PHOENIX - Sen. John McCain now has an official primary challenger in Arizona state Sen. Kelli Ward, a tea party favorite who announced Tuesday she's formally taking on the task of trying to knock off the five-term Republican lawmaker next year.
Ward launched an exploratory committee earlier this year and has been making the rounds of conservative political events as she tested the waters. On Tuesday, she launched a campaign website and announced that she's "running for the U.S. Senate to give you a real choice."
Ward's announcement brought a rapid rebuttal from McCain, whose spokesman hammered her for calling a meeting in Mohave County last year that explored whether commercial aircraft were spraying chemicals on the populace. He also criticized statements she's made in support of comments by former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling and Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy that were seen as racist.
"Senator Ward's record of bizarre statements and questionable judgment will be a key concern for Arizona voters over the next year," McCain spokesman Brian Rogers said in a statement.
Ward is a physician from Lake Havasu City who is serving her second term in the state Senate. She has championed efforts to push back against the federal government and is a vocal opponent of Common Core school standards and the Affordable Care Act.
"Arizonans are looking for a change after thirty years, and they are looking for someone who will represent them and their interests. They are looking for someone to be their voice, and I believe I can be that person," she said on her campaign website. "Failures of leadership have led to the problems we face in our state and our country: open borders, over 90 million Americans out of work, lost insurance and skyrocketing costs under ObamaCare, and a federal budget that only goes up. It's time to change that."
McCain is widely disliked by the conservative wing of the state Republican Party, an issue highlighted Saturday when presidential candidate Donald Trump mentioned him and drew a huge chorus of "boos" from a crowd of 4,200 at the Phoenix Convention Center. The state Republican Party's leaders, dominated by conservatives, censured McCain last year for not being sufficiently conservative, but he's brushed off the criticism.
The last time McCain sought re-election, in 2010, he also faced a challenge from the right in Rep. J.D. Hayworth, a conservative stalwart. McCain trounced him in a primary victory where he drew 56 percent of the vote to Hayworth's 32 percent.
McCain announced in April that he would seek a sixth term in the Senate. He will be 80 by Election Day, but said he is in great shape and has much work to do in the Senate.
"I work 16-hour days. Look at what I've done for Arizona and America," he told The Associated Press on the day he announced. "Make your own judgment."
Ward will have a tough time raising enough money to make a serious run at McCain. He's already sitting on a $3.6 million war chest and has the ability to raise much more.
"Senator McCain looks forward to this campaign, and to discussing his strong record of protecting America's national security, standing up for veterans, and growing Arizona's economy," Rogers said.
On the Democratic side, Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick announced in April that she would run against McCain instead of seeking another term representing the 1st Congressional District.