A Republican Senate primary in Arizona featuring three major contenders is shaping up to be the preeminent test of Trumpism in the 2018 midterm election cycle.
This week's entries of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Rep. Martha McSally into the race to replace retiring GOP Sen. Jeff Flake has scrambled the prospects of Kelli Ward, the former state senator and physician who already has been running for 15 months.
Ward, who'd been leading in polling in a matchup against Flake, suddenly finds herself squeezed between Arpaio – an immigration hard-liner with a devoted national following and a relationship with President Donald Trump – and McSally, the retired Air Force colonel and Harvard-educated choice of mainstream and elite Republicans.
RELATED: Rising political stars to watch in 2018
Rising political stars to watch in 2018
Rising political stars to watch in 2018
Randy Bryce (D)
Bryce made waves earlier this year when he announced he would run against House Speaker Paul Ryan in the 2018 midterm elections. Bryce, a Democrat, is a U.S. Army veteran, cancer survivor and union ironworker.
Rep. Scott Taylor, (R-VA)
A former Navy SEAL, Taylor has represented Virginia's 2nd District since he was elected in 2016. He has branded himself as a Republican lawmaker who is unafraid to speak out against President Trump and members of his own party -- recently calling out Roy Moore for allegations of sexual misconduct.
Rep. Seth Moulton, (D-MA)
39-year-old Seth Moulton has increasingly emerged as a prominent House member and one to watch within the Democratic party. He served four tours of duty in Iraq and notably serves as the. Recently, he has advocated for "a new generation" of Democratic leadership.
Rep. Chris Collins, (R-NY)
Collins was elected to represent New York's 27th district on Capitol Hill in 2012, and has since positioned himself as a vocal right-wing defender within the Republican party. He also came out as one of President Trump's most vocal supporters leading up to an after the 2016 election.
Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.)
Krishnamoorthi was elected in 2016 -- making him one of the more freshman lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Still, the former lawyer with a past of aiding the Obama administration has played an integral role this year in congressional investigations into the Trump campaign's potential ties to Russia. As a member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, he has taken many opportunities to speak critically of the clearance aides like Jared Kushner have -- and has firmly positioned himself as a staunch opponent of GOP efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, (R-AK)
As one of 21 women currently serving in the U.S. Senate, Murkowski has positioned herself as a more moderate leader within the Republican party. Murkowski refused to toe the party line on an attempted Obamacare repeal earlier this year, and has since raised skepticism over specific elements of the GOP tax bill and Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore.
Rep. Charlie Crist, (D-Fla.)
Crist is one of the more interesting players currently positioned in the political landscape. Once a Republican, Crist served as both attorney general and governor of Florida -- but then switched to a member of the Independent and eventually Democratic party. In his current House role representing Florida's 13th congressional district, Crist has emerged as a Democrat unafraid to take a middle-ground approach in his policy stances.
Sen. Tom Cotton, (R-AR)
As the youngest U.S. senator, Cotton's political future currently looks very bright. As one of the few Capitol Hill lawmakers that has yet to have a public feud -- on Twitter or otherwise -- with President Trump, Cotton was recently on the shortlist to replace Mike Pompeo as CIA director if Pompeo replaced Rex Tillerson as secretary of state.
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, (D-NV)
Catherine Cortez Masto is the first Latina ever elected to the U.S. Senate.
Governor-elect Ralph Northam (D-VA)
Northam was elected governor of Virginia in the series of "anti-Trump" Election Day victories Democrats celebrated in Nov. 2017. Northam's victory over Ed Gillespie signaled a potential shift in the oft-fraught over Virginia battleground state -- and Northam's gubernatorial tenure will be one to eye in the context of midterms and the 2020 presidential election.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D, NY)
Many who watch politics closely have noted Gillibrand as one to watch since she was appointed to Hillary Clinton's former Senate seat in 2009, and then elected in 2012. Early in her Senate career, Gillibrand used her position as a member of the Committee on Armed Services to chalk up a major legislative win by championing the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Gillibrand has also recently spoken out against sexual harassment allegations stemming from both Democratic and Republican offices -- calling on both Sen. Al Franken and President Trump to resign.
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Ward's pathway to victory was predicated on her ability to consolidate conservatives. Having to now compete for those voters with Arpaio, it's McSally who looks to benefit from the breach on the right. An OH Predictive Insights poll conducted this week of 504 registered voters found McSally with 31 percent support to Arpaio's 29 percent. Ward, despite having the longest tenure in the race, was in third with 25 percent. A November poll by the same firm pegged Ward at 42 percent support to McSally's 34 percent in a two-person contest.
"Sheriff Joe's entrance into the race probably assures Martha McSally the nomination," says Bruce Ash, a Republican National Committeeman from Arizona. "It probably splits the vote on Kelli Ward. The primary is probably a little more certain for Martha with Sheriff Joe's entry."
Adds a GOP lobbyist in Phoenix: "This kind of kills Ward. If you're hard-line on immigration, you're going to go with Joe. If you're a [former U.S. Sen.] Jon Kyl-establishment Republican, you're going to go with McSally."
In response to the reshuffled political playboard, Ward has chosen to play nice with Arpaio while shivving McSally, who formally launched her campaign Friday on conservative host Hugh Hewitt's radio show ahead of a statewide tour.
Dubbing her "Jeff Flake 2.0," Ward, 48, laced into McSally during an appearance on a Tucson radio station Wednesday, describing the second-term congresswoman as a pretender, an opportunist and part of the dreaded Washington establishment.
"She was [Sen. John] McCain Jr. and Flake Jr.," Ward said on KNST-AM. "McSally did not support President Trump. She refused to say who she voted for in the presidential election."
"I talked to somebody from her campaign and what he told me – and it's very sad – is that Martha sees an opportunity in this race and she's looking for her next big thing. Well, guess what? I'm looking for the future of our country, for the future of our children, for the future of our grandchildren – not the next big thing for Kelli Ward. It is appalling to hear someone say that," she continued.
When asked by host Garret Lewis about Arpaio, Ward was laudatory, calling him a "patriot" and praising his leadership on working to stop illegal immigration.
The furthest Ward would go in sketching a contrast was to gently frame herself as a more rounded candidate than Arpaio, who is almost wholly defined by a single issue. Then, she turned back to McSally.
"Actually, she has a worse voting record than Sen. Flake and Sen. McCain," Ward said.
"She's dismal. I don't want dismal."
Notably, the website FiveThirtyEight pegs its calculation of how often McSally votes in line with Trump's positions at 96.7 percent, compared with Flake's 90.7 percent score and McCain's 83 percent tally.
To counter McSally's announcement tour, the Ward campaign is launching a digital advertisement that will advance to cable television next week. It outlines a spree of McSally's critiques of Trump.
"McSally questioned Trump's character, refusing to endorse him and leaving open the possibility of voting for Hillary Clinton," a narrator in the 60-second spot says. "After his inauguration, McSally continued to undermine our president."
The 85-year-old Arpaio, who lost his 2016 re-election bid for sheriff after being indicted for criminal contempt of court, is presenting himself as an avatar of Trump. Arpaio was one of Trump's earliest supporters, endorsing him a week before the Iowa caucuses, and the president returned the loyalty by pardoning Arpaio of his conviction for disregarding a court order on how to police illegal immigration.
RELATED: Joe Arpaio through the years
Joe Arpaio through the years
Joe Arpaio through the years
Joe Arpaio, sheriff of Maricopa County, in Arizona, and called 'America's Toughest Sheriff', had the controversial idea to set-up a 'Tent City' as an extension of the Maricopa County Jail. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Sygma via Getty Images)
PHOENIX, AZ - MAY 28: Prisoners dressed in stripped inmate informs walk under the hot Arizona sun at tent city jail opened near Phoenix by the Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Arpaio claims to be 'the toughest Sheriff in the United States.' (Photo credit should read JEAN-LOUP SENSE/AFP/Getty Images)
Teenage inmates inside a tent at the Maricopa County 'Pup Tent City' jail complex for juveniles in Phoenix December 23, 1998. Pup Tents is the third in a series of controversial Tent Cities that Sheriff Joe Arpaio has opened since 1993, all in an effort to ease jail overcrowding, provide more jail space for arrestees and save taxpayers millions of dollars. Males were introduced to Tent City in 1993, and convicted females went into Tents in 1995. The entire complex today houses about 1,400 convicted males and females. (photo by Mike Fiala)
PHOENIX - JULY 8: Barney, a three year old St. Bernard, stares out at inmates who have stopped by his cell for a visit at the jail's fourth floor Maricopa Animal Safe Hospice (MASH) July 8, 2005 in Phoenix, Arizona. 17 female inmates, whom volunteer and go through a formal interview process for the privileged duty of caring for the animals, care for 20 dogs and 31 cats in the five year old program started by Sheriff Joe Arpaio. The inmates have two days removed from their jail sentence for each day worked in the unit. The program takes in animals that have been abused, abandoned or are evidence in a criminal case and keeps them until they are adopted. Inmates feed, clean, groom and provide obedience lessons for the 587 animals (dogs, cats, birds, horses) that have gone through the hospice since it began. (Photo by Jeff Topping/Getty Images)
[UNVERIFIED CONTENT] Joe Arpaio, 'America's Toughest Sheriff' at the annual Fiesta del Sol parade in Phoenix.
PHOENIX - FEBRUARY 11: Maricopa County Sheriff Officer Joe Arpaio speaks during a news conference regarding an immigration raid his officers conducted at HMI Contracting February 11, 2009 in Phoenix, Arizona. Several undocumented workers were arrested after Arpaio ordered the raid on the company, which has a contract with the County Board of Supervisors to do landscaping at county buildings. (Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images)
PHOENIX, AZ - APRIL 17: Inmates walk as they are moved after being ordered by Maricopa County Sheriff Officer Joe Arpaio (R), looking on, to be placed into new housing to open up new beds for maximum security inmates on April 17, 2009 in Phoenix, Arizona. Arpaio has been facing criticism from Hispanic activists and lawmakers, alleging that Arpaio's crackdown methods on illegal immigrants involve racial profiling. (Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images)
PHOENIX, AZ - APRIL 17: Inmates walk as they are moved after being ordered by Maricopa County Sheriff Officer Joe Arpaio to be placed into new housing to open up new beds for maximum security inmates on April 17, 2009 in Phoenix, Arizona. Arpaio has been facing criticism from Hispanic activists and lawmakers, alleging that Arpaio's crackdown methods on illegal immigrants involve racial profiling. (Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images)
PHOENIX - APRIL 29: Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio speaks to participants of the Border Security Expo on April 29, 2010 in Phoenix, Arizona. Arpaio, promoted by his supporters as 'America's Toughest Sheriff', voiced his support for Arizona's new immigration enforcement law. His deputies conduct frequent sweeps to arrest undocumented immigrants in his county, which includes the state capitol Phoenix. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
PHOENIX, AZ - APRIL 17: Maricopa County Sheriff Officer Joe Arpaio's name plate and business cards sit on his desk at his office on April 17, 2009 in Phoenix, Arizona. Arpaio has been facing criticism from Hispanic activists and lawmakers, alleging that Arpaio's crackdown methods on illegal immigrants involve racial profiling. (Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images)
PHOENIX - APRIL 30: Undocumented immigrant Jose Hechavaria (R), 43, stands with fellow prisoners in the yard of the Maricopa County Tent City Jail on April 30, 2010 in Phoenix, Arizona. Hechavaria, a 13-year resident of Arizona, said he was arrested by sheriff's deputies on a DUI charge and then held because of his illegal immigration statues. Some 200 undocumented immigrants are currently serving time in the facility. The controversial jail is run by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who has been an outspoken critic of illegal immigration and a supporter of Arizona's new tough immigration law. Prisoners at the facility are fed twice a day, sleep in non-airconditioned tents and are issued striped prison uniforms and pink underwear and socks. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio speaks with a reporter outside his famous tent city jail for misdemeanor offenses May 3, 2010. A few hours later he officially announced he would not be running for Arizona Governor saying, I have come so far and accomplished so much in the past 18 years as Sheriff that to leave now just doesnï¿½t make sense,ï¿½ said Arpaio. 'Right now, we are standing in the cross-hairs of history in this state and as Sheriff of the most populous county in Arizona, there is much work yet to do.' AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
Maricopa Country Detention Officer Rene Ansley holds up one of the pink boxer style underware male inmates wear inside Sheriff Joe Arpaio's tent city jail May 3, 2010, in Phoenix, Arizona. The inmates also have matching pink socks. This area of the tent city houses misdemeanor offenders. AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
RANCHO BERNARDO, CA - AUGUST 10: Sheriff Joe Arpaio speaks during a visit to the Rancho Bernardo Inn on August 10, 2010 in Rancho Bernardo, California. Arpaio, who is Sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona, gained national attention for using deputies to conduct raids to apprehend illegal immigrants and building large outdoor prison tents to house inmates. (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS - OCTOBER 19: Maricopa County, Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio speaks at a Tea Party Express rally at Stoney's Rockin' Country October 19, 2010 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The tour, part of an initiative to get conservatives elected to the House and Senate, will move across country and conclude on November 1, 2010 in Concord, New Hampshire the day before the contentious mid-term elections (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
CRESTON, IA - DECEMBER 27: Texas governor and Republican candidate for president Rick Perry (C) walks with Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio (L) before a campaign stop at Adams Street Espresso on December 27, 2011 in Creston, Iowa. With one week to go before the Iowa caucuses, Rick Perry continues his bus tour through Iowa. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
PHOENIX, AZ - MARCH 11: Immigrant inmates line up for breakfast at the Maricopa County Tent City jail on March 11, 2013 in Phoenix, Arizona. Striped uniforms and pink undergarments are standard issue at the facility. The tent jail, run by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, houses undocumented immigrants who are serving up to one year after being convicted of crime in the county. Although many of immigrants have lived in the U.S for years, often with families, most will be deported to Mexico after serving their sentences. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
PHOENIX, AZ - MARCH 11: Immigrant inmates walk for excercise at the Maricopa County Tent City jail on March 11, 2013 in Phoenix, Arizona. The striped uniforms and pink undergarments are standard issue at the facility. The tent jail, run by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, houses undocumented immigrants who are serving up to one year after being convicted of crime in the county. Although many of immigrants have lived in the U.S for years, often with families, most will be deported to Mexico after serving their sentences. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
PHOENIX, AZ - JUNE 3: Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio salutes Muhannad Al Kusairy during a meeting at his office in Phoenix, Arizona on Monday, June 3, 2013. Al Kusairy is hoping to taking steps to become a Maricopa County Deputy Sheriff once he becomes a citizen. (Photo by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
MARSHALLTOWN, IA - JANUARY 26: Sheriff Joe Arpaio (L) of Maricopa County, Arizona listens as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to the press prior to a rally on January 26, 2016 in Marshalltown, Iowa. Arpaio today announced his support for Trump's presidential bid. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - JULY 19: Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio is surrounded by protesters and members of the media at the the site of the Republican National Convention (RNC) in downtown Cleveland on the second day of the convention on July 19, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. Many people have stayed away from downtown due to road closures and the fear of violence. An estimated 50,000 people are expected in Cleveland, including hundreds of protesters and members of the media. The four-day Republican National Convention kicked off on July 18. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - JULY 21: Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio gestures to the crowd while delivering a speech on the fourth day of the Republican National Convention on July 21, 2016 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump received the number of votes needed to secure the party's nomination. An estimated 50,000 people are expected in Cleveland, including hundreds of protesters and members of the media. The four-day Republican National Convention kicked off on July 18. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - JULY 21:
Sheriff Joe Arpaio exits the stage after delivering a speech at the Republican National Convention on Thursday, July 21, 2016. (Photo by Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - JULY 19: Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio takes part in the convention openings on the second day of the Republican National Convention on July 19, 2016 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. An estimated 50,000 people are expected in Cleveland, including hundreds of protesters and members of the media. The four-day Republican National Convention kicked off on July 18. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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Arpaio surprised the political class with his decision to pursue the Senate seat. In doing so, he undercut Ward's ability to distinctly tie herself to the president, and he shows no signs of his loyalty to Trump waning.
For example, after Trump reportedly denigrated some nations as "shithole countries" in a meeting with lawmakers Thursday, Arpaio dismissed the fury on MSNBC, saying, "I support him regardless of what he says."
The Arpaio campaign is also promoting the president's effusive praise of the former sheriff, even though Trump hasn't issued a formal endorsement in the race.
"Kelli has been running for a U.S. Senate seat for some time now. We just don't think she's gained traction. Her fundraising has been weak; she's burned through a lot of it," says Chad Willems, an Arpaio campaign adviser. "A lot of Kelli Ward's support has been on anti-Flake sentiment. I think we will take some of her supporters."
Still, Willems says he doesn't expect Arpaio to attack either Ward or McSally.
"We're not going to throw the first punch. That is not in our game plan," he says.
The 51-year-old McSally – the first U.S. woman to fly in combat, with half a dozen deployments to the Middle East and Afghanistan under her belt – enters the race as a conservative closest to the pragmatic center of the party.
But keenly aware of the more tribal and nationalistic makeup of the GOP primary electorate, her campaign announcement video showcases images of McSally in a fighter pilot outfit, touts her past refusal to "bow down to Sharia law" in connection with a military stint in Saudi Arabia, and showcases Trump's praise for her.
Though McSally still has not said whether or not she even voted for Trump, the congresswoman, like Ward and Arpaio, wants to be associated with him.
"Like our president, I'm tired of PC politicians and their BS excuses," she says in the campaign kickoff video, channeling the spirit of Trump's unbridled language. "I'm a fighter pilot and I talk like one. That's why I told Washington Republicans to grow a pair of ovaries and get the job done."
An adviser close to McSally also sees Arpaio's candidacy as severely diminishing Ward's viability.
"There's no single voter that is more available to [Ward] today than yesterday. If she's thoughtful, she'll get an appointment to the undersecretary of interior or something. Otherwise, her path to political relevance is extinction," the adviser says.
Ward supporters, too, are openly concerned about Arpaio's presence in the race. But they remain wholly opposed to McSally, someone they see as a wolf in sheep's clothing when it comes to promises on immigration.
"I find it disturbing that Joe has come along, as much as I appreciate Joe and as much as I understand he got the shaft as sheriff, I'm sorry, he's late to this ballgame.He needs to find another ballgame," says Russell Sias, the GOP chairman of La Paz County, Arizona. "McSally does not have my support regardless. I'm not interested in her at all. Too liberal."
J.D. Hayworth, the former congressman who unsuccessfully challenged McCain in the 2010 GOP Senate primary, says McSally's toughening talk on immigration is reminiscent of how he says McCain and Flake would reposition themselves during an election cycle.
RELATED: High-profile Congressional Republicans
High-profile Congressional Republicans
High-profile Congressional Republicans
Senator John McCain (R-AZ)
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)
House of Representatives Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI)
Senator Lindsey Graham
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC)
Senator Richard Burr (R-NC)
U.S. Senator Susan Collins (R-ME)
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL)
Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX)
Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AL)
Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT)
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"The two incumbent senators talked a very good game about border security. If you're looking for a tendency that should trouble Arizona voters, that is one," Hayworth says. "Why trust her? She comes from the wing of the party that has used this as double talk, if not an out-and-out fabrication. Her name is attached to a bill that gives amnesty to the DACA folks. I think open-border folks will flock to her candidacy."
In the current debate over an immigration deal, McSally is supportive of an approach that provides an extension of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, but only if border security is coupled with it. She's joined with other GOP members to introduce the Securing America's Future Act, which aims to meet Trump priorities for a DACA fix by eliminating a visa lottery and ending chain migration for immigrants' extended family members. The bill's sponsors say the measure provides no special pathway to citizenship for DACA enrollees, who "may only make use of existing paths to green cards."
Ward, meanwhile, says there should be no discussion of a solution for children brought to the country illegally "without actually building" Trump's promised border wall. In separate interviews, Arpaio has sent conflicting signals. He said DACA recipients should be deported on NPR, but told CNN he'd probably support the president as a senator if Trump wanted them to stay.
It's unlikely any of the three will want to do anything that depicts them as distanced from the president, who remains popular with the most dedicated primary voters. But with the Arizona primary contest on the final Tuesday in August, there's plenty of time for strategies to change and for Trump to decide to weigh in.
Watching all of this with likely satisfaction is the sure-to-be-favored Democratic primary candidate, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, who just announced raising $1.6 million during the last fundraising quarter to bring her total cash account to more than $5 million.
"The Arizona Senate race just took an ugly turn," a recent Sinema fundraising email beckoned, citing Arpaio's entrance.
But for Sinema right now, the uglier the GOP race gets, the better.