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The Senate battle between Martha McSally and Mark Kelly shows just how much Arizona is changing

  • October 21, 2020

Ever since Kelly retired from the Navy in 2011, Democrats have been encouraging him to run for office. But it was only after Trump was elected in 2016, and two years after that, when beloved GOP Sen. John McCain died of glioblastoma, that the pathway to a Senate seat became clear enough to persuade Kelly to run.

McSally, 54, also has a military background, having served for more than 25 years in the Air Force, where she became the first woman to fly a fighter jet in combat. 

A moderate Republican who represented a swing district in Congress, McSally was appointed by Ducey to fill McCain’s seat following his death in 2018. At the time, she seemed like a good choice to help keep the seat in Republican hands. 

But Trump’s divisive record and his insistence that Republicans in Congress mirror his positions on every issue have made it much more difficult for moderate Republicans to build winning coalitions of voters.

McSally’s response has been to fashion herself as “a loyal foot soldier for Trump,” said Doug Heye, a longtime Republican strategist in Washington. 

“When I first met her, she was a very different candidate, back when she was running for the House [in 2012], much more middle of the road.” said Heye. Her near total embrace of Trump eight years later “understandably creates a question of authenticity” in voters’ minds.

But like many vulnerable Republicans this year, McSally decided to run as closely as possible to Trump. Despite Trump’s polarizing stances, her campaign wagered that enthusiasm among the president’s staunchest supporters, coupled with the GOP’s historic advantage among registered voters, could power her and Trump to victory.

On Monday, McSally spoke at her second Trump rally in as many weeks, telling a red-hat-wearing crowd in Prescott that Arizona is “ground zero” in the 2020 election.

“The country is relying on us. This state will decide to send President Trump back for four more years. This state will decide the Senate majority and stopping the radical left in my race,” she said.

As if to underscore her Trump bona fides, McSally told the crowd that she would be flying back to Washington on Monday night with Trump aboard Air Force One.

Overall, it’s hard to tell how much, if any, of McSally’s 8-point deficit with voters is tied to Trump’s tough reelection fight. Especially since Trump is currently outperforming McSally in CNBC polls by 2 points, and in several other polls by an even greater margin.

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