Sen. John McCain of Arizona is banking his political career on a simple but compelling argument: His Republican primary opponent, emergency room doctor and state Sen. Kelli Ward, is a nut.
As a state senator in 2014, Ward convened a nearly two-hour hearing on the conspiracy theory that the government is poisoning the populace by spraying chemicals, known as "chemtrails," from airplanes. Ward maintains she was simply responding to the concerns of her constituents and hoped that actual experts might be able to dispel their concerns, although she said at the time that she was "open" to introducing legislation on chemtrails.
The pro-McCain group Arizona Grassroots Action has run an ad mocking Ward's hearing, featuring text composed in skywriting script. McCain's campaign has dubbed Ward "Chemtrail Kelli" and last week released an ad with footage of Ward's chemtrails hearing, charging that the state senator "fuels conspiracy theories at taxpayer expense."
But the chemtrails hearing was hardly a one-time incident. In her short political career, Ward has flirted with the conspiracy-theory fringe by making appearances on 9/11 truther radio programs, advising citizens to stay vigilant against UN helicopters, warning against government "indoctrination," and proposing an unusual theory that the Affordable Care Act was part of a plot to force rural residents to move to cities.
McCain leads Ward in the polls, but with more than a quarter of voters undecided, he still has less than 40 percent support, according to the most recent survey of the race—an uncomfortable position for a five-term incumbent. If he can survive the August primary, he still faces a tough reelection fight in November against Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick. McCain himself has suggested that Donald Trump's emergence as the party's presidential nominee could put his normally safely Republican seat in jeopardy this fall. "This may be the race of my life," he told donors at a private fundraiser, according to audio of the event leaked to Politico.
Ward, who represents a largely rural district in the state's northwest corner, is particularly concerned about a UN agreement called Agenda 21. Designed to promote sustainable development worldwide, the compact is nonbinding and has never been approved by the US Senate. Nonetheless, Ward co-sponsored a bill in 2013 that would prohibit Arizona from complying with Agenda 21. As she explained at a hearing, Agenda 21 wasn't just about sustainability—it was about breaking the back of rural America in order to coerce citizens into moving to cities. "I'd go so far to say that what we're doing with health care relates to Agenda 21 as well, because we'd like to see those rural hospitals close and fold under the pressure of not taking money from the federal government to hold them up," Ward said. "Because when those things close, that does push people toward more centralized living in high-rise apartments [and] not in the rural areas, which tend to be freer thinkers and freer livers."
In a 2013 interview with an Arizona radio host and chemtrails activist named Luca Zanna, Ward discussed mysterious helicopters that had been spotted in Arizona, as well as the prospect of martial law, or even a foreign power sending troops to subdue American citizens. "I can tell you I have an apartment down here in Phoenix that I stay in during the session, and I hear helicopters all the time that I hear outside my window," Ward said. "Now I don't know if they're medical helicopters, I don't know if they're searching for bad guys on the ground because there's some kind of shooting or some kind of activity."
Zanna then rattled off a a string of conspiracy theories. He told Ward (erroneously) that the Federal Emergency Management Agency signed a deal to allow Russians to work on US soil "in case there is an emergency." (Ward called the plan "ridiculous.") Zanna played an audio clip from a caller warning about UN helicopters he'd seen in Kingman, Arizona. He mentioned the presence of Chinese troops on the ground in the United States. He said the Army was "breaking into people's homes" in Phoenix. And he suggested that a recent blackout had coincided with "helicopter activities."
"I don't see why United Nations helicopters or any type of helicopters—Chinese or Russian—should be playing around in our backyard right now," he told Ward.
"Well, I would rather for people to be prepared and ready and never have to use it because nothing happens than to be caught unawares," Ward replied. After the host once more floated the possibility of the US Army or a foreign occupying force attacking Arizonans, Ward called for vigilance. "Well, I hope that people wake up and educate themselves and understand what could happen," she said. "If it doesn't happen, we'll all be very thankful, and myself, I'll be praising God because I love God and I'll be praising him that that happened. But if something does happen…"
Another bugaboo for Ward is Common Core, the Obama-era education standards that have become a prime target of liberal and conservative activists alike. The standards' problems have been well documented, but Ward takes a more conspiratorial position. "The people who are going to go to public school are going to be the cogs in the wheel," she told Zanna, agreeing with his statement that the government was turning children into "slaves." "They're going to be the workers. The new imperialists, or the new emperors of our world, will be the kids of the people who are pushing this because they won't be going through this program. So it's very scary."
Ward, who traveled to Nevada during the 2014 Bundy Ranch standoff, reunited last spring with the Bundys' self-described spokesman, radio host Pete Santilli, for an interview. "I think the media would like to portray that event as something completely different than what it was, but I can tell you it was a very family-friendly event," she told Santilli of the 2014 showdown, in which activists trained rifles on federal agents. At the end of the interview, Santilli (who has called himself a "conspiracy realist," expressed doubts about the official narrative of 9/11, and pushed chemtrails conspiracies) referred to McCain as "a domestic enemy." He asked Ward if she agreed with that characterization. "Well, we have to support our Constitution," Ward said.
Her flirtation with conspiracy theories presented a marked contrast with McCain, who during his 2008 presidential campaign famously told a supporter who said she didn't trust Obama because he's an "Arab," "No ma'am, he's a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues."
Ward has other ideas that McCain, facing a backlash from the right over his work with the Senate's "Gang of Eight" on immigration reform, may have a harder time using against her. Asked about her position on birthright citizenship at a local Republican Party gathering last September, she responded by making a thumbs-down gesture and blowing a raspberry, suggesting that it had been "misinterpreted for years" and that immigrants shouldn't be able to stay just because they "create a child." In another radio interview, she linked the spread of disease to immigrants. She warned that "polio-like illnesses" are spreading "throughout the country as the federal government shipped all of these illegal immigrants all across the country without properly treating them for health and wellness, and they're exposing our kids, our families, to things that we should never have to be exposed to." (Ward was referring to a 2014 outbreak of enterovirus, which has not been firmly linked to immigrants.)
Even under the glare of the election year spotlight, Ward hasn't let McCain's attacks deter her from associating with fringe figures. In March, long after McCain and his backers had begun mocking her for her chemtrails hearing, Ward did an interview with Alex Jones, perhaps the nation's most prominent conspiracy theorist. Jones, a 9/11 truther who believes Prince and Merle Haggard were both killed by chemtrails, told Ward he feared for her safety. Ward said people had told her she should get an auto-starter for her car to be on the safe side and that she should travel with security.
"I really hope that things haven't gotten that far out of control that I should be fearful for my life," she said, "but we are always cautious, and I always have people around me who are providing security, which is great."
After last weekend's chaotic Nevada Democratic convention, where supporters of Bernie Sanders tossed chairs and later sent death threats to the state party chair, leading Democrats called on the Vermont senator and his supporters to settle down. They wanted Sanders backers to quit complaining about a "rigged" nominating process and to lay off the threat to take the fight to the July convention if—as looks almost certain—Hillary Clinton locks up the nomination next month. At the Daily Beast, Michael Tomasky chastised the Vermont senator for not rebuking his supporters and asked if Sanders "wants to destroy the Democratic party." He depicted Sanders and his wife, Jane Sanders, as Thelma and Louise, driving off a cliff.
But, in a way, the party has been at this precipice before. The fretting over what a Sanders schism might mean for the party's chances in November against Donald Trump is not without justification. And many Democrats had cause to freak out over a New York Times article that reported that Team Sanders was bent on causing Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee, much harm in the weeks up to and at the convention. But Sanders' decision to push for the Democratic nomination all the way to the convention is not unprecedented. This is sort of what happened the last time there was a Democratic presidential primary, when Clinton was in the never-give-up role.
The comparison isn't perfect. At this point in 2008, Clinton, running second to then-Sen. Barack Obama, had a statistically better shot at the nomination than Sanders does now. The gap in pledged delegates was much smaller, and there was an unsettled issue of how harshly Michigan and Florida would be penalized for holding early primaries against the party's orders. (Clinton won both states, Obama had chosen not compete, and it was unclear how many delegates each state would have at the convention.) Still, Clinton was a long shot, and Obama backers wanted her to go away quietly, or at least to quit attacking the likely nominee. She and her supporters chose the opposite course, pitching superdelegates to switch sides based on a racially tinged argument that Clinton would fare better than Obama in the general election.
Here are some flashbacks to that tense period in 2008:
May 8: After narrowly beating Obama in Indiana, Clinton says, "Senator Obama's support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again." This was an argument that superdelegates should support her because her black opponent wouldn't be able to win white voters in November.
May 9: Sixteen pro-Clinton House members send a letter to superdelegates touting Clinton's "ability to connect with voters we must deliver in the fall, including blue collar Democrats who can sway this election as they have in the past."
Mid-May: Bill Clinton frantically tries to convince superdelegates to switch their allegiances. According to Game Change, "Clinton's message, sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly, was that the country wasn't ready to elect an African American president."
May 23: Hillary Clinton tells the Sioux Falls Argus Leader that she's staying in the race because anything can happen. "We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California," she says. She pledges to fight until the convention and challenges Obama to more debates. Obama supporters howl at Clinton's fear tactic.
May 31: The Democratic National Committee's Rules and Bylaws Committee meets to settle the fate of the Michigan and Florida delegates. It decides to cut both states' delegations in half—a death blow to Clinton's chances. Angry Clinton supporters outside the meeting tell the Huffington Post's Sam Stein that an ex-Senate majority leader (Tom Daschle) had "rigged" the South Dakota primary, that Obama was in the pocket of a billionaire megadonor (George Soros), and that his base of supporters was little more than an "anti-woman cult."
Early June: Rumors circulate of a secret video, known as the "whitey tape," in which Michelle Obama supposedly shares a stage with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and denounces white people. According to Game Change, the Clinton campaign clung to the video as its last best hope: "[Top Clinton aide Sidney] Blumenthal was obsessed with the 'whitey tape,' and so were the Clintons, who not only believed that it existed but felt that there was a chance it might emerge in time to save Hillary. 'They've got a tape, they've got a tape,' she told her aides excitedly."
There was no tape, and Clinton dropped out of the race on June 4, shortly after the last Democratic primary. On June 27, she and Obama held their first joint appearance together, in Unity, New Hampshire.
Sanders may yet pursue a different course. (His aides are talking about trying to transform the Democratic Party and its rules.) But for now, his decision to stay in the race and keep the pressure on the front-runner is not extraordinary. It's déjà vu.
Meet Texas state Supreme Court Justice Don Willett.
Tim MurphyMay 18, 2016 2:50 PM
Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump released a short list on Wednesday of 11 judges he'd consider appointing to the Supreme Court if elected. Among the contenders: Texas state Supreme Court Justice Don Willett. Willett is a rarity among judges in that he also runs an active—and candid—Twitter account, under the handle @JusticeWillett. And with relative frequency, he's used his platform to troll Trump himself.
In response to Trump's comments at a February debate about Justice Samuel Alito "signing" a bill:
Update, 5/17: It finally happened. Hillary Clinton won a county called Clinton County. Her long national nightmare is over. Read below for the original piece.
Bernie Sanders can make history in Tuesday night's Kentucky Democratic primary. No, he can't clinch the Democratic presidential nomination, nor is he likely to score a big win that convinces superdelegates to switch their allegiances en masse. But if he can beat Hillary Clinton in Kentucky's Clinton County, he will have defeated Clinton in all nine of the Clinton Counties in the United States.
Let's take a look at where things stand, by way of the New York Times' excellent interactive maps:
New York (4/19):
The nine counties are named for two different men from New York state—George Clinton, who was vice president to both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and former Gov. Dewitt Clinton, the planner of the Erie Canal. So it makes sense that the various counties reflect the Yankee migration into the Midwest (or old Northwest) or are in places that might have benefited from the canal's economic boom. More to the point, people in the South, where Clinton has dominated, tended not to name their counties after New York politicians.
Still, Kentucky's Clinton County could put the streak in jeopardy. It is similar in demographics to two bordering counties in Tennessee, Pickett County and Clay County, which Clinton won handily in that state's Super Tuesday primary. There is only one Sanders County in the United States, named for the former Montana Sen. Wilbur Fisk Sanders. Clinton will have her chance at payback when Montana votes on June 7.
Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah) did not endorse Donald Trump during the Republican presidential primary. He endorsed Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, and in a radio interview before his state's caucus, he denounced the GOP front-runner in the strongest language possible: He called Trump a fascist. "Donald Trump does not represent Republican ideals; he is our Mussolini," he said at the time. "Donald Trump's approach is, 'I am just going to do it.'" In the same interview, Stewart said the election was the most important since 1860, when Abraham Lincoln's win prompted the South to secede.
But now that Trump has all but clinched his party's nomination, Stewart is having second thoughts on the GOP's Mussolini. "While Mr. Trump wasn't my first choice, we must move forward and unite to defeat Hillary Clinton," he told the Associated Press.
As recently as a week ago, Republican lawmakers were promising to fight Trump on the beaches (or at least the convention floor in Cleveland) if necessary to stop the steak magnate from taking control of the party. Now, even the guy who compared Trump to a fascist dictator is coming on board.