The GOP establishment is rallying around a new frontrunner to replace Jeff Flake — but she’s been repeatedly critical of Trump

Martha McSally.

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Martha McSally.
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Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

    Republican Rep. Martha McSally of Arizona is considered to be the Republican establishment’s favorite to replace Sen. Jeff Flake. She has a history of critical comments aimed at President Donald Trump. But she is also the member of Arizona’s GOP House delegation, whose votes most closely align with Trump’s agenda.

Republican Rep. Martha McSally of Arizona is emerging as the GOP establishment’s favorite to replace retiring Sen. Jeff Flake.

But McSally could run into trouble in a possible run against Republican opponents including former state Sen. Kelli Ward – who is backed by former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and pro-President Donald Trump media – for past comments critical of Trump.

US News and World Report reported last month that McSally was taking steps toward launching a campaign for Flake’s seat, as she indicated interest in the vacancy during a closed-door meeting with the rest of Arizona’s GOP House delegation. The news came after three of Arizona’s other GOP congressmen – Reps. Trent Franks, Paul Gosar, and David Schweikert – ruled out runs for Flake’s seat.

GOP sources told the outlet that McSally has become the consensus candidate of lawmakers and donors.

On Tuesday, The Arizona Republic reported that McSally told House colleagues she is running for the seat.

In an environment in which Bannon has promised to challenge the establishment at every level in 2018, McSally’s past Trump criticism could become an issue.

During a town hall earlier this year, for instance, she called the early weeks of the administration “tremendously bumpy.”

“Some of their decisions and the way they have implemented them have certainly not been well coordinated, not well implemented,” she said. “I’m concerned about distractions. I’m concerned about not shifting from campaigning to governing.”

“He’s our president. So what are we going to do about it?” McSally said.

In a secretly taped recording posted this spring, McSally, who represents somewhat of a swing district in the state, said the current political environment “would have me not prevail” and that “we’re going to hand the gavel to Pelosi in 2018,” referring to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

“They only need 23 seats and the path to that gavel being handed over is through my seat,” she said, noting that “any” GOP member of Congress is “going down with the ship.”

“There’s just an element out there that’s just, like, so against the president,” she said. “Like they just can’t see straight. And all of a sudden on January 20, I’m like his twin sister. I’m, like, responsible for everything he does, and tweets and says. And they want me to be spending my time as a pundit. ‘I disagree with that. I agree with this.’ I have a job in the legislature! … We’re doing the best we can through the minefield that we have to navigate with a tremendous amount of distractions out there.”

McSally refused to make an endorsement during the presidential campaign, but said of Trump, “That’s just not how leaders carry themselves.”

“But I don’t think people should dismiss what he is hearing from people about the level of frustration about lack of opportunity and concerns about safety and security,” she said. “How you deal with that, what you think the solution is – hopefully we can get to where that’s a battle of ideas of public policy solutions for complex problems as opposed to a WWF tournament.”

The Bannon faction has already begun to sound the alarm on McSally.

“If the McConnell establishment runs another ‘Never Trumper’ in Arizona like Martha McSally, expect the full weight of the president’s America First movement to come down upon her like a ton of bricks,” Andy Surabian, an adviser to the Trump-aligned Great America Alliance and a close Bannon adviser, told US News.

Several influential conservative groups, including the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks, said Friday they would oppose a McSally run.

A representative for McSally didn’t respond to a request for comment.

But McSally does have Trump bona-fides that she could stand behind during a campaign. The Arizona Republic recently reported that McSally is the state’s most reliable vote in Congress for Trump’s agenda – more so than the state’s multiple Freedom Caucus members. And in May remarks at the White House, Trump called McSally “my friend” and the “real deal.”

At the moment, Ward is the frontrunner for the seat. But many fear that she is too fringe of a candidate to win in a general election. Last year, Ward ran a losing primary campaign against Sen. John McCain.

What Ward has going for her is increased name recognition and the backing of Trump’s “America First” coalition.

Trump has tweeted in support of Ward’s candidacy, but he has not endorsed the former state senator.

And one of Trump’s top donors, the billionaire hedge fund manager Robert Mercer, has donated $300,000 to a pro-Ward super PAC, Politico reported.

Yet in the same month, following a Phoenix rally, Trump met with two possible candidates who had yet to jump into the race: Arizona Treasurer Jeff DeWit and former state GOP Chairman Robert Graham.

In addition to DeWit and Graham, former Rep. Matt Salmon and Jay Heiler, a member of the Arizona Board of Regents, are also considered to be potential candidates in the race.