Kelli Ward goes "moderate": I believe Obama was born in the U.S. and I don't talk to Steve Bannon

Sweet fancy Moses. With Sheriff Joe jumping into the race and Trump declaring Steve Bannon a non-person in populist circles, this freak-show Arizona election is going to be comedy gold to the bitter end.

Do you believe Barack Obama was born in the United States?, CNN asks Ward. That’s a dangerous question in a GOP primary, when any agreement with “the elites” in a way that favors a Democrat is potential litmus-test material. It would have been fascinating to watch Ward, a Bannon-backed populist, field it if she was up against establishmentarian Martha McSally and no one else. But she’s got a problem now in the form of Joe Arpaio. If McSally gobbles up the establishment vote and Arpaio, a Trump pal and a figure much better known than Ward, gobbles up the populist vote, what’s left for Ward? She has no choice but to try to thread the needle, hoping that enough Republicans will find McSally too conventional *and* Arpaio too fringy that they’ll be looking for a middle-ground option. Voila — Kelli Ward, “moderate” populist.

What does a “moderate” populist look like? Watch the two clips below. She’s moderate enough to believe that Obama’s birth certificate is real, unlike Sheriff Joe, but she’s populist enough to enforce Trump’s edict to MAGA Nation that Stephen K. Bannon no longer exists. Aren’t you Steve Bannon’s candidate?, Alisyn Camerota presses her. No!, says Ward. Er, not only did he endorse her, he went to Arizona in October and appeared onstage with her to do it. Breitbart made a big deal of it too, trumpeting the endorsement in one of its PR-style news stories about Bannon. Now Ward can’t run fast enough from him. What choice does she have? If Trump were to endorse either Arpaio or McSally — both of which seem likelier than him endorsing Ward — it would all but end her campaign. She desperately needs POTUS neutral in this race (assuming he’s not in her corner) to have any chance of winning the primary. If that means taking a “Steve who?” approach to Bannon then that’s what it means.

Arpaio, meanwhile, spoke to the Atlantic about his entry into the race. Why shouldn’t I run, he asks? The party has moved in my direction. Boy, has it ever.

All that gauzy post-2012 talk of Republicans reaching out to Latino voters and championing “compassionate” immigration reform seems like a distant memory now—replaced by a climate in which the godfather of the birther movement can become president by promising to keep Mexican rapists out of the country with a massive border wall.

This, in other words, is Sheriff Joe’s moment.

According to Arpaio, several presidential contenders solicited his endorsement in 2016, and his early support for Trump won him a coveted speaking slot at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. “I guess I must be doing something right in the Republican Party,” he told me.

There are only two sure things about the outcome in Arizona. One: Because Arpaio is so divisive, It’s destined to end up as the nastiest proxy war next year in the “Trumpism versus Mitt-ism” conflict — far more nasty than Romney’s own Senate race in Utah, ironically, which I imagine will involve him avoiding the subject of Trump as much as possible. And two: Because of that dynamic, it’s a cinch that some faction of Arizona Republicans will loathe the eventual nominee, possibly enough to give Democrats a decisive advantage in the general election. McSally will do her best not to get muscled too far to the center by Ward and Arpaio, but she’ll have McConnell’s endorsement and probably Jeff Flake’s (and maybe Mitt Romney’s) and she’ll be forced by the reality of Arizona as a purple state not to move too far right. If she wins, Arpaio and Ward fans may see her as another establishment stiff and sellout, not worth supporting on Election Day. If Arpaio or Ward (but especially Arpaio) wins, centrist McSally voters may stay home or cross the aisle like many Alabama Republicans did vis-a-vis Roy Moore because they view the nominee as a reactionary crank. Trump’s the only person who stands a chance of sorting this mess out with an endorsement. If he keeps quiet, it’ll be a fiasco.

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