Yvonne Wingett Sanchez
ArizonaRepublic | USATODAYNETWORK
Kelli Ward, a Republican U.S. Senate candidate, is distributing a campaign flyer with a photo of herself standing alongside President Donald Trump at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.
Trump agreed to pose for a photo with Ward during the December 2017 visit but specifically asked that it not be shared, according to a White House official who witnessed the brief exchange but is not authorized to speak publicly about it.
Ward, a former state senator from Lake Havasu City, has been seeking the president’s endorsement since the earliest days of her campaign; she also failed to capture Trump’s endorsement during her unsuccessful 2016 primary challenge of U.S. Sen. John McCain. For nearly a year, Ward has touted a tweet in which Trump invoked her name while slamming U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, who is retiring.
The matter is not trivial: Trump’s blessing could be a crucial factor in the
three-way Republican primary race, which also includes former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a Trump political ally, and U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, who also has been touting her access to Trump on the campaign trail.
So far, Trump has not officially endorsed any candidate in the Arizona GOP race.
Early ballots for the primary will be mailed out Wednesday.
Prior to emailing questions Monday afternoon to Ward’s campaign spokesman about her use of the photo, The Arizona Republic could find no other instances in which the photo of Ward and Trump was shared.
Monday evening — after her campaign exchanged emails with The Republic about whether Ward had permission to distribute the photo — Ward blasted out the photo of her with Trump on Twitter, along with a tweet he posted in August 2017.
Ward wrote in the tweet that she thanks God every day for Trump and “the amazing job he is doing” to “Make America Great Again,” a nod to the president’s 2016 campaign slogan.
Zachery Henry, Ward’s spokesman, said in an emailed statement that the White House official’s description of the “photograph/conversation” was inaccurate.
“Dr. Ward is quite proud to have spent time with the President and received his tweet of encouragement last year,” Henry wrote, adding that the other two GOP candidates are playing up their own relationships with Trump.
The White House’s press office did not respond to a request for comment.
A person familiar with the operations of the Trump campaign said in a written statement Thursday that the president “likes all of the candidates in the race very much” and looks forward to supporting the Republican nominee in the general election.
“President Trump has not endorsed anyone in the GOP Senate primary in Arizona and any photos or other general expressions of support shouldn’t be read as such,” the person wrote.
The small photo on Ward’s flyer appears on the left-hand corner of a onepage primer illustrating the differences between Ward and rival McSally, of Tucson.
McSally is the best-funded Republican in the primary, and polls show her leading. She is currently on the air with ads using sound bites from Trump praising her as “the real deal” and “tough.”
The picture could imply Ward has landed an endorsement she does not have in a race where Trump’s approval is the most coveted endorsement of all.
The flyer’s photo is accompanied by the August 2017 tweet from Trump that blasted Flake, who condemned the nastiness of Republican politics in the era of Trump in announcing he would not seek re-election.
“Great to see that Dr. Kelli Ward is running against Flake Jeff Flake, who is WEAK on borders, crime and a nonfactor in Senate,” Trump’s tweet said. “He’s toxic!”
Trump’s tweet has been featured on the campaign’s social-media pages for the past 11 months, Henry wrote.
“... and we’re quite proud of it,” Henry wrote. “Especially considering our two GOP opponents have received no such public encouragement from the President.”
Ward’s flyer added a speech bubble that pointed to Trump’s tweet.
The bubble said, “AND ‘Martha McSally is Worse than Jeff Flake,’ ” a reference to a headline from an opinion story published on the politically conservative website Townhall.com.
Ward’s campaign flyer was distributed to voters at a Republican women’s club event last week.
For many of these voters, candidates’ loyalty to Trump is the key to their vote.
They are fed up with Arizona’s two senators, McCain and Flake, whose animosity with Trump began in 2015, soon after Trump announced his presidential bid.
All of the candidates for the GOP primary are touting their relationship with Trump in campaign ads, during media interviews and in stump speeches.
If elected, Ward pledged to help the president build a wall along the U.S.Mexico border and repeal the Affordable Care Act.
“Strongly supports President Trump and is a true advocate for the America First agenda — proudly voted for him in 2016,” her campaign flyer said, in attempting to draw a contrast with McSally.
McSally did not endorse Trump in the 2016 election — and may not have voted for him.
Follow the reporter on Twitter @yvonnewingett and on Facebook. Reach her at yvonne.wingett@arizona republic.com.