Arizona Primary Preview: GOP Senate Candidates In Bitter Fight On Immigration GOP candidates are trying to prove they're with President Trump on immigration. But Arizona's late primary means little time to shift to the general election, when Democrats hope to flip the seat.
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Arizona GOP Senate Candidates Embrace Trump In Primary. But What Comes Next?

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Arizona GOP Senate Candidates Embrace Trump In Primary. But What Comes Next?

Arizona GOP Senate Candidates Embrace Trump In Primary. But What Comes Next?

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

OK. In the midterm elections this fall, Democrats have a very narrow path if they want to take control of the U.S. Senate. Republicans could block that path by defending a seat in Arizona, where GOP Senator Jeff Flake is retiring. With less than three months before Election Day, Republicans first have to settle a bitter primary battle. It's being fought largely over which candidate is President Trump's best ally on immigration. From member station KJZZ in Phoenix, Bret Jaspers has more.

BRET JASPERS, BYLINE: Senator Jeff Flake decided last year he couldn't win a Republican primary since he's a prominent critic of President Trump. At that point, he was already facing a challenge from the right in former state lawmaker Kelli Ward.

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KELLI WARD: We have a choice. Are we going to elect a senator that is cut from the same cloth as Jeff Flake and John McCain?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: No.

JASPERS: Ward tried challenging Senator John McCain two years ago. She lost, but she never really stopped campaigning. Ward promises to be President Trump's strongest supporter when it comes to immigration.

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WARD: And I'll tell you that leadership in Washington will pass a budget without funding for the wall, if we let them. And so they have to know that there is a group of people, a powerful group of people, who will not allow them to get away with it.

JASPERS: There's another far-right candidate in the race, Joe Arpaio, the former county sheriff convicted of criminal contempt and later pardoned by Trump. Many Ward supporters think Arpaio is too old. He's 86. And they reject the frontrunner in the race, Martha McSally, a former fighter pilot and a more moderate member of the House. Republican Teresa Mendoza says McSally is not a reliable conservative.

TERESA MENDOZA: I'm not even that - like, a real conservative, you could say. 'Cause I'm socially very liberal. But are we really going to elect another McCain in a dress? Oh, my God. Just a thought. (Laughter). Lord, please, no.

JASPERS: McSally criticized Trump in 2016. And although he hasn't endorsed her, he's talked about her in glowing terms a couple of times since taking office. She does have the endorsement of the Border Patrol Union and is tacking right on immigration.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARTHA MCSALLY: Around Arizona, everywhere I go, whether people are registered as Democrats, independents or Republicans, they want our borders secure. They want to stop the cartels coming through our communities. They want to stop the opioids coming in and killing people. They want to stop the gang activity. This is a unifying issue, and I am proud to be working with our president in order to get the mission done.

JASPERS: McSally has, for better or worse, a congressional record to answer for that her primary opponents do not. She co-sponsored a conservative immigration bill in the House earlier this year. It would have provided limited legal status for some DACA recipients. It wasn't a path to citizenship, but Ward derides it as amnesty. McSally also stepped back from a DACA bill she had co-sponsored that would have provided a path to citizenship. She says that wasn't to pander to conservatives, but to discourage a forced vote on it.

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MCSALLY: A bill by itself coming up like that is not the appropriate thing for us to be doing, and I just wanted to make that clear.

JASPERS: If McSally wins, though, after taking a harder line, it's a tight pivot to the general election. Arizona's primary is next week. Roughly six weeks later, mail-in ballots go out for November's election.

JAIME MOLERA: Regardless of having to reframe her, maybe in 30 days, I think they're willing to say, look, let's take that chance. But she's got to come out of the primary, first and foremost.

JASPERS: Jaime Molera is a Republican political consultant in Phoenix.

MOLERA: And that's why you're seeing massive amount of resources that I didn't think was needed, but I think they'd rather be safe than sorry.

JASPERS: The resources include over $3 million in Republican super PAC money. That's more than they spent to boost McCain in his 2016 primary against Ward, who they fear is too extreme to win in November. Ward recently announced a bus tour whose riders include a conspiracy theorist who promoted the false Pizzagate story. Meanwhile, Democratic groups have already spent millions opposing McSally. Jaime Molera.

MOLERA: I guarantee you they're making sure that they have a lot of commercials ready to go the day after primary that would be able to launch against whomever the Republican is.

JASPERS: The Republican winner will likely face Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, a House member heavily favored to win her Senate primary. For NPR News, I'm Bret Jaspers in Phoenix.

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