Will New Arizona GOP Chair Kelli Ward Back Candidates With Similar Views On Immigration?

By Matthew Casey
Published: Tuesday, February 12, 2019 - 8:10am
Updated: Tuesday, February 12, 2019 - 7:31pm

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Kelli Ward
Bret Jaspers/KJZZ
Kelli Ward is chairwoman of the Arizona Republican Party.

Teresa Mendoza laughs at her own jokes.

Her zingers are often funny. The former Democrat said she crossed an item off her bucket list by trying stand-up here and in California. She has good comedic timing.

“Story telling — I just told stories,” she said.

The story of how Mendoza became a Republican with tens of thousands of social media followers is more serious.

There were at least two key points in her transformation. One was when then-candidate Donald Trump didn’t back down after kicking a prominent Latino journalist out of a press conference. The other was when she heard Dr. Kelli Ward talk on the radio about alternatives to Obamacare.

“Kelli Ward, here’s an interesting thing, she’s actually the reason that I started to really take an interest in politics,” Mendoza said.

Mendoza eventually stumped for Ward and has gotten to know her personally. Mendoza was there in January when state Republicans voted Ward chair of the Arizona GOP.

Teresa Mendoza
Matthew Casey/KJZZ
Teresa Mendoza is a Kelli Ward supporter and former Democrat. Mendoza hopes to become a state committeewoman for the Arizona G.O.P.

“I guess it hasn’t been this exciting in a while,” she said. “But it really was Establishment vs. ‘We the People.’ And ‘We the People’ won out.”

The people Mendoza spoke of chose a state GOP party chair who strongly opposes any kind of amnesty for millions of undocumented immigrants, and has echoed the president’s calls for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Plain and simple, it’s a matter of safety,” Mendoza said.

The Fronteras desk asked several times to interview Ward.

In her previous Senate race, Ward and other Republicans wrestled to prove they most resembled President Donald Trump’s hard-line stance on illegal immigration and border security.

Ward’s selection to head the state GOP raises the question of whether she’ll back Republican candidates who share her views on immigration and border security over the party’s moderates.

Arizona’s other recent hard-right turns, like creating the anti-illegal immigration law Senate Bill 1070, got the entire state labeled racist and xenophobic.    

“And it cost us a lot of business that would have come here and helped grow this economy," said Paul Hickman, a Phoenix Republican who voted in the race for state chair.

Hickman didn’t cast his ballot for Ward.

“I’m not thrilled with Kelli Ward, frankly,” he said.

Hickman spent nearly two decades working for Arizona’s late Sen. John McCain. He admits he has a personal bias against Ward over what he describes as Ward’s offensive behavior toward McCain and his family.

When it comes to Ward's new role leading the state Republican Party, Hickman worries she will support candidates who share her views on wedge issues. 

Paul Hickman
Matthew Casey/KJZZ
Phoenix Republican Paul Hickman spent nearly two decades working for the late Arizona Sen. John McCain. He did not support Kelli Ward for chair of the state G.O.P.

“Like restrictionist immigration policy rather than inclusive immigration policy as an economic policy,” he said.  

Hickman also worries it will lead to more GOP losses, and undo the work that’s gone into distancing Arizona from its past reputation as a state led by racists.

But Ward taking over as state chair does not automatically mean Arizona will get that label again, said Kirk Adams, former chief of staff to Gov. Doug Ducey. 

“(Ducey) is the de facto leader of Republicans in the state of Arizona,” Adams said.

Adams, who is now reportedly doing consulting work for Ducey's office, said the governor has been effective at keeping Arizona’s agenda focused on issues other than immigration.

“Dr. Ward will not have that same kind of ability to move news and move the agenda as the governor has,” he said

State G.O.P. leadership has bounced between establishment and non-establishment chairs like Ward since at least the early 2000s, said Adams. Ward’s job remains the same as her predecessors, raise money and get out the vote for all Republican candidates.

“If she does that job, she will be a successful chairwoman,” Adams said. “If she gets into other areas sort of outside her lane, I think she’ll have much less success."

Besides, it’s a myth that political parties are extremely well organized, and they’re not as powerful as they once were, said Adams.

Kirk Adams
Matthew Casey/KJZZ
Kirk Adams, former chief of staff to Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, is now reportedly doing consulting work for the governor's office. Adams says Ducey remains the de facto leader of the Arizona Republican Party.

“The party chair just does not have that kind of influence to dictate who’s going to run in what primary, and certainly not who’s going win," he said.

Ward supporter Teresa Mendoza said the new chairwoman understands her new role has different responsibilities than if she had been elected Senator.

Exhibit A: Republican Martha McSally’s anticipated 2020 campaign to win McCain’s old Senate seat to which she was appointed by Ducey.

McSally moved to the right on immigration and beat Ward in the primary last year.

“But I can guarantee you that Kelli Ward the chair is most likely going to support [McSally],” Mendoza said.

And what if some other hard-right candidates draw national scorn for their views on illegal immigration and border security?

“Who cares what they call us,” Mendoza said. “And you say more to the right like it’s a bad thing. I think Ducey being more in the middle is even worse.”

Mendoza plans to become a precinct committeewoman for the Arizona GOP. She hopes that will lead to her getting chosen as a state committeewoman, which would let her vote in the next race for chair of the Arizona Republican Party.

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