WASHINGTON — On Tuesday, a group connected to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell took out ads against a Senate candidate running with the backing of President Trump. The ads called the candidate, Arizona State Senator Kelli Ward, “crazy.”
That’s a big deal.
It is the closest the Republican establishment has come to implying that the movement inspired by Trump is out of touch with reality, going much farther than disagreeing with Trump over a policy issue or disavowing a specific comment by the president.
The web ad, created by McConnell’s super-PAC, Senate Leadership Fund, attacks Ward for her dalliances with conspiracy theories and for insensitive remarks regarding Sen. John McCain’s cancer diagnosis.
Ward is mounting a primary campaign against incumbent Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, who has been one of Trump’s most outspoken critics within the party and recently published a book denouncing the president as not a true conservative.
The McConnell web ad makes the same charge against Ward, that she’s “not conservative” – but also accuses her of harboring “crazy ideas.”
It calls her “Chemtrail Kelli,” a reference to a town hall meeting she held in 2015 to discuss the conspiracy theory that the trails of white condensation that form behind airplane engines are actually dangerous chemicals being dispersed by the government. This is an idea that has been promoted by some on the far-right fringe, including radio host Alex Jones, a Trump ally. Ward later said she did not believe in the theory but wanted to give her constituents a forum in which to discuss it.
Trump himself has regularly promoted conspiracy theories. He heavily promoted the notion that former President Obama was born in Africa, he has expressed support for the possibility that vaccinations cause autism and has routinely asserted things as a candidate and as president that are rooted in conspiratorial thinking.
“Crazy” is also a word that many Republicans use in private to describe the president himself.
The McConnell web ad also highlighted Ward’s comments in July after McCain, an Arizona Republican, was diagnosed with brain cancer. She said that McCain should retire from the Senate “as quickly as possible” and expressed hope that Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey would appoint her to his seat.
Tim Miller, a former spokesman for Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign, said Ward “is running a campaign devoid of basic human decency, in addition to promulgating some wild conspiracy theories. So it is incumbent on conservative Republicans to hold her to account for that even if a lot of those criticisms apply to the president as well.”
And it was no accident that McConnell’s super-PAC released the ad the day that Trump traveled to Arizona for a campaign-style rally Tuesday evening, where it was expected that he would attack Flake again. It was a shot across the bow of the president that any attacks on Flake would not go unanswered.
Trump last week said on Twitter that it was “great to see” that Ward was running against Flake, whom the president bashed as “weak on borders, crime and a nonfactor in the Senate.”
McConnell responded soon after Trump’s comment with a tweet of his own, calling Flake “an excellent senator and a tireless advocate for Arizona and our nation” and affirming that Flake had his “full support.” Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., the head of the Senate Republican campaign arm, also came to Flake’s defense.
The New York Times reported Tuesday that McConnell and Trump have not spoken in weeks and that the president berated the Senate majority leader in a profane and heated phone call after the collapse of the Senate’s attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare.
McConnell publicly placed some of the blame for the failed effort on Trump.
“Part of the reason, I think, that the story line is that we haven’t done much is because, in part, the president and others have set these early timelines about things need to be done by a certain point,” McConnell said. “Our new president, of course, has not been in this line of work before. And I think he had excessive expectations about how quickly things happen in the democratic process.”
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