McSally Crushes Right-Wing Hardliners, Setting Up Arizona Senate Slug Match

UNITED STATES - JULY 11: Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., leaves the House Republican Conference meeting in the Capitol on Wednesday, July 11, 2018. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/POOL)
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August 28, 2018 11:45 p.m.
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Rep. Martha McSally (R-AZ) easily defeated her two right-wing opponents to win her state’s Senate nomination Tuesday, setting up a marquee matchup against fellow Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ).

McSally led former state Sen. Kelli Ward (R) and former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio by wide margins, with 51 percent of the vote to 29 percent for Ward and 20 percent for Arpaio, when the Associated Press called the race shortly before midnight EST.

McSally’s comfortable win comes after she and her allies spent millions in ads to destroy Ward in the race’s closing weeks, a sign McSally’s campaign wasn’t comfortable with where the race stood until right before Election Day. McSally also bear-hugged President Trump, featuring him in ads, a decision that played well in the primary but may come back to haunt her in the fall in the purple-trending state.

The result is a big relief for establishment Republicans who believed the other two candidates would take the race off the map if Ward or Arpaio won the primary.

McSally’s opponents helped her plenty as well. Arpaio’s decision to run split the hardline anti-immigrant, Trump-aligned and fringe vote, giving McSally a much easier path to the nomination. He didn’t run a real race, never once airing campaign ads. And Ward spent the home stretch of the race insulting the late Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) in the final days before his death and warring with staffers she’d fired who then went to work for Arpaio.

While McSally has had to spend months fending off her gadfly challengers, Sinema has spent that time burnishing her centrist credentials with voters.

She kept that up Tuesday night, leading her victory statement by paying homage to McCain and “the lifetime of service and the example he has set for us.”

“It’s up to all of us to follow his lead of always putting country over party,” she said. “Tonight, we look ahead and continue fighting to uphold the values we all share: a fair shot at the American Dream and an unwavering commitment to the Arizona we love.”

McSally, likewise, paid homage to McCain in her victory speech, calling him an “American hero” who “paid an unfathomable price for our freedom.”

Sinema began her career as a much more liberal activist, working for Ralph Nader’s presidential campaign and leading Iraq War protests in the state. While she’s cultivated a centrist voting record since reaching Congress six years ago, it remains to be seen whether her independent bona fides will hold up under an onslaught of ad spending from McSally and her allies.

Strategists in both parties predict a close and expensive race — but both Democrats and Republicans told TPM that they’d rather be Sinema than McSally in recent weeks. Sinema has led McSally by single digits in almost every public and private poll of the race so far. And while McSally will likely consolidate some of the GOP base now that she has the nomination, she’ll have to make sure to keep them happy as she tries to pivot back to her previous centrist image — a tough dance when early voting in the race begins in just over a month.

The race is one of Democrats’ two best pickup opportunities this fall, alongside Nevada, and is a must-win for them if they hope to avoid losing ground in the Senate and keeping their very slim hopes alive of winning Senate control this November.

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