In an apparent attempt to head off possible criticism of Senator Jeff Flake at President Trump’s campaign-style rally in Arizona Tuesday night, a Mitch McConnell–backed political action committee released an ad Tuesday that goes hard after Flake’s primary opponent in the state next year, Kelli Ward.
The Republican Party is doing just fine, thank you.
The ad, put out by the Senate Leadership Fund, coins a catchy, Trump-style nickname for Ward: “Chemtrail Kelli.” It criticizes her for her many outlandish beliefs, emphasizing her willingness to hold a town hall on chemtrails, the conspiracy theory that the government is poisoning the population through the contrails left behind by jets. “Chemtrail Kelli’s got her head in the clouds with crazy ideas,” a narrator intones, as the ad goes on to chastise her for asserting that Senator John McCain is “directly responsible” for the rise of ISIS, and for suggesting that McCain, who has been diagnosed with brain cancer, resign so that she could take his seat. (Ward lost to him in a 2016 primary.)
Flake, the incumbent, has positioned himself as one of the most prominent Republican critics of President Trump. He recently released a book, Conscience of a Conservative, which doubles as a lengthy critique of the nativist, conspiracy-friendly politics that helped elevate the president to office, and which earned him plaudits from the likes of David Brooks and brickbats from actually influential conservatives like Laura Ingraham.
The practical implications of Flake’s opprobrium toward Trump are debatable, since he has mostly supported the president’s agenda thus far. Nevertheless, Trump is not known for his thick skin. In a tweet last week, he called Flake a “flake” on Twitter (perhaps he was tired when he came up with that one?), and came close to endorsing Ward in her primary challenge.
The anti-Ward ad also arrives amid a backdrop of increasingly poor relations between Trump and Senate Majority Leader McConnell. The two have traded barbs over the failed Senate vote to repeal Obamacare, and McConnell strongly defended Attorney General Jeff Sessions, his former colleague in the Senate, against Trump’s verbal barrages.
On Tuesday night, a day after grudgingly announcing an escalation of the war in Afghanistan on national television, President Trump will return to his natural habitat: a raucous, possibly incendiary rally. What he’ll say there is being closely watched, especially by Republicans. Will he go after Flake, or McCain (for helping to torpedo the health-care vote), or both? Will he pour lighter fluid on the country’s delicate racial discourse by pardoning Joe Arpaio, the ex-sheriff and immigration hard-liner whose abuses of power landed him a criminal-contempt conviction?
With large demonstrations planned for Trump’s visit and the governor of Arizona skipping out on the event, the potential for further internecine GOP warfare is very real.