On heels of Arizona Senate primary, Republican Martha McSally challenges Democrat Mark Kelly to 7 debates

McSally is hoping to win a full term, following her 2018 loss to Sen. Sinema.

August 5, 2020, 7:15 PM

What's sure to be one of the most expensive and most watched Senate campaigns this cycle is already off to the races, with incumbent Republican Martha McSally challenging Democrat Mark Kelly on Wednesday to seven debates in both the state's major cities and rural areas, and another one to be held by a national news network.

"Voters deserve to know where he stands on positions. He's been hiding in a bunker and we need to make sure that they understand it's about who do you trust to get the economy going again, it's about who do you trust to keep your family safe and keep our country safe. And the radical left agenda that we've seen come out of his party is so extreme and out of step with Arizonans, and Arizonans deserve to know the implications of this very important choice," McSally told ABC's Phoenix affiliate, KNXV, in an interview Wednesday.

Kelly was asked in a later interview with KNXV on Wednesday about the debate challenge, and didn't seem to agree to all seven.

"I think it's very important that we have a robust debate about the issues, and we will do that," Kelly said, noting that he'd like to debate issues like affordable and accessible health care, including for persons with pre-existing conditions and the cost of prescription drugs. "These are things that Sen. McSally has a clear record on -- voting to take away the protection from pre-existing conditions, not supporting a reduction in prescription drug costs, especially for seniors under Medicare, so I'm looking forward to debating these issues with her."

PHOTO: Senator Martha McSally (R-AZ) speaks during a Senate Armed Subcommittee hearing on preventing sexual assault where she spoke about her experience of being sexually assaulted in the military on Capitol Hill, March 6, 2019.
Senator Martha McSally (R-AZ) speaks during a Senate Armed Subcommittee hearing on preventing sexual assault where she spoke about her experience of being sexually assaulted in the military on Capitol Hill, March 6, 2019. Earlier in the hearing, McSally said she had been raped by a superior officer and felt "horrified" by how her experiences were handled.
Joshua Roberts/Reuters

Asked for clarity on whether Kelly agreed to seven debates, Campaign Manager Jen Cox blasted McSally for not debating her primary opponent this cycle, and said Kelly "looks forward to debating" McSally.

"The campaign has accepted an invitation to a debate hosted by the Arizona Republic and Arizona public media outlets, and plans to participate in an additional debate with Univision to ensure that all Arizonans hear from Mark about what is at stake this election and his plans to be an independent Senator for Arizona," Cox said in a statement provided to ABC News.

Despite their political differences, McSally and Kelly are similar candidates in at least one major way -- both boast an impressive military background.

The sitting senator served in the U.S. Air Force, deploying six times to the Middle East and Afghanistan. She became the first woman in history to fly a fighter jet in combat. Kelly is a retired U.S. Navy combat pilot, who deployed during the first Gulf War and flew nearly 40 combat missions during Operation Desert Storm.

He's also a former NASA astronaut and co-founded GIFFORDS, an organization fighting for more stringent gun control measures, with his wife, former Rep. Gabby Giffords. In 2011, a man attempted to assassinate her in a mass shooting in the Tucson, Arizona, area. Six people died and 13, including the congresswoman, were wounded.

Arizona's special Senate election is a top target for both Republicans and Democrats this November.

As it stands now, the race looks to be more promising for Democrats, as the party tries flip control of Congress' upper chamber. All three major race raters -- Cook Political Report, Sabato's Crystal Ball and Inside Elections -- have the match-up favoring Kelly. Two polls released on July 26 showed Kelly with an edge over the sitting senator. In an NBC News/Marist College poll, 53% of Arizona registered voters supported Kelly while 41% supported McSally. In a CNN/SSRS poll, Kelly was leading over McSally by seven points, 50% to 43%, among registered voters.

"In Arizona, I suppose out of habit, you tend to lean things to the Republicans because they normally win, but we didn't do that in 2018," said Larry Sabato, the head of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia and editor-in-chief of Sabato's Crystal Ball. "If McSally loses this seat, she'll be in select company of people who have lost both of their state Senate seats -- not a happy-camping group."

In the fall of 2018, Sabato moved Arizona's Senate race between McSally and Democrat Kyrsten Sinema towards favoring Sinema, and that was ultimately what happened, with Sinema eeking out a win in traditionally red Arizona by a margin of just 55,900 votes -- fewer votes than the total number of ballots cast for the Green Party candidate.

After her loss to Sinema, though, McSally got a second chance at joining the Senate. When Sen. Jon Kyl, who the governor appointed to the Senate following the late Sen. John McCain's death, resigned at the end of 2018, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey appointed McSally to the seat, meaning voters have yet to send her to the Senate.

Even though polls look stronger for Kelly now, polls today don't necessarily reflect how voters will feel next month, or in the weeks leading up to Election Day when the majority of Arizona voters will be casting their ballots by mail. A lot can happen in three months to change the course of this race -- especially in the midst of a global pandemic.

"It's gonna be a very competitive race -- lots of spending, not only by the candidates, but by outside groups. We've already seen some of that. And I think all of the races are going to be tied into the presidential race this year," said Barbara Norrander, a professor at the University of Arizona who specializes in elections, public opinion and political parties.

PHOTO: Astronaut Mark Kelly speaks onstage during MTV's 2017 College Signing Day With Michelle Obama at The Public Theater, May 5, 2017, in New York.
Astronaut Mark Kelly speaks onstage during MTV's 2017 College Signing Day With Michelle Obama at The Public Theater, May 5, 2017, in New York.
Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for MTV

The competitiveness of this race is evident by how much money both candidates have raised. Since the start of the campaign through July 15, McSally had raised $28.7 million, and had $11 million cash-on-hand, according to Federal Election Commission filings. It would be a more impressive haul if Kelly hadn't outdone her by more than $15 million. Through July 15, the Democrat has raised nearly $45 million since launching his campaign in February 2019, and he has a more than $20 million war chest going into the final three months of the campaign.

McSally said in a statement Wednesday that Kelly "would be another Trojan horse for the most radical Left policies," but Sabato and Norrander had different takes on his political persona.

"He's certainly not a liberal Democrat. I'd say moderate to moderate-liberal depending on how you classify these people. You know, he kind of fits Arizona," Sabato said, noting that the state has changed demographically, with many more Hispanic voters casting ballots. He said Kelly would "naturally appeal" to these voters: "He's got that star quality, that moderate star quality that Hispanics often look for."

"Kelly is portraying himself as a moderate and someone who would be more in tune with Arizona than Washington -- so kind of a typical outsider. So he has that advantage," Norrander told ABC News.

But even though the state is a definite battleground this cycle, it's still Republican, Norrander said, and that gives McSally an advantage. Despite her being an atypical incumbent, given how she got her seat, this being the second time she's ran for statewide office in less than three years has upped her name recognition. Before running for Senate, McSally represented Arizona's 2nd Congressional District in the House.

While in the Senate, McSally has been a staunch supporter of President Donald Trump. According to FiveThirtyEight's analysis of how often members of Congress vote in line with Trump's position, McSally has done so 95% of the time. Only six current members vote in line with the president's views more than her, and Georgia Sen. David Perdue has the same score.

McSally has been focusing on a message around standing up to China -- a country the president has repeatedly blamed for the current coronavirus pandemic situation in the United States -- and has attempted to tie Kelly to the communist country.

But sticking close to the president could be perilous for Republicans facing voters in November. He's down against former Vice President Joe Biden in national and battleground state polls. In the two recent Arizona polls, Biden was up by four points in one and by five points in the other among registered voters.

Sabato said McSally doesn't have a choice, but to stay close to Trump.

"You dance with the one that brung you and she has to hope that Trump recovers and wins Arizona -- and almost every Republican should running for president," he said. "That's not out of the question at all. It could easily happen. She's gonna stick with that strategy ... she's already lost the moderates. They aren't coming back to her. And if Trump people get alienated, then who's she got left? Nobody."

Norrander added, "Being tied to Trump may not be, at this point in time, a big advantage, but of course, things can change."

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