Arizona was represented by an American war hero for decades, and now the military is playing a role in Arizonans’ search for their next senator as well.
The Senate seat that will be filled by the state’s first female senator come November is not the one left open by the passing of Sen. John McCain, but his military legacy, and the pride that Arizonans put in military service, is clear.
Bumper stickers denoting military branches are a regular sight in Phoenix. Earlier this month, a stall selling flags at the state fair prominently displayed the iconic black-and-white flag dedicated to prisoners of war and those missing in action. Arizona prides itself as the state with the sixth-highest number of active duty Air Force personnel, according to June 2018 figures from the Department of Defense.
Military pride has permeated the Senate campaign between Republican Rep. Martha McSally and Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, and their ties to the military has become an issue for supporters.
McSally’s military credentials are a source of pride
McSally was the nation’s first female fighter pilot to serve in combat, and hints of her 26 years of service have trickled in throughout her campaign.
She uses militaristic language in her speeches, likening parts of the campaign to air wars and ground wars, and talking about her current "deployment" in Washington. She wore a silver pendant of an A-10 Warthog plane for the debate on Monday. And most recently, President Donald Trump noted her service in an email that he sent to her supporters ahead of their rally together in Mesa on Friday night.
The military theme extends into the crowd as well, as supporters at a recent rally wore t-shirts with the phrases “fly, fight, win” and “Martha’s wingman.”
At that rally, where she stood alongside former Gov. Mitt Romney on Oct. 12, she said that “part of our culture as veterans” means that “we just run into gunfire, not away from it. We’re the ones that run into the toughest battles.”
Compare and contrast
She’s now battling Sinema, regularly drawing a contrast between their levels of service by calling it a contest between “a patriot and a protester.”
In that, McSally is referencing Sinema’s time protesting the Iraq War in 2003, before she started her political career. Sinema’s protesting past was the subject of one of the most damning ads of the Arizona election, wherein Sinema is shown protesting in a pink tutu while McSally is pictured in her Air Force uniform.
To leave the comparison at that, however, would be misleading.
Sinema has personal ties to the military as well, as one of her brothers is a Marine and another is a sailor. She also has made veteran’s affairs issues a focus of her work in Congress, and was one of the leaders calling for reform at the VA in the spring of 2014 after news broke of misconduct at the Phoenix VA — it had happened before McSally was in Congress.
Voices of the voters
Where voters stand will be determined on election day, when exit polls will show which voters listed the military as their top priority and which candidate gets their vote.
For Chris Brant, a McSally supporter, he has a personal connection to the A-10 Warthog, a plane that McSally flew while in uniform and allocated appropriations funds for while in Congress.
Brant is originally British, a veteran of the Royal Marines, and became a U.S. citizen in 1983.
“The A-10 came in and rescued wounded Royal Marines in Afghanistan,” Brant said, while wearing a green Royal Marines beret and a red McSally t-shirt at the rally with Romney.
Brant’s niece, Adrienne Kelley, 37, accompanied him to the event and also cited McSally’s “honorable service” as a selling point. Kelley’s spouse is a U.S. Marine.
Vermelle Bibler, a 76-year-old McSally supporter, identified herself as a Gold Star widow who appreciates McSally’s service.
"I always lean toward somebody in the military plus I like her better than Kyrsten Sinema," Bibler said.
That said, the appreciation of McSally’s service extends across party lines.
"I support the fact she was a military person, and the fact that I'm proud of her that she's a woman. However, that's where my support ends," Bernie Williams, a Democrat protesting the McSally-Romney rally, told ABC News. "However, that’s where my support ends.”
Gregg Gordon, 71, is a disabled veteran who was injured while fighting in the Vietnam War. He and his wife, Linda, opened the doors to their home to volunteers who used their home as a base of operations for a door-knocking event for Arizona Democrats on Sunday, Oct. 14.
He said that his support for Sinema stems from his respect for her work in addressing the crisis at the Phoenix Veteran’s Affairs Office in 2014. He worked there at the time and remembers seeing Sinema and McCain visit the VA to make sure the issue was addressed.
“They cared about veterans and what happened,” Gordon said.
Caleb Hayter, 28, is a member of a group called Veterans for Sinema. An Afghanistan veteran and a current Congressional constituent of McSally’s, he said that he respects McSally but is going to be voting for her opponent.
“I’m not begrudging Congresswoman McSally’s service and I think she has every right to talk about her service. I appreciate her service," Hayter said. "However, what I’m looking at this November is two different ideas of what service should be as a U.S. senator. I think that if a person is going to serve in politics as an elected official, then they have to put the interests of their constituents first.”
He added, “Because of her record and her ideology I wouldn’t trust her to put the interests of veterans ahead of the interests of her fellow ideologues and her campaign donors."