Ari­zona Se­nate can­di­date moves right on im­mi­gra­tion, hop­ing to court base

GOP’s McSally now echoes a man she once crit­i­cized — Trump

The Washington Post Sunday - - POL­I­TICS & THE NA­TION - BY SEAN SUL­LI­VAN sean.sul­li­van@wash­post.com

PRESCOTT, ARIZ. — The prized Repub­li­can Se­nate re­cruit in this in­creas­ingly com­pet­i­tive state was getting ready to take her place in the an­nual Frontier Days pa­rade, and she was de­fi­ant.

Rep. Martha McSally blamed Congress and not the White House for sep­a­ra­tions of fam­i­lies at the bor­der, dis­missed as “fake news” her vis­i­ble shift to the right on im­mi­gra­tion and lashed out at her lead­ing Demo­cratic op­po­nent over “sanc­tu­ary cities.”

The com­ments by the two-term con­gress­woman from south­ern Ari­zona, which came in an in­ter­view be­fore a morn­ing of flag wav­ing and hand­shak­ing, echoed a man she once found ap­palling and may have voted against: Pres­i­dent Trump.

Her trans­for­ma­tion is one Repub­li­cans across the coun­try have been forced to make, but a grow­ing num­ber of McSally sup­port­ers worry she is sprint­ing too far to the right on im­mi­gra­tion for this rapidly di­ver­si­fy­ing state, which Democrats are ea­ger to turn blue this year.

“I am per­son­ally trou­bled by her po­si­tion on im­mi­gra­tion,” said Yasser Sanchez, a Repub­li­can im­mi­gra­tion at­tor­ney who was thrilled when McSally first en­tered the race to re­place the re­tir­ing Repub­li­can Jeff Flake. “You don’t want to alien­ate the pres­i­dent to the point that he’s tweet­ing against you. But at the same time, you have to be care­ful. It’s just that tough balance.”

In few other midterm bat­tle­grounds is the tightrope thin­ner or the stakes higher than Ari­zona’s Se­nate race. Both par­ties see it as crit­i­cal to win­ning con­trol of the Se­nate.

It is un­fold­ing as the state and the coun­try grap­ple with un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grant fam­ily sep­a­ra­tions, which Trump has halted but not re­solved. More than 300 chil­dren separated from their fam­i­lies at the bor­der were be­ing held in Ari­zona, the gov­er­nor’s of­fice con­firmed last week.

McSally made his­tory in the Air Force as the coun­try’s first fe­male fighter pi­lot to fly in com­bat, and she has made clear her de­sire to run on her mil­i­tary cre­den­tials. Along the pa­rade route, her sup­port­ers wore shirts pro­claim­ing “Fly. Fight. Win.”

Yet she has had lit­tle choice but to adapt to her new pos­ture. Im­mi­gra­tion has long been a lit­mus test in statewide Repub­li­can pri­maries in Ari­zona, and the pres­sure to be a hard-liner has only in­creased in the Trump era.

More­over, McSally faces two Repub­li­can chal­lengers — os­teopath Kelli Ward, a for­mer state se­na­tor who de­scribed as “hu­mane” the Trump “zero tol­er­ance” im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy that trig­gered the sep­a­ra­tions, and for­mer Mari­copa County sher­iff Joe Ar­paio, who cracked down on those he be­lieved to be un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants. Ar­paio was con­victed of crim­i­nal con­tempt for vi­o­lat­ing a judge’s or­der about his de­ten­tion poli­cies but was par­doned by Trump.

“I think that she’s evolved and she un­der­stands that this is a huge, huge is­sue,” said for­mer Ari­zona gov­er­nor Jan Brewer, a Repub­li­can and McSally sup­porter. Brewer signed a bill as gov­er­nor em­pow­er­ing po­lice to ques­tion any­one they rea­son­ably sus­pected of be­ing un­doc­u­mented. (The mea­sure was later dis­man­tled by a court chal­lenge and le­gal set­tle­ment.)

McSally is not the first Ari­zona Repub­li­can to have felt the elec­tion-year tug of the con­ser­va­tive base. In 2010, Sen. John McCain dis­tanced him­self from his past sup­port for mak­ing mod­er­ate changes to im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy by air­ing an ad in which he strode along the bor­der and fa­mously in­sisted it was time to “com­plete the dan­ged fence.”

But the state is now more than 30 per­cent His­panic and in­creas­ingly younger, and Trump only nar­rowly de­feated Hil­lary Clin­ton in Ari­zona in 2016.

“I think she needs to be care­ful not to go too far,” said Mesa Mayor John Giles, a Repub­li­can who backs McSally.

McSally was elected to Congress in 2014 in a district that stretches south­east from Tuc­son to the Mex­i­can bor­der, and which went nar­rowly for Hil­lary Clin­ton in 2016. She joined the Se­nate race in Jan­uary, ex­cit­ing party lead­ers ea­ger for her to run.

The con­gress­woman spent a re­cent Sat­ur­day cam­paign­ing in Prescott, a con­ser­va­tive moun­tain city with sa­loons, old brick build­ings and a fa­mous rodeo. Un­der a sunny sky, she wove through the his­tor­i­cal down­town in an Amer­i­can flag T-shirt that said “Made in Amer­ica 2018,” giv­ing out hand­shakes and hugs and pay­ing trib­ute to vet­er­ans in the crowd.

“West Point!” she said ex­cit­edly to one man, spot­ting it on his shirt. “Thanks for serv­ing.”

“That’s my grand­son, but I did serve!” he replied.

But im­mi­gra­tion, not McSally’s mil­i­tary ser­vice, re­mains the dom­i­nant is­sue in the Aug. 28 Repub­li­can pri­mary; its Au­gust ar­rival leaves lit­tle time for a gen­eral elec­tion pivot.

In May, McSally re­moved her­self as a co-spon­sor of a bill that of­fered a path to cit­i­zen­ship for cer­tain young un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants. In June, a video of her talk­ing sym­pa­thet­i­cally about young un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants was re­moved from her con­gres­sional web­site.

McSally de­nies any shift. In the in­ter­view, she said she pulled her sup­port from the bill in May to make clear her op­po­si­tion to leg­is­la­tion strictly to pro­tect the young un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants. She said she wanted to ad­dress the “root causes” of their pop­u­la­tion at the same time.

Ward, run­ning to McSally’s right, has ac­cused McSally of chang­ing her tune due to po­lit­i­cal ex­pe­di­ence and called her a “cheap im­i­ta­tion” of Ward.

“I think the zero tol­er­ance pol­icy is one of the most hu­mane things that we can do be­cause we are cre­at­ing a real de­ter­rent for fam­i­lies who want to try to traipse across mul­ti­ple coun­tries to get here,” Ward said in an in­ter­view near the Yava­pai County Court­house, where Sen. Barry Gold­wa­ter (R-Ariz.) launched his cam­paign for pres­i­dent.

Ward, who as­pires to be a “rolled up, all-into-one” ver­sion of Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), has strug­gled to gain mo­men­tum. She also walked in the Frontier Days pa­rade — but with a no­tice­ably smaller con­tin­gent.

Ar­paio also has failed to im­press many pri­mary vot­ers. He was not at the pa­rade, an ab­sence Ward noted with a sug­ges­tion that he was not up to the “gru­el­ing event.”

The pres­ence of two chal­lengers vy­ing for the con­ser­va­tive vote would seem to in­crease the odds of a McSally win. But she is tak­ing no chances as all three can­di­dates run as staunch sup­port­ers of Trump’s agenda — the win­ning recipe in Repub­li­can pri­maries this year.

“I have a great re­la­tion­ship with the pres­i­dent. I’m work­ing with him on the is­sues of the day. I’m over at the White House all the time,” McSally said.

She took a dif­fer­ent tone in the past.

“I’m ap­palled,” she tweeted in 2016 af­ter re­lease of the “Ac­cess Hol­ly­wood” video in which Trump bragged about sex­ual as­sault. “This is ridicu­lous,” she said on MSNBC af­ter Trump’s pro­posed travel ban for res­i­dents of sev­eral ma­jor­ity-Mus­lim coun­tries. Nearly two years af­ter the elec­tion, she will not say whether she voted for him.

“On a cou­ple of oc­ca­sions, I made some state­ments about spe­cific things that were said. It was very mea­sured com­pared to a lot of Repub­li­cans, by the way,” McSally said in the in­ter­view.

McSally is cast­ing her­self as the fire­wall pro­tect­ing the GOP’s frag­ile 51-to-49 Se­nate ma­jor­ity from Democrats.

“The real fight out there right now is en­sur­ing that we keep this seat,” McSally said. “There will be no chance for them to flip the Se­nate if I hold onto this seat in the gen­eral elec­tion.”

The prob­a­ble Demo­cratic nom­i­nee is Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, who has un­der­taken a trans­for­ma­tion of her own. Once at­tached to the liberal Green Party, Sinema has moved to the cen­ter over the years. She is a strong fundraiser and polls have shown her lead­ing the Repub­li­can can­di­dates.

“This cri­sis of fam­i­lies be­ing separated on the bor­der did not need to hap­pen,” Sinema said at an event at a se­nior-liv­ing com­mu­nity in Tempe on Mon­day. “This was a choice that the ad­min­is­tra­tion made.”

McSally said she looked for­ward to con­trast­ing her record on bor­der se­cu­rity and im­mi­gra­tion with that of Sinema, whom she ar­gued has not been tough enough. But if she wins the pri­mary, McSally may have to pla­cate both ends of the GOP spec­trum.

From the right, Ward would not com­mit to sup­port­ing the nom­i­nee if she doesn’t win. And fur­ther left, Sanchez, the Repub­li­can im­mi­gra­tion at­tor­ney, said McSally’s pos­ture has given him pause about cam­paign­ing for her with the same vigor as he did for McCain, for whom he turned his of­fice into a phone-bank­ing cen­ter.

“I do not see my­self show­ing the same amount of sup­port,” he said.

MATT YORK/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) faces two GOP chal­lengers for a Se­nate seat in Ari­zona’s pri­mary elec­tion, sched­uled for Aug. 28. McSally de­nies any re­cent shift to her im­mi­gra­tion plat­form.

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