U.S. Senator John McCain's GOP primary race against Kelli Ward resembles a sumo wrestler sitting on a walnut, with Ward in the role of walnut.
McCain has out-fundraised Ward by more than eight to one. A recent poll by the Phoenix firm Data Orbital shows McCain with a commanding 21-point lead over Ward, a darling of the far right who's pulling only 29 percent of likely voters to McCain's 50 percent.
A pro-McCain attack PAC has dumped more than $1.5 million into TV and online ads that paint Ward as a hapless kook who sides with lefties on how to fight terrorism.
Add to this McCain's recently receiving the grudging endorsement of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump — a man with whom Ward had closely aligned herself — and Ward's nut appears to be as good as cracked.
Yet, despite McCain's overwhelming advantage over Ward, the McCain campaign has fallen prey to a run of unforced errors this election season, bush-league screw-ups that have handed Ward precious — for her, anyway — media attention.
The most recent bungle came from among the small army of unpaid interns McCain's paid staff recruited from Arizona colleges and high schools. The kids do scut work — manning phone banks, knocking on doors, and keeping tabs on Ward's events, a common campaign tactic known as "tracking" your opponent.
The problem is, McCain's statewide force of 300 teens and 20-somethings has yet to grasp the rather advanced concept of "discretion."
And so it was that on July 29, fresh-faced McCain campaign intern Brenda Crawford allegedly undertook to infiltrate a Ward fundraiser at the Monastery bar and grill in Mesa.
According to Ward campaign spokesman Stephen Sebastian, the suggested donation at the door was $35, and per Federal Election Commission requirements, guests must fill out a form with their name, address, etc. Crawford, a student at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, could have paid in cash, but she chose to use a credit card, writing her credit card number down on the slip for the Ward campaign to run later.
But the address Crawford supplied didn't match the billing address on her credit card, so the transaction didn't go through, according to Sebastian. By checking her name online, Ward staffers quickly discovered that their alleged welsher was a proud McCain intern, as Crawford declares on her Facebook page. The Ward campaign looked up Crawford's phone number, gave her a call, and demanded payment.
"She started crying and said that we were bullying her," recalled Sebastian, incredulously, when he and I spoke about the kerfuffle. "You came to a private closed-door event, you falsified a federal document that goes to a federal reporting agency, and now you're trying to get out of paying for an event that you attended that had costs associated with it?"
Sebastian said Crawford finally coughed up the info so they could process the card and secure a $35 donation from the young woman.
The entire operation was "gobsmackingly stupid," Sebastian opined.
"If you're gonna go spy on somebody's event," he suggests, "don't put your own credit card number down and your name. That's spy school 101."
Sebastian conceded that he didn't think the intern intended any harm. "I think her intention was to get into the event however she could," he offered. "I don't think she thought through the ramifications of her actions as she filled out the donor card."
Still, the Ward camp couldn't resist blasting out a press release headlined "McCain Intern Contributes to Ward," complete with photos of the form Crawford filled out. "Crawford unsuccessfully attempted to conceal her identity, but was ultimately exposed by her inept attempt at possible election and credit card fraud," the release states in part. "Crawford’s payment was received today, and the Ward campaign has graciously agreed not to assess a declined payment processing fee or to explore possible criminal charges."
Never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, the far-right news site Breitbart.com trumpeted the McCain staffer's supposed goof with the hyperbolic headline, "Ward Campaign Claims McCain Intern Evaded Payment, Falsified FEC Form at Fundraising Event."
The McCain camp was not amused, and took umbrage at the fact that their intern's current address at GCU — which she'd erroneously written down instead of the billing address associated with her credit card — was being e-mailed to all and sundry via Ward's press list. (I'm told the young woman had to cancel her credit card to be on the safe side.)
McCain spokeswoman Lorna Romero gave me the following statement:
"In an act of extreme desperation, the Ward campaign decided to attack one of our young female interns, distributing her personal information including full name, home address and credit card number in a press release. Kelli Ward's decision to blatantly go after a McCain intern is outrageous and pathetic. Clearly, Ward lacks the professional character, maturity and judgment to serve in the U.S. Senate."
To be brutally honest, when it comes to lacking "maturity," the McCain camp has the cast of Superbad beat.
In another bonehead move, this one in June, McCain intern Trevor Abarzua nearly bowled over Ward's septuagenarian mom while Abarzua was tracking the candidate during a Ward event at a Phoenix eatery.
The incident was captured on video — and disseminated on Breitbart.com.
The video showed Abarzua accidentally back into Ward's mother as he was all up in Ward's face, taping her every grimace. Whereupon Mom performed a World Cup soccer-worthy flop in response. Silly? You betcha. But Breitbart gets a lot of traffic, and the story spread far and wide, eventually being picked up by various other media outlets.
Romero says the McCain camp recruits its interns from local schools. She says about 50 of the 300 interns the campaign has statewide are high schoolers, and that there will be more young 'uns once the primary has been dispensed with. She says the students are supervised by the campaign's field team, which is headed by the state field director, Blaze Baggs.
Ah, Blaze Baggs.
As New Times reported earlier this year, Yavapai-Prescott tribal police arrested Baggs on February 23 and booked him into county jail on a charge of disorderly conduct, after he allegedly tore down a sign for a casino shuttle outside Bucky's Casino, which is owned by the Yavapai-Prescott tribe.
The arresting officer wrote in an incident report that he spotted a man in a surveillance video "who matched Baggs physical and clothing description," walking up to the doors for the casino's shuttle and then reaching for the shuttle sign. "Baggs attempts to tear down the sign," the officer wrote. "Baggs then reached for the sign again and was able to tear it off the wall causing damage to the sign and wall."
Baggs was booked and released. According to the court record, the Prescott City Attorney dismissed the complaint on April 5.
Emily Pitha has not been so lucky.
As New Times reported in April, Pitha and her boyfriend, Christopher Hustrulid, were busted after a sheriff's office raid at their address on Bethany Home Road revealed the makings of a meth lab. Pitha was a fundraiser for several Republican big shots, including John McCain.
The McCain campaign immediately severed ties with Pitha, 34, who faces felony counts related to money laundering, assisting a criminal street gang, and various other drug charges. Pitha started off her political career as an intern, too, for former U.S. Senator Jon Kyl, a longtime McCain ally.
What is the attraction in being a McCain intern, one of hundreds, if not thousands, who will be able to boast that title, given McCain's long career in office? A free McCain T-shirt and all-you-can-eat pizza only goes so far.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Ward campaign spokesman Stephen Sebastian's theory is that the kids have been duped.
"They're always preening with pride that they work for the senator," Sebastian told me. "It's all about the glitz and glamour of it. They think it will look good on their résumé. They don't realize that interns for John McCain are a dime a dozen. It's kind of like everybody's done it. It doesn't help you much on a job application."
I've met McCain campaign staffers (such as Lorna Romero) who seem to have more than a lick of sense. But for entertainment purposes, McCain's excellent intern adventure promises a treasure trove of stories yet to come.