The small coffee shop served as a very different backdrop than the hustle and bustle of an average day in the life of Kelli Ward. As she took her seat at a corner table in the room to the sound of an occasional espresso order being called out by the young baristas behind the counter, she seemed very calm, but excited at the same time. After all, a United States Senate race is definitely something to be excited about.
“I actually own one of those fancy espresso machines,” she said before explaining how she had never used it given her hectic schedule away from home. With two teens, one still in high-school and another recently graduated, the Ward house wouldn’t appear much different than any other in the small, rural Arizona town we decided to meet in for a cup of coffee that afternoon. For the Ward family, that could all change very quickly if the Arizona State Senator decides to take on the biggest political challenge of her career – John McCain.
“I never really thought that I was going to run for office,” she said. Coming from an accomplished woman who, as a high-schooler, had been elected president of the National Honor Society and was voted “Most likely To Succeed,” this seemed far from the truth. But it was a different area of politics that she was involved in as a young adult – medical politics, an area she says she has always been active in since the time she was a medical student at the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine, A.T. Still University, and Duke University.
“I really wasn’t politically engaged [at all] until after September 11th, 2001,” a moment she directly stated was the “turning point” in her life politically. She reflected on that “horrific” event as the day she began to “really educate myself, to watch different news shows, to read different books, and try to figure out what was going on in our state and in our world.” As we sat there in that small coffee shop, the events that took place on 9/11 were just as fresh on the minds of all Americans as they were the day after it took place. Although time may have caused that sense of fear from the attacks to slowly fade away, the effects are still a reality. “I was really wondering ‘Why doesn’t somebody do something’, and finally I said, ‘Why don’t I do something?’” That’s where it began for Senator Ward. “That background,” she continued, “is what drove me to the position of running for office.”
In 2012, Doctor Ward won her race for the open state Senate seat in District 5 representing Northwestern Arizona with 71.2% of the vote, demolishing her opponent, Beth Weiser. She also topped a gun shop owner who had also run in the election. Ward explained how the three-war race was a “real challenge,” seeing how “a gun shop owner is pretty much a god on our area.” She would later win reelection in 2014, after running unopposed in the Primary and General. A source highly revered in Arizona politics, who asked to remain anonymous, told OUTSET, “Ward has proven time and time again that she is a strong campaigner and that she works for the people, and the people only.” She continued, “The voters love her.”
Many bills she would come to support in the following years revolved around medicinal practices and medical issues.
“I really was upset about the federal government taking over my patients and my profession,” she said. In her first legislative session since reelection, Senator Ward created media buzz by sponsoring a long list of bills on the Senate floor – something she specifically said she would not do this session.
A leading state news source, AZ Central, recently equated Ward as being “on the front lines in Arizona’s grand and glorious battle against federal tyranny.” Others said the bills were a move to help gain name recognition in preparation for a possible 2016 primary race against Arizona powerhouse, John McCain. “It was not on purpose,” she quickly told me in response to the allegations. On the same token, she said “It has been nice because it did increase my visibility, and so if I do this,” she paused – “It gets that name recognition up a little bit, and lets people know I am here…that I’m doing good things in the state.” She continued by going over some of the measures she has taken to decrease federal control in Arizona. “I’ve got a legislative record that I’m more than happy to stand upon in terms of my conservative values and representing the views of the people who sent me to serve them and be their voice in Phoenix.”
“What we’re getting now is getting D.C. represented in Arizona rather than Arizona represented in D.C. We need someone who will truly be Arizona’s voice – Arizona’s advocate in the US Senate.” She seemed very passionate when saying this. Kelli Ward, like so many others in the last couple of decades, has rooted herself into the state and the “happenings” of Arizona, and her words reflected the hard work she has invested into the state. “People might say, ‘Oh, she doesn’t have very much experience in the legislature!’ But I have a lot of experience in other things that actually lend themselves to being a representative of the people.” That experience, she says, stems from her life in medicine, dealing with patients, emergencies, and having personal relationships with a wide variety of people.
When challenging someone like John McCain, it’s hard to match political experience – something many Arizonans say will be Senator Ward’s biggest crutch. “I didn’t get into the legislature to have a career as a politician,” she emphatically stated. “When you think about somebody in office for thirty years – I mean, that’s before I could even vote,” she continued, “and I’m no spring chicken.” Senator McCain will turn 80 in 2016, 30 years after he was first elected to the US Senate. “I would not plan to be there for ever,” Ward said. “I mean, when I’m 80 years old, I want to be enjoying my family…I would never plan to be in the Senate for that long.”
I asked Arizona Teenage Republicans state Chairwoman and IJReview Contributor, Lilia Dashevsky, what she thought about Sen. John McCain’s 2014 ranking as “The Least Popular Senator in the Country.”
“I think he has had a great career in the Senate,” Dashevsky said. “Nevertheless, I believe that the Senator – just like Senator Kyl – should step aside and let some fresh blood into the Senate.”
Only one person has ever challenged McCain in the GOP primary, former Congressman and radio personality JD Hayworth. Hayworth unsuccessfully attempted to oust McCain in 2010, after the Senator’s crushing 2008 Presidential campaign loss to then-Senator Barack Obama, was due in large part to the $20-plus million dollars McCain had left over from ’08. When asked what JD did wrong, Senator Ward said, “JD had more baggage – more skeletons than I have. I mean, there will be things that will come to light or be made up.” “If they can’t find anything,” she continued,” then I’m sure they will make things up.” [display_quote align=right]”I’ve faced down bullies before. You just have to stand up to them.”[/display_quote]
She made it very clear that she is aware of the “machine” that is John McCain, but that she isn’t intimidated. “I’ve faced down bullies before. You just have to stand up to them,” she confidently stated. “He knows all the tricks…but I’m not in this to do trickery. I’m in this to represent the people – to make a positive, passionate, simple change.”
She paused for the loud interruption of a frappuccino blender to subside. “Why be scared?” she asked. “The Bible says to operate in faith not in fear. I’m on the faith path.”
Kelli Ward said she has not directly heard from the McCain office, but says, “I know that he knows that I’m around.” She pointed out that he did show up at the state capitol the other day – Kelli Ward had never seen him there in the three years she has served in the state Senate. “I think it’s kind of interesting,” she remarked in light of the timing of the situation.
[display_quote align=left]“The Bible says to operate in faith not in fear. I’m on the faith path.”[/display_quote]The doctor isn’t the only one considering a possible challenge against John McCain in the 2016 primary. Arizona Congressman Matt Salmon is rumored to also be considering a possible bid for the seat, and other Arizona figures have been rumored as possible candidates. In an early poll among conservatives, Salmon led the self-proclaimed “Maverick” 48% to 30%.
“I do think it’s important to have one strong candidate to run against McCain if we’re going to do this in the Primary.” Ward said. “I think I have some advantages over Congressman Salmon just because he’s been in office for a very long time.”
Last year, John McCain was ranked the “Least Popular Senator in the Country,” giving the conservative wing of the Arizona legislature a light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to 2016. Senator Ward declined to name any specific legislators who had encouraged her to run, but said “there could be some people that are in there.” She said she’s already on “the roasting spit with a very powerful formidable person,” and that she wouldn’t want to add anyone else on beside her until she were to make an announcement.
“Senator McCain has never faced a well-educated woman who is down-to-earth, who cares about the Constitution, who cares about liberty, who’s connected with the people…that’s a big challenge for him,” she said. “Perhaps we all should look at that kind of model, and say, ‘Okay, is this the time that someone (like me) could win that race,” she continued, “If we truly want to have someone new.” She went on to say that Congressman Salmon is conservative “and he has proven that”, but if you put he and McCain side-by-side “you wouldn’t see many differences.”
“If you truly want a new voice – looking outside the box – [I am] a good way to go.”
Others doubt Ward’s ability to raise sufficient funds to challenge McCain. She noted that McCain “is not starting out now (financially) where he was against JD.” She speculated that he currently has $1.5 million prepared for his reelection, something she says she is not “naive” about. If she decides to run, her first priority would be to raise money, “and prove that I am a viable candidate.” She said that if she “can raise a good chunk of money fairly quickly, money will start coming in.”
“I think she can overcome the ‘basic’ hurdles…At the end of the day, her biggest challenge will be raising money,” a source close to Senator Ward said.
“There’s a lot of things that have to be in place before I decide,” she said. She confidently said that she will not make an announcement until the current legislative session is over. “I am elected to represent the people in Legislative District 5, and I have all these good bills…I wouldn’t want to shortstop that in any way.”
The budding state Senator began to wrap up the conversation by saying “It would be a long shot – a David and Goliath race.” As we packed up to leave, she glanced down at her phone with a big smile on her face. “Off to the next event!”
(Photos by Gage Skidmore)