Kelli Ward now in headlights of Arizona Senate race

Kelli Ward

Kelli Ward

The upstart tea party Republican who challenged Arizona Sen. John McCain last year and then set her sights on the state's junior senator is suddenly in the national spotlight.

Former state Sen. Kelli Ward said Tuesday that Sen. Jeff Flake's decision to bow out opens a clear path for her to win his U.S. Senate seat next year. But those statements come even as Arizona Republicans are looking for other candidates to put on the ballot because they consider her unlikely to be able to knock off Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema in the general election next year.

"It's not about the candidate, Kelli Ward, it's about protecting that seat and keeping it a Republican seat and keeping the seat, quite honestly, away from Kyrsten Sinema," said Robert Graham, the former chair of the state Republican Party who is one of a host of people considering jumping into the race. "And I don't believe, and many people don't believe, that Kelli Ward is that person."

Ward pushes back, saying people like Graham and the other potential candidates are establishment Republicans out of touch with the movement that elected President Donald Trump and that they don't like the independence she showed in the state Legislature.

"Some people in the establishment don't like that idea, but the voters do. And that's why I'm not only electable in a primary, I'm extremely electable in a general election," Ward said in an interview Tuesday. "We're on a winning path here, and we're not going to let up."

Ward, 48, is a West Virginia native who moved to Arizona in 1999 and worked as an emergency room physician in Lake Havasu City and nearby communities. Her husband is also an ER doctor and served in the Arizona Air National Guard.

She said she decided to run for office in 2011 after the passage of the Affordable Care Act, which she calls in speeches "an assault on health care liberty and on health care freedom." After the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015 upheld the tax credits that help lower-income people buy insurance, she compared the law on Twitter to slavery and prohibition.

The Republican hopefuls are waiting for the results of new polls to see who they think could beat Sinema, and Ward, who looks unmovable.