Rep. Martha McSally (R-AZ) appears to be poised to win her Tuesday Senate primary over a pair of hardline conservatives. But the way she had to win that race may turn it into a pyrrhic victory.
McSally was forced into the arms of President Trump and away from her formerly centrist positions on immigration in order to ward off conspiracy theorist-loving former state Sen. Kelli Ward (R) and former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio (R), spending heavily on ads promoting her work with the president and attacking Ward over the primary’s final weeks.
That move seems to have worked in the short term — she’s opened up a double-digit lead in most recent private and public polls after earlier numbers showed a closer race. But she’s been forced to stay locked into primary mode as Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) has been given the luxury of running to the middle unchecked.
The race is one of Democrats’ two best pickup opportunities this year, and is a must-win for them to have any shot at Senate control.
“Martha McSally’s going to do okay in the primary… but she’s going to have a very tough time in the general election,” former Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-AZ), a moderate who backs McSally and once held her current Tucson-area seat in Congress, told TPM. “She’s had to move to where the base of the Republican Party is, to the right. The trick’s going to be to try to move back to the center in the general election.”
McSally and her outside allies have spent millions to make sure that Ward would be held off in the race’s closing weeks, carpet-bombing her closest rival with ads questioning whether Ward was really as pro-Trump as she claims and highlighting McSally’s own work with a president who she was critical of in 2016. She’s made sure to appear by his side numerous times over the past year, and has used footage of Trump praising her in TV spots.
She also pulled her support of a bipartisan bill to give a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, later voting for a pair of more conservative immigration bills supported by many of the House’s most conservative members (though one had buy-in from other GOP immigration moderates). That could prove problematic in a state that Trump won by just four points in 2016 and where he’s currently slightly underwater.
While McSally has had to fight to the end to keep ahead of Ward and Arpaio, Sinema has been able to coast to the center, with her campaign spending more than $4 million on ads calling her “independent, just like Arizona,” touting her work on veterans’ issues and hammering McSally for backing the so-called “age tax” that was a part of the GOP Obamacare repeal plan and would have increased health insurance premiums on older people.
McSally finally felt comfortable enough to turn to Sinema on Thursday, less than a week before the primary, with a new ad attacking her looming general election foe featuring old footage of Sinema in 2003 protesting the war in Iraq.
“While we were in harms way in uniform, Kyrsten Sinema was protesting us in a pink tutu and denigrating our service,” she says in the spot.
That gets McSally back to the issues she’s happiest talking about, and that won her swing seat in Congress in the first place: national defense and her background as the first female fighter pilot to fly in combat.
But the fact that her first ad emphasizing themes aimed at the broader electorate is hitting the airwaves with just six weeks until general election early voting begins in early October could be problematic for McSally in the purple-trending state.
“I am perplexed with their strategy. It’s probably time to turn off the Trump card, and I’m shocked it keeps going,” one Arizona GOP strategist told TPM shortly before McSally released her latest ad. “The resource expenditure alone obviously has an impact to get through the primary. You’re losing the ability to be able to define Sinema, and she’s defining herself very effectively right now. The honest answer is the primary is going to have negative consequences.”
Strategists in both parties expect a close race — but everyone TPM talked to both nationally and in Arizona said they gave the edge to Sinema heading into the general election. Sinema has held a lead outside the margin of error in every public poll of the race this year, and while the race will likely tighten a bit post-primary as McSally consolidates some of the GOP base, it seems she won’t be able to take their support for granted heading into the fall.
That McSally has had to work this hard, and spend this much, to put Ward to bed is remarkable. Ward was kneecapped by Arpaio’s entrance into the race, as the well-known immigration hardliner drew a big chunk of the hardline vote away from her. She hasn’t done herself any favors in recent weeks either, with an undisciplined stretch that included sparring with former campaign staff that have gone to work for Arpaio.
Arpaio didn’t mount a serious campaign at all — he hasn’t run a single TV ad. And Ward’s final bus tour featured conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich, best known for promulgating the wild “Pizza-gate” theory that top Democrats ran a secret child sex ring out of the basement of a DC restaurant. That may be an appropriate full circle for a woman who once held hearings looking into the dangers of “chem trails,” but doesn’t seem like the strongest way to close out a campaign, even a primary.
A number of Republicans said that McSally’s need to spend heavily to close out Ward was worrisome.
McSally’s team is confident that once she’s through the primary she’ll have no trouble consolidating the base, and believes that once they spend heavily highlighting Sinema’s past as a much more liberal politician before she got elected to Congress the race will tighten up dramatically.
“Sinema’s never been vetted. She’s hard left. She worked for Ralph Nader’s presidential campaign in Arizona, for god’s sake,” one McSally adviser told TPM.
Sinema has already had to address that decade-long move from left to center, and will undoubtedly have to discuss it again. But Democrats argue that hers has been a natural evolution, while McSally’s appears more brazenly political.
“You’re going back 10, 12 years. She has a decade serving the same way she’s serving now. She has a long record of how she votes and how she comes to decisions on issues, and she’s evolved from being an activist to a person who wants to govern and get things done, and she’d be the first to tell you that,” Chad Campbell, who ran Sinema’s first local races and served with her in the state legislature, told TPM. “McSally has evolved the opposite way.”
And Republicans in the state worry that McSally’s more recent, rapid pivots will be harder to shake. One said McSally’s Trump embrace and tough talk came across as “disingenuous” and worried the ammo they had on Sinema wouldn’t be enough.
“Sinema’s got some bad votes from the state legislature, but that shit’s old. And her more recent and higher-profile votes in Congress have been pretty middle-of-the-road. She’s reinvented herself, but she’s done it over a much longer period of time than the eight months McSally has had to do it in,” said the strategist. “I think Sinema will win. I’m so impressed with her and so unimpressed with McSally so far.”