in and all the uninformed will go robotic and vote for him again," she said.
Donna Alu, a longtime leader in GOP politics on the northwest side, said that she liked Ward's energetic style.
"She's got a lot of great ideas," Alu said. "McCain doesn't listen anymore. I respect his service, but I think it's time for somebody new."
It's the same old story for the 79-year-old McCain as he aims for a sixth term in the Senate: He has long struggled to win over a slice of his party's conservatives. They've got different reasons they mistrust him—comprehensive immigration reform, campaign-finance reforms, support for tighter background checks on gun sales, blocking the Bush administration from putting more conservatives on the bench—but their antipathy runs deep. The Maricopa County Republican Party recently passed a resolution supporting "Anyone But McCain." (A gang of conservatives tried to bring a similar measure to the state party convention last month, but were declared out of order by party leaders.)
McCain's weakness among conservatives was reflected in a May 2015 Public Policy Polling survey of Arizona Republicans. Half of them disapproved of the job McCain was doing, compared to the 41 percent who approved. And only 37 percent said they'd support him for reelection.
McCain actually did OK with Republicans who identified as moderate or somewhat conservative, winning the approval of about half of them. But among those who ID'ed as very conservative, just 21 percent approved of the job McCain was doing while 71 percent disapproved—and 83 percent said they'd vote for someone else.
In that same survey, Ward trailed McCain by 13 percent, although she wasn't well known: only 27 percent of those surveyed knew who she was.
Admittedly, the polling information isn't fresh, but McCain's problems with the base have been persistent for a long time—and sources tell the Weekly that McCain's polling numbers are dismal. (However, they're not so dismal that Congressman David Schweikert was willing to challenge him; Schweikert recently passed on the race, despite encouragement from national groups like the Club for Growth.)
Whether Ward can capitalize on McCain's weakness is one of the questions of the election season—and if she can't, whether she can weaken him enough to make him vulnerable to the Democrat waiting to face the winner of the GOP primary, Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick.
A successful campaign will take a lot of money. At the start of 2016, McCain had more than $5 million in the bank, while Ward's totals have yet to be posted at the FEC website. McCain's warchest could allow him to define her before she can define herself. And it's still unknown whether some of McCain's major enemies—the Senate Conservative Fund, the Club for Growth and the like—will invest in Ward's efforts.
Without a big wallet, Ward is focused on grassroots organizing. She's even got her own version of McCain's fabled Straight Talk Express, the bus he campaigned on during his presidential campaigns. Ward has an RV with big photo of herself and her name on the side that Team Ward has dubbed the Kelli-Mobile. She's using it to barnstorm the state, spending last week in Southern Arizona. The Kelli-Mobile was parked outside of Dickey's on Wednesday afternoon and Ward invited her supporters to go outside and sign their names.
Ward conceded her underdog status to the Dickey's crowd, but reminded them that the favorite doesn't always carry the day—and it's never been more true than in today's GOP primaries, where titans have fallen to little-known upstarts in recent years.
"I know this is going to be a difficult race," Ward said. "It is going to be a battle on the ground. It is going to be expensive. It is truly a David-and-Goliath endeavor. But remember: David won that one and we can too!"