Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Race of the Day- Arizona U.S. Senate

Arizona U.S. Senate

98 Days Until Election Day

Status: Republican Incumbent
2016 Presidential Result: Red State (West)

Outlook: Leans Democrat

The political sands have shifted quick in Arizona. For thirty years, no Democrat had won a U.S. Senate seat in the Grand Canyon State. That changed in 2018 and now the party stands on the edge of winning both of the Senate seats in consecutive cycles. Even more noteworthy is that the same Republican candidate may lose both races. Two very different Republicans are most responsible for this present reality. Donald Trump and John McCain.

McCain was elected six times to the Senate from Arizona and rose to legendary political status in the state and much recognition around America, especially as his party's Presidential nominee in 2008. In the later years of his career, McCain had gained the enmity of many on the right wing of his party both nationally and at home, but still managed to fend off primary challengers and attempts by the Democrats to unseat him.

In 2016, McCain won reelection by 13 points in a contest Democrats had once thought they had a chance of flipping while Donald Trump carried the traditionally Republican state by just three points. McCain was one of many Arizona Republicans who did not vote for Trump after a period of some back and forth earlier in the cycle. Not long after becoming an official candidate, Trump had insulted McCain's reputation of being an American hero because of his service in the military and status as a prisoner of war for several years. Some thought this would cost Trump any chance he had in the election, but that proved to not be the case.

The bad blood between McCain and Trump continued with the new year but not that long into it, McCain was given a diagnosis of advanced brain cancer. This did nothing to improve the McCain-Trump relationship and in one of his final official actions, the Senator cast the deciding vote on a specific effort to repeal Obamacare. McCain lost his battle with cancer in 2018 and Trump continued to be very publicly clear that he disliked McCain and has even taken shots at him in death.

Some ghoulish anti-McCain voices in the party were calling for the Senator to resign while battling cancer but he did not do so. After his death, Arizona's GOP Governor Doug Ducey decided not to rile Trump and others by appointing McCain's widow Cindy to the seat but instead picked respected former U.S. Senator Jon Kyl as a caretaker for the seat. In the meantime, the GOP primary for the state's other seat had been underway.

Senator Jeff Flake, once a conservative stalwart, had been among the most open anti-Trump voices in the party and it was clear he could not win reelection after having fallen out of favor in the newly styled Republican Party. Two staunch controversial allies of Trump were running to replace him but the party's frontrunner was Congresswoman Martha McSally, a former Air Force pilot considered a political rising star. This was despite the fact that she had lost a competitive Tuscon area House race in 2012 before winning the seat in 2014.

At one point, McSally had considered McCain to be a political mentor and she had joined him in 2016 by publicly not supporting the Trump candidacy. With statewide ambitions though and a potential tough primary approaching, she changed directions and embraced the new President politically. At the signing of a bill named after McCain at which Trump appeared at the ceremony, she took steps to not even mention McCain's name in order to not upset Trump. When the Senator passed away, her statement was somewhat perfunctory as compared to other politicians on both sides of the aisle.

When all was said and done, McSally won the 2018 primary for the Senate by more than 2-1. Her opponents were viewed as unelectable by many. One has to wonder if she would have probably still won even if she had not taken that many steps towards Trumpism. It was a relatively short general election though and the party was not quick to unite behind her. She found herself facing House colleague Kirsten Sinema. whom despite having a somewhat  moderate House record had a past as a young woman active in left-wing causes.

The campaign between the two women was fairly nasty. During one debate, McSally used the term "treason" to describe the actions of Sinema during the time after the 9/11 attacks and contrasted that to her own military record. Many voters thought McSally went too far. In a race she had been expected to win, and in which she led on Election Night, the final tally had her losing to Sinema by about two points. A new Democrat had been elected to the Senate from Arizona for the first since the 1970s. Many moderate Republicans in the state, or those who felt loyalty to McCain crossed party lines and supported the Democrat. It is also likely true that some right-wing opponents of McSally sat the race out.

McSally graciously excepted defeat, perhaps because she knew that the other Arizona Senate seat would be up in the next cycle via special election. At this point, the interim Senator Kyl did what he said he might do, and resigned early. Ducey then had another appointment, and he picked McSally, the woman who had just lost a close Senate election, giving her a head start for a 2020 race. Thus, both Sinema and McSally would be headed from the House to Senate.

While McSally has won plaudits for her candor in discussing her experience as a sexual assault survivor during her time in the military, she has not been seen as taking too many steps to make amends with the McCain wing of the party. Trump has been fairly unpopular in Arizona, and McSally has been hurt by being seen as too close to him politically. A few months back, with television cameras rolling, and in what appeared to be a scripted response, she refused to answer a question from a CNN reporter and referred to him as a "liberal hack." While she is facing a primary challenge next week against a wealthy opponent, she is not expected to lose that. She does after all have Trump's endorsement was well as other more establishment GOP figures. Next Tuesday might feel like a hallow victory for the new Senator though as she is seen as a clear underdog for the general election.

The Democrats happen to have a strong candidate in Mark Kelly, a well known former astronaut (he happens to also have a twin brother who has spent much time with NASA in space) with a military background. The party field was cleared for the first time candidate, who is not exactly a stranger to Congress. In 2007, the previously divorced Kelly, who was living in Texas and perhaps considered himself a Republican (McSally had a marriage annulled in the late '90s), married Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, a politically promising young Democrat from Arizona. In early 2011, she was nearly killed by a deranged gunman who targeted her at a constituent meet and greet.

Somewhat miraculously, Giffords survived and embarked on a long rehabilitation. While she was able to return to Congress, it was clear that her injuries were such that she could no longer effectively serve, even as many were continuing to talk up the possibility that Giffords could run for the Senate. Her seat was first won by her Chief of Staff, who had also survived being shot that day. That Congressman won the tough race against McSally in 2012 before being unseated by her in 2014.

Kelly was seen as the devoted husband who helped his wife through the ordeal and who served as her caretaker. Many began to now talk about him as a potential candidate in Arizona, but he demurred. Both Giffords and Kelly became associated with gun control measures although not exclusively affiliated with Democrat candidates.

Many Democrats were pleasantly surprised when Kelly jumped into the 2020 Senate race, despite not knowing a lot about his political beliefs, beyond gun control measures, which might be a risky issue in Arizona. Kelly has tried to portray himself as a mainstream Democrat in his first campaign, but his efforts thus far have seemingly been more about biography and less on issues. The one time astronaut has also raised an astronomical amount of money from around the country. The fact is that Trump has fallen out of favor in Arizona, and many former or disaffected Republicans, particular upscale voters in Maricopa County are now far more open to supporting a Democrat seen as a moderate. That is what helped Sinema in 2018, even as the same cycle saw a more liberal Democrat lose by a solid margin to Governor Ducey, who paid more public respect to the McCain family than McSally had done.

Right now, amid the Covid 19 pandemic and a recent spike in Arizona, Trump and his party have even more political problems. Recent polls have started to show a single digit lead for Kelly over McSally now growing to double digits. Certainly, something has to change if she wants to hold the seat and not suffer the indignity of losing two Senate races in two cycles and losing races for both Arizona Senate seats. At one point in time, McSally, by virtue of her biography and political positioning looked like one of the fastest rising stars in the entire GOP. Then Trump came along though. There also just may be something about her that just does not click with the electorate. Neither candidate in this race grew up in Arizona, but that is not at all uncommon there. For now, and before a primary vote is held, I am being cautious by classifying this race involving a Republican incumbent as "Leans Democrat."

McSally might have a chance if she can somehow find a way to make Kelly appear unready for the Senate by lack of knowledge of issues or if she can somehow prove he has views that are too far to the left. She tried that tact against Sinema though last time and it backfired on her. Kelly does not have a record to attack and whatever vulnerabilities he might have for some on the 2nd Amendment might just remind voters of how he has cared for his permanently disabled wife after her near assassination.

Democrats got a huge break when Kelly got into this race and this seems like it is now his race to lose. Still, the only recent victory for Democrats in a statewide federal race there was a close one in a strong Democrat year overall. It sure looks though like the Republican is about to lose again this year in Arizona, for reasons largely attributed to Donald Trump, and he may lose there with her.

U.S. Senate races predicted thus far:

1 D (1 Lean)
2 R (1 Likely, 1 Lean)

Total with predictions thus far:

36 Democrats (35 holdovers, 1 Lean)
32 Republicans (30 holdovers, 1 Likely, 1 Lean)


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